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What San Diego's School of Rock has produced

“Rotating Heads” is not as straightforward as The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”

The School of Rock isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general.
The School of Rock isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general.

Tyler Ward is sitting behind a drum kit in a moderately sized band rehearsal space at the San Diego branch of the School of Rock in Liberty Station’s arts district. He’s attempting to break down a song by The English Beat called “Rotating Heads.” There’s a slim chance that the five students in the room might recognize it from a film that was popular when their parents were hovering around the age they are now, a little high-school comedy called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As the song plays, Ward pauses it as each new, identifiable part has ended. During these breaks, he calls out phrases such as “theme with horn times two,” “sax solo eight bars,” and “theme plus marimba times two.” The students then scribble down the song changes in their notebooks, for personal reference. (Ward is doing some scribbling of his own, tweaking a spreadsheet on his phone as he continues dissecting the song. He later tells me that he was trying to reschedule a lesson last-minute, and that juggling multiple tasks at once is just part of the job. Ah, the glamorous life of a rock musician.)

Musically, “Rotating Heads” is not as simple and straightforward as, say, The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and its hiccupy rhythms prove a tricky business for a collection of youngters who range from musical neophytes to semi-skilled players. But it’s not until later, when Ward straps on an electric guitar for a different bunch of students and begins to march through the different parts of Oingo Boingo’s “Ain’t This the Life,” that I really feel the kids are being thrown to the wolves. It’s a complex, herky-jerky New Wave number that travels at a furious clip — the type of song that gets greeted with moans and groans from band members when it’s pitched as a potential cover. Because yeah, it’s doable, but it’s going to take immense time and energy to get it right. As Ward plays and talks, I look around the room: the kids seem a bit overwhelmed, but at the same time, totally game. One of the guitarists even has some leads dialed-in already. The bass player, however, seems completely new to the song, and the drummer is struggling as well. Fortunately, it’s still very early in the process. Their end-of-season School of Rock performance of “Ain’t This the Life” — in front an audience — is still twelve weeks away.

Place

School of Rock San Diego

2850 Womble Road, San Diego

Beginning

Circa 2007: the new San Diego branch of the School of Rock (hereafter abbreviated as SOR) had just opened and was being run by Mike Keneally, a local legend best known for being Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” in the late 1980s. Ward knew of Keneally through his time working as a guitar tech for Rockola, a successful local act. Rockola would occasionally recreate entire Beatles albums live, and they would often bring in Keneally as a ringer for the shows. Keneally served as “this fifth Beatle guy to help them fill out all the parts that they just didn’t have enough hands to cover,” Ward explains. “He was this absolute wizard.” Ward started seeing social media posts about the new SOR, and he was sold on the concept. Jan Bortree, who currently co-owns the San Diego SOR with her husband Tim, recalls, “[Ward] was like, ‘I will be the janitor. Anything I can do to be part of this.’” For his part, Ward says he reached out to the SOR and said, ‘I’ll help take out the trash or answer the phones, because the idea of young people getting to learn music in this setting…’ It made absolute sense to me. It was like, ‘Of course they should do this.’” Ward met with Keneally, “and he was like, ‘Absolutely; come help.’ I got hired and saw their first show, which was [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall at the Epicenter — when that still existed. Then I worked there, and it was awesome. At some point, Mike got involved in that band Dethklok from Metalocalypse — an animated television series that plays on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — and that band was starting to tour all over the planet. So he had to leave. Then he sort of handed me the keys, and I was forever grateful.”

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Place

School of Rock Encinitas

165 South El Camino Real, Encinitas

Ward was a self-taught musician, so during those early days at SOR, he quietly began to read up on music theory and terminology in his off hours. He would also observe the in-house talent. “They had some incredible instructors, and I would sit in and go, ‘Oh, that’s what that’s called.’” Eventually, he became proficient enough in music instruction that he wound up as the school’s Music Director. The appointment seemed to transform him into the San Diego SOR’s beating heart.

