The Wilmington School of Rock builds the next wave of local musicians through the rigors of performance
It’s a Saturday night at JB McGinnes Pub & Grille, nestled in a New Castle strip mall just off Basin Road, and