Ward was also a vital component in the Bortrees’ decision to purchase the school. Their son was enrolled at a SOR in New Jersey, and the experience had been so positive that they were considering purchasing a franchise. They were also looking to move to San Diego, and so they were happy to learn that the San Diego location (which was then corporate-owned) was open to franchise ownership. “They put us in touch with Tyler,” Jan Bortree says, “and we had a fifteen-minute phone call with him. We were in New Jersey. He was here in San Diego. I got off the phone and I looked at my husband and I said, ‘I think we can work with him.’” The Bortrees took over ownership of the San Diego SOR, then situated on Market Street in Stockton, on September 1, 2013. The first order of business was to find a new, larger location. This was a tricky proposition, due to the often-ear-piercing volume levels of rock instruments. “It’s not easy to get a free-standing building, or something that’s not almost side by side with something else,” Jan explains. They eventually found their current space in Liberty Station off Womble Street which they fixed up, soundproofed and opened as the new San Diego SOR on April 1, 2014.

Banding together

“I was actually, officially, the first student at the San Diego school,” says Josh Smith. (He’s also one of the few alumni to come back and teach.) “At that point,” he recalls, “for about six months, we were just doing lesson-based teaching because it was just Mike Keneally, who was running the school, and Larry Grano. Mike was doing keys, guitars, string-instrument stuff, and Larry was taking care of drums. Then they implemented the performance program a few months after that.” That “performance program” is regarded by most of the participants I spoke with as the magic ingredient that makes the SOR both unique and effective. It combines traditional one-on-one lessons with group rehearsals (both one per-week) that combine to lead up to a season-ending concert. The students are taught how to play together as a band almost immediately, instead of spending years practicing alone and then setting out to learn musical collaboration.

“You can take lessons anywhere,” says Ward. “You can learn a lot of things on YouTube. But until you actually play with a band...” And not just that: really, it’s “until everybody has been cast on songs that are appropriately challenging for that person, not just, ‘Hey, you guys have to learn a Taylor Swift song and because the drummer really likes Slayer, your next song is Slayer’ — that’s how a lot of other schools run. But since we’re casting parts and changing them based on ‘What is a good challenge for each student?’ everybody grows consistently, and nobody feels like they are stuck in a rut. That experience of playing in a band changes everything. It makes someone want to practice, and it’s so much more exciting. Two weeks ago, we played at Music Box. That’s a big, beautiful, amazing venue where really important musical artists play. Our students got to play on there, and that’s an experience they won’t ever forget.”

On the Thursday that I visited, all of the SOR band’s songs were New Wave. The three other themes for Summer 2022 were No Doubt, grunge, and the Rolling Stones. Each received its own weekly rehearsal night. My initial impression was that groups of four or five students were gathered, and then those groups would work together for the entire season on a handful of songs. Not quite: a spreadsheet on the hallway wall dictates every song and which students are assigned to the specific instruments. Hence Ward’s mention of “casting parts and changing them.” Each song becomes a new mix of the fifteen students at the practice. The ability levels of the students working on each song vary widely as well; you can have a kid straight out of Rock 101 (the SOR’s beginner program, designed for 8–13-year-olds) playing alongside an 18-year-old who has been involved with the school for ten years.

“That’s the beauty of the program,” says Josh Krimston, whose son Jordan followed a path similar to Smith’s by transitioning from student to instructor. “Everybody has to have a basic ability to play, but they put the beginners and the moderate kids with advanced kids, and the beginners and moderate kids have to come up to the level in order to make everything work. So, there’s this intrinsic need for the kids to practice and do well and try to pull it all together. I think that is absolutely the key ingredient to why these kids accelerate so quickly while they are in the program. The rest of the band is depending on them, and they have to come through.”

“Our goal is instead of parents saying, ‘You have to go practice today!’ parents are like, ‘Would you please put down your guitar? It’s time to go. Stop practicing please. It’s time to leave!’” So far, he’s succeeded: Tyler Ward’s (left) music geek personality is something to which the kids at the school seem drawn.

Jordan’s mother Celine cites a 2010 SOR performance of King Crimson’s progalicious “Pictures of a City” as being particularly eye-opening; it showed her just how proficient a drummer her 12-year-old son had become. “It took my breath,” she says. “I was like, ‘My kid’s pretty awesome.’ I got tears in my eyes watching him. It was crazy.” Video of the song on YouTube also showcases Smith, just 16 and already sounding like a seasoned guitar gunslinger and singer.

“That was definitely one of [Jordan’s] pivotal moments,” Smith recalls. “Jordan was such a fast learner and such a quick study that he immediately, within a year, just started becoming this monster. When more progressive, technical stuff got thrown at him, he blossomed. It was staggering. For that King Crimson show we did, all of us learned ten years’ worth of music in a couple of months. We all really stretched out and reached as far as we could, because that is such highly technical music. It was two or three guitar players on that tune, and we didn’t have any horn players like King Crimson did. But Tyler would transcribe the horns and go, ‘Alright, now learn it on guitar.’ So, we were learning pieces that weren’t even written for a stringed instrument. We were playing brass instrument stuff. That was another thing about Tyler that helped our learning — we all advanced almost weirdly quick.”

Finding your people

It was a combination of perseverance and annoyance that led Josh Smith to become SOR’s the first student-turned-instructor. “It started when I was like 16,” Smith recalls. “Me saying, ‘Hey Tyler, you’re gonna give me a job when I age out, right?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, ha ha, okay.’” I have a weird amount of perseverance in me, and I was like, ‘Dude, let’s do this. Get me going.’ It must have been only a few months after I aged out when he was like, ‘Alright, get behind the desk. Do some admin work.’ I was like, ‘Okay, fine. If this is the way I get into it, this is fine.” Then after maybe two or three weeks of me doing admin work, a teacher was a no-show, so a student was just sitting in the lobby. Tyler goes, ‘Okay, Josh go teach this lesson.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes!’ I think I even jumped the gun a little too early, to be honest. I wasn’t nervous, it was just such a different experience than I thought it would be. It was me having to learn so much more, because execution is one thing, but to re-teach is such a different skill. But I kept steadfast, and I would say after a few months of me taking on one to two students here and there, he was finally like, ‘Okay fine, pop in full time.’”

It helped that he was pretty good on guitar. “It came to where a kid would come in and go, ‘I’ve been playing guitar for five years. I’m smoking because it’s all I do. I’m just moving through pieces. I need to be challenged.’ Tyler would be like, ‘Okay, you’re Josh’s student now. He’s gonna build off of what you know.’” If students had mastered the likes of Black Sabbath and Metallica, Smith would have them tackle songs by the likes of Frank Zappa, Yes, and Rush. But even he had his limits. “It got to the point where those really advanced kids would start to outshine the staff. It was like, ‘You go and explore, and you tell me what you want to learn. You tell me your lesson plan. I will use pretty much the only one power I have over you for only small amount of time — which is teaching. I will be able to translate these things and make it just a little bit more easily accessible. But then, at the end, you’re gonna execute it better than I will.’ That was one of the most humbling points of music for me.”

Tim and Jan Bortree’s son was enrolled at a SOR in New Jersey, and the experience had been so positive that they were considering purchasing a franchise. They were also looking to move to San Diego, and so they were happy to learn that the San Diego location (which was then corporate-owned) was open to franchise ownership.

But Ward isn’t in the business of cranking out talented monsters. The SOR isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general. In this way, it mimics organizations such as the Girl Scouts, except for kids whose interests run elsewhere — who say, as Ward puts it, “‘I don’t like the sports that are available at my school, and I’m not into this and that club, and I haven’t really found my people yet.’ This place ends up being that little spot where they can find their people.” Josh and Celine Krimston mentioned that not only did the kids from Jordan’s era as a student become very close, so did their parents. “The kids were hanging out outside the School of Rock, because all the families were getting together either for School of Rock performances or just for parties or for things on the side,” Josh says.

Continues Ward, “The students are here because they want to be here. So if you change that, you’ve really ruined something special. They’re here because they want to be here each week, so we have to find different, fun ways to motivate them. Our goal is instead of parents saying, ‘You have to go practice today!’ parents are like, ‘Would you please put down your guitar? It’s time to go. Stop practicing please. It’s time to leave!’”

So far, he’s succeeded: Ward’s music geek personality is something to which the kids at the school seem drawn. It’s also likely the only true link between the 2003 School of Rock film that starred Jack Black and the current San Diego SOR. “Tyler’s like a mellow, chill version of Jack Black and the kids definitely latched onto him,” says Josh Krimston. Both Ward and Dewey Finn (Black’s character in the film) win over their students via sheer, unbridled worship of rock music that, for better or worse, cannot be turned off. At one point in my interview with Ward, the discussion sidetracked into a ten-minute deep dive into what actually made a band “New Wave.” These are discussions for a certain mindset, and that mindset seems drawn to the SOR.

Feeding the scene

Given all the Generation X parents with kids at SOR, I was surprised to learn from both Jan Bortree and Ward that they haven’t really encountered any parents who viewed the school’s methods as being a bit of a sellout. Once upon a time, eschewing formal instruction and learning to rock on your own was surely a badge of honor. You can’t make a system for producing music that opposes the system, man. But maybe that badge wouldn’t have existed if something akin to the SOR had been around back in the day. Instead, Bortree brought up a more modern issue she sometimes has with parents, and it seems more of a fit for the American Idol era. “A lot of people will call and say, ‘I hear that you guys have a band,’” she says. “They’ll continue, ‘My son plays bass. Do you have a band for him?’ And there are music schools that do that. They make up a band based on, ‘I have a drummer. I have a bass player. I have a guitar player…’ But that’s not what we do. We don’t build a band around one person. Sometimes, parents don’t like that, because they want their child to be the central performer. There are parents who say, ‘Are you gonna make my kid a star? I want my daughter to be the next Taylor Swift.’ That’s not our goal. Our goal is not to make any one student a star.”

“I was actually, officially, the first student at the San Diego school,” says Josh Smith. He’s also one of the few alumni to come back and teach.

There have been no Taylor Swifts to come out of the San Diego SOR. But local acts such as Foxtide, Band Argument (which features Jordan Krimston), the Inflorescence and the Havnauts have roots with the school. (The latter was actually the inspiration for this piece: their drummer Jenny Merullo, vocalist/guitarist Shelby Bennett, and guitarist Josh Smith have all worked as instructors there. Both Merullo and Bennett’s initial connection with the school came after Ward selected songs from their bands at the time — The Heavy Guilt and The Midnight Pine, respectively — to be part of one of the SOR’s local music showcases.)

Over the years, Ward has arranged entire SOR concerts comprised entirely of songs by local acts. One such concert, held at North Parks’s The Irenic in early 2014 featured SOR students tackling songs by the likes of The Locust, Pinback, Black Hondo, and Rocket From The Crypt. When Smith was still a student, he was part of a group that covered a song by Heavy Vegetable, a mid-’90s San Diego band led by Rob Crowe. During the last few weeks of SOR rehearsals, Crowe came by the school and spoke with Smith. “He said, ‘Dude, I made that chord up. How do you know what I’m playing?’” Smith recalls. “I glowed for a week after that. I was like, ‘Rob Crowe thinks I’m cool, man.’”

Merullo is the only Havnaut who still teaches at the SOR, but The Havnauts still practice at the school. That’s a massive perk for the instructors. “I love that the instructors have the space,” says Bortree. “It’s good, and it’s one way to help the instructors. We have this drum instructor, Kevin Higuchi. He has traveled all over the world as a drummer. He used to teach in Encinitas (at another SOR location the Bortrees sold earlier this year), but he’s the roommate of another one of our instructors. Whenever Kevin is in town and he needs a drum set to rehearse on, he can come to School of Rock in the evening, and he can use the drums. I like to keep our instructors, especially the good ones, close — and have them remember that they will always be part of the School of Rock community.”

Jordan Krimston’s mother Celine cites a 2010 SOR performance as being particularly eye-opening; it showed her just how proficient a drummer her 12-year-old son had become. “It took my breath,” she says. “I was like, ‘My kid’s pretty awesome.’”

Performing

I returned to the San Diego School of Rock near the end of July. Ward had given me the heads-up that many of the students would be on vacation and that numbers would be thin, but I still insisted on showing up. I was hoping there would be noticeable progress, and I was not disappointed. The students seemed to have the song structures down this time around; now it was more about nailing the changes, landing on the correct chords, and figuring out solos. I observed a young drummer dialing in the incredible disco beat from Devo’s “Whip It,” and Ward subbing in for an absent bassist to anchor a two-drummer version of The Pretender’s “Mystery Achievement.” Even the kids tackling “Ain’t This the Life” seemed to be on track. The first time I observed them, the song was a mess; this time, it just came across as sloppy. That’s progress. They were peppering Ward with questions about how they could improve their performances, while he added his own input when he noticed something was off.

The final performance, the one in front of an audience, was now nine weeks away. I guessed the students’ eventual live performance of “Ain’t This the Life” probably wouldn’t top the one Oingo Boingo pulled off in 1982’s Urgh! A Music War, but I still thought it would be something to be proud of, regardless. Just accepting the challenge was impressive in this instance, though it’s probably a bit easier to do so when you have a ringer as a teacher. The kids trust Ward to get them where they need to be, and he has a track record of delivering.

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The School of Rock isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general.
The School of Rock isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general.

Tyler Ward is sitting behind a drum kit in a moderately sized band rehearsal space at the San Diego branch of the School of Rock in Liberty Station’s arts district. He’s attempting to break down a song by The English Beat called “Rotating Heads.” There’s a slim chance that the five students in the room might recognize it from a film that was popular when their parents were hovering around the age they are now, a little high-school comedy called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As the song plays, Ward pauses it as each new, identifiable part has ended. During these breaks, he calls out phrases such as “theme with horn times two,” “sax solo eight bars,” and “theme plus marimba times two.” The students then scribble down the song changes in their notebooks, for personal reference. (Ward is doing some scribbling of his own, tweaking a spreadsheet on his phone as he continues dissecting the song. He later tells me that he was trying to reschedule a lesson last-minute, and that juggling multiple tasks at once is just part of the job. Ah, the glamorous life of a rock musician.)

Musically, “Rotating Heads” is not as simple and straightforward as, say, The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and its hiccupy rhythms prove a tricky business for a collection of youngters who range from musical neophytes to semi-skilled players. But it’s not until later, when Ward straps on an electric guitar for a different bunch of students and begins to march through the different parts of Oingo Boingo’s “Ain’t This the Life,” that I really feel the kids are being thrown to the wolves. It’s a complex, herky-jerky New Wave number that travels at a furious clip — the type of song that gets greeted with moans and groans from band members when it’s pitched as a potential cover. Because yeah, it’s doable, but it’s going to take immense time and energy to get it right. As Ward plays and talks, I look around the room: the kids seem a bit overwhelmed, but at the same time, totally game. One of the guitarists even has some leads dialed-in already. The bass player, however, seems completely new to the song, and the drummer is struggling as well. Fortunately, it’s still very early in the process. Their end-of-season School of Rock performance of “Ain’t This the Life” — in front an audience — is still twelve weeks away.

Place

School of Rock San Diego

2850 Womble Road, San Diego

Beginning

Circa 2007: the new San Diego branch of the School of Rock (hereafter abbreviated as SOR) had just opened and was being run by Mike Keneally, a local legend best known for being Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” in the late 1980s. Ward knew of Keneally through his time working as a guitar tech for Rockola, a successful local act. Rockola would occasionally recreate entire Beatles albums live, and they would often bring in Keneally as a ringer for the shows. Keneally served as “this fifth Beatle guy to help them fill out all the parts that they just didn’t have enough hands to cover,” Ward explains. “He was this absolute wizard.” Ward started seeing social media posts about the new SOR, and he was sold on the concept. Jan Bortree, who currently co-owns the San Diego SOR with her husband Tim, recalls, “[Ward] was like, ‘I will be the janitor. Anything I can do to be part of this.’” For his part, Ward says he reached out to the SOR and said, ‘I’ll help take out the trash or answer the phones, because the idea of young people getting to learn music in this setting…’ It made absolute sense to me. It was like, ‘Of course they should do this.’” Ward met with Keneally, “and he was like, ‘Absolutely; come help.’ I got hired and saw their first show, which was [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall at the Epicenter — when that still existed. Then I worked there, and it was awesome. At some point, Mike got involved in that band Dethklok from Metalocalypse — an animated television series that plays on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — and that band was starting to tour all over the planet. So he had to leave. Then he sort of handed me the keys, and I was forever grateful.”

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Place

School of Rock Encinitas

165 South El Camino Real, Encinitas

Ward was a self-taught musician, so during those early days at SOR, he quietly began to read up on music theory and terminology in his off hours. He would also observe the in-house talent. “They had some incredible instructors, and I would sit in and go, ‘Oh, that’s what that’s called.’” Eventually, he became proficient enough in music instruction that he wound up as the school’s Music Director. The appointment seemed to transform him into the San Diego SOR’s beating heart.

Ward was also a vital component in the Bortrees’ decision to purchase the school. Their son was enrolled at a SOR in New Jersey, and the experience had been so positive that they were considering purchasing a franchise. They were also looking to move to San Diego, and so they were happy to learn that the San Diego location (which was then corporate-owned) was open to franchise ownership. “They put us in touch with Tyler,” Jan Bortree says, “and we had a fifteen-minute phone call with him. We were in New Jersey. He was here in San Diego. I got off the phone and I looked at my husband and I said, ‘I think we can work with him.’” The Bortrees took over ownership of the San Diego SOR, then situated on Market Street in Stockton, on September 1, 2013. The first order of business was to find a new, larger location. This was a tricky proposition, due to the often-ear-piercing volume levels of rock instruments. “It’s not easy to get a free-standing building, or something that’s not almost side by side with something else,” Jan explains. They eventually found their current space in Liberty Station off Womble Street which they fixed up, soundproofed and opened as the new San Diego SOR on April 1, 2014.

Banding together

“I was actually, officially, the first student at the San Diego school,” says Josh Smith. (He’s also one of the few alumni to come back and teach.) “At that point,” he recalls, “for about six months, we were just doing lesson-based teaching because it was just Mike Keneally, who was running the school, and Larry Grano. Mike was doing keys, guitars, string-instrument stuff, and Larry was taking care of drums. Then they implemented the performance program a few months after that.” That “performance program” is regarded by most of the participants I spoke with as the magic ingredient that makes the SOR both unique and effective. It combines traditional one-on-one lessons with group rehearsals (both one per-week) that combine to lead up to a season-ending concert. The students are taught how to play together as a band almost immediately, instead of spending years practicing alone and then setting out to learn musical collaboration.

“You can take lessons anywhere,” says Ward. “You can learn a lot of things on YouTube. But until you actually play with a band...” And not just that: really, it’s “until everybody has been cast on songs that are appropriately challenging for that person, not just, ‘Hey, you guys have to learn a Taylor Swift song and because the drummer really likes Slayer, your next song is Slayer’ — that’s how a lot of other schools run. But since we’re casting parts and changing them based on ‘What is a good challenge for each student?’ everybody grows consistently, and nobody feels like they are stuck in a rut. That experience of playing in a band changes everything. It makes someone want to practice, and it’s so much more exciting. Two weeks ago, we played at Music Box. That’s a big, beautiful, amazing venue where really important musical artists play. Our students got to play on there, and that’s an experience they won’t ever forget.”

On the Thursday that I visited, all of the SOR band’s songs were New Wave. The three other themes for Summer 2022 were No Doubt, grunge, and the Rolling Stones. Each received its own weekly rehearsal night. My initial impression was that groups of four or five students were gathered, and then those groups would work together for the entire season on a handful of songs. Not quite: a spreadsheet on the hallway wall dictates every song and which students are assigned to the specific instruments. Hence Ward’s mention of “casting parts and changing them.” Each song becomes a new mix of the fifteen students at the practice. The ability levels of the students working on each song vary widely as well; you can have a kid straight out of Rock 101 (the SOR’s beginner program, designed for 8–13-year-olds) playing alongside an 18-year-old who has been involved with the school for ten years.

“That’s the beauty of the program,” says Josh Krimston, whose son Jordan followed a path similar to Smith’s by transitioning from student to instructor. “Everybody has to have a basic ability to play, but they put the beginners and the moderate kids with advanced kids, and the beginners and moderate kids have to come up to the level in order to make everything work. So, there’s this intrinsic need for the kids to practice and do well and try to pull it all together. I think that is absolutely the key ingredient to why these kids accelerate so quickly while they are in the program. The rest of the band is depending on them, and they have to come through.”

“Our goal is instead of parents saying, ‘You have to go practice today!’ parents are like, ‘Would you please put down your guitar? It’s time to go. Stop practicing please. It’s time to leave!’” So far, he’s succeeded: Tyler Ward’s (left) music geek personality is something to which the kids at the school seem drawn.

Jordan’s mother Celine cites a 2010 SOR performance of King Crimson’s progalicious “Pictures of a City” as being particularly eye-opening; it showed her just how proficient a drummer her 12-year-old son had become. “It took my breath,” she says. “I was like, ‘My kid’s pretty awesome.’ I got tears in my eyes watching him. It was crazy.” Video of the song on YouTube also showcases Smith, just 16 and already sounding like a seasoned guitar gunslinger and singer.

“That was definitely one of [Jordan’s] pivotal moments,” Smith recalls. “Jordan was such a fast learner and such a quick study that he immediately, within a year, just started becoming this monster. When more progressive, technical stuff got thrown at him, he blossomed. It was staggering. For that King Crimson show we did, all of us learned ten years’ worth of music in a couple of months. We all really stretched out and reached as far as we could, because that is such highly technical music. It was two or three guitar players on that tune, and we didn’t have any horn players like King Crimson did. But Tyler would transcribe the horns and go, ‘Alright, now learn it on guitar.’ So, we were learning pieces that weren’t even written for a stringed instrument. We were playing brass instrument stuff. That was another thing about Tyler that helped our learning — we all advanced almost weirdly quick.”

Finding your people

It was a combination of perseverance and annoyance that led Josh Smith to become SOR’s the first student-turned-instructor. “It started when I was like 16,” Smith recalls. “Me saying, ‘Hey Tyler, you’re gonna give me a job when I age out, right?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, ha ha, okay.’” I have a weird amount of perseverance in me, and I was like, ‘Dude, let’s do this. Get me going.’ It must have been only a few months after I aged out when he was like, ‘Alright, get behind the desk. Do some admin work.’ I was like, ‘Okay, fine. If this is the way I get into it, this is fine.” Then after maybe two or three weeks of me doing admin work, a teacher was a no-show, so a student was just sitting in the lobby. Tyler goes, ‘Okay, Josh go teach this lesson.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes!’ I think I even jumped the gun a little too early, to be honest. I wasn’t nervous, it was just such a different experience than I thought it would be. It was me having to learn so much more, because execution is one thing, but to re-teach is such a different skill. But I kept steadfast, and I would say after a few months of me taking on one to two students here and there, he was finally like, ‘Okay fine, pop in full time.’”

It helped that he was pretty good on guitar. “It came to where a kid would come in and go, ‘I’ve been playing guitar for five years. I’m smoking because it’s all I do. I’m just moving through pieces. I need to be challenged.’ Tyler would be like, ‘Okay, you’re Josh’s student now. He’s gonna build off of what you know.’” If students had mastered the likes of Black Sabbath and Metallica, Smith would have them tackle songs by the likes of Frank Zappa, Yes, and Rush. But even he had his limits. “It got to the point where those really advanced kids would start to outshine the staff. It was like, ‘You go and explore, and you tell me what you want to learn. You tell me your lesson plan. I will use pretty much the only one power I have over you for only small amount of time — which is teaching. I will be able to translate these things and make it just a little bit more easily accessible. But then, at the end, you’re gonna execute it better than I will.’ That was one of the most humbling points of music for me.”

Tim and Jan Bortree’s son was enrolled at a SOR in New Jersey, and the experience had been so positive that they were considering purchasing a franchise. They were also looking to move to San Diego, and so they were happy to learn that the San Diego location (which was then corporate-owned) was open to franchise ownership.

But Ward isn’t in the business of cranking out talented monsters. The SOR isn’t just about learning how to play an instrument, it’s also about learning how to be a good bandmate and a respectful person in general. In this way, it mimics organizations such as the Girl Scouts, except for kids whose interests run elsewhere — who say, as Ward puts it, “‘I don’t like the sports that are available at my school, and I’m not into this and that club, and I haven’t really found my people yet.’ This place ends up being that little spot where they can find their people.” Josh and Celine Krimston mentioned that not only did the kids from Jordan’s era as a student become very close, so did their parents. “The kids were hanging out outside the School of Rock, because all the families were getting together either for School of Rock performances or just for parties or for things on the side,” Josh says.

Continues Ward, “The students are here because they want to be here. So if you change that, you’ve really ruined something special. They’re here because they want to be here each week, so we have to find different, fun ways to motivate them. Our goal is instead of parents saying, ‘You have to go practice today!’ parents are like, ‘Would you please put down your guitar? It’s time to go. Stop practicing please. It’s time to leave!’”

So far, he’s succeeded: Ward’s music geek personality is something to which the kids at the school seem drawn. It’s also likely the only true link between the 2003 School of Rock film that starred Jack Black and the current San Diego SOR. “Tyler’s like a mellow, chill version of Jack Black and the kids definitely latched onto him,” says Josh Krimston. Both Ward and Dewey Finn (Black’s character in the film) win over their students via sheer, unbridled worship of rock music that, for better or worse, cannot be turned off. At one point in my interview with Ward, the discussion sidetracked into a ten-minute deep dive into what actually made a band “New Wave.” These are discussions for a certain mindset, and that mindset seems drawn to the SOR.

Feeding the scene

Given all the Generation X parents with kids at SOR, I was surprised to learn from both Jan Bortree and Ward that they haven’t really encountered any parents who viewed the school’s methods as being a bit of a sellout. Once upon a time, eschewing formal instruction and learning to rock on your own was surely a badge of honor. You can’t make a system for producing music that opposes the system, man. But maybe that badge wouldn’t have existed if something akin to the SOR had been around back in the day. Instead, Bortree brought up a more modern issue she sometimes has with parents, and it seems more of a fit for the American Idol era. “A lot of people will call and say, ‘I hear that you guys have a band,’” she says. “They’ll continue, ‘My son plays bass. Do you have a band for him?’ And there are music schools that do that. They make up a band based on, ‘I have a drummer. I have a bass player. I have a guitar player…’ But that’s not what we do. We don’t build a band around one person. Sometimes, parents don’t like that, because they want their child to be the central performer. There are parents who say, ‘Are you gonna make my kid a star? I want my daughter to be the next Taylor Swift.’ That’s not our goal. Our goal is not to make any one student a star.”

“I was actually, officially, the first student at the San Diego school,” says Josh Smith. He’s also one of the few alumni to come back and teach.

There have been no Taylor Swifts to come out of the San Diego SOR. But local acts such as Foxtide, Band Argument (which features Jordan Krimston), the Inflorescence and the Havnauts have roots with the school. (The latter was actually the inspiration for this piece: their drummer Jenny Merullo, vocalist/guitarist Shelby Bennett, and guitarist Josh Smith have all worked as instructors there. Both Merullo and Bennett’s initial connection with the school came after Ward selected songs from their bands at the time — The Heavy Guilt and The Midnight Pine, respectively — to be part of one of the SOR’s local music showcases.)

Over the years, Ward has arranged entire SOR concerts comprised entirely of songs by local acts. One such concert, held at North Parks’s The Irenic in early 2014 featured SOR students tackling songs by the likes of The Locust, Pinback, Black Hondo, and Rocket From The Crypt. When Smith was still a student, he was part of a group that covered a song by Heavy Vegetable, a mid-’90s San Diego band led by Rob Crowe. During the last few weeks of SOR rehearsals, Crowe came by the school and spoke with Smith. “He said, ‘Dude, I made that chord up. How do you know what I’m playing?’” Smith recalls. “I glowed for a week after that. I was like, ‘Rob Crowe thinks I’m cool, man.’”

Merullo is the only Havnaut who still teaches at the SOR, but The Havnauts still practice at the school. That’s a massive perk for the instructors. “I love that the instructors have the space,” says Bortree. “It’s good, and it’s one way to help the instructors. We have this drum instructor, Kevin Higuchi. He has traveled all over the world as a drummer. He used to teach in Encinitas (at another SOR location the Bortrees sold earlier this year), but he’s the roommate of another one of our instructors. Whenever Kevin is in town and he needs a drum set to rehearse on, he can come to School of Rock in the evening, and he can use the drums. I like to keep our instructors, especially the good ones, close — and have them remember that they will always be part of the School of Rock community.”

Jordan Krimston’s mother Celine cites a 2010 SOR performance as being particularly eye-opening; it showed her just how proficient a drummer her 12-year-old son had become. “It took my breath,” she says. “I was like, ‘My kid’s pretty awesome.’”

Performing

I returned to the San Diego School of Rock near the end of July. Ward had given me the heads-up that many of the students would be on vacation and that numbers would be thin, but I still insisted on showing up. I was hoping there would be noticeable progress, and I was not disappointed. The students seemed to have the song structures down this time around; now it was more about nailing the changes, landing on the correct chords, and figuring out solos. I observed a young drummer dialing in the incredible disco beat from Devo’s “Whip It,” and Ward subbing in for an absent bassist to anchor a two-drummer version of The Pretender’s “Mystery Achievement.” Even the kids tackling “Ain’t This the Life” seemed to be on track. The first time I observed them, the song was a mess; this time, it just came across as sloppy. That’s progress. They were peppering Ward with questions about how they could improve their performances, while he added his own input when he noticed something was off.

The final performance, the one in front of an audience, was now nine weeks away. I guessed the students’ eventual live performance of “Ain’t This the Life” probably wouldn’t top the one Oingo Boingo pulled off in 1982’s Urgh! A Music War, but I still thought it would be something to be proud of, regardless. Just accepting the challenge was impressive in this instance, though it’s probably a bit easier to do so when you have a ringer as a teacher. The kids trust Ward to get them where they need to be, and he has a track record of delivering.

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This is a great read, I'm familiar with the local players mentioned but wasn't aware of the rock school connection between them all - San Diego is a great place to be a musician!

Sept. 28, 2022

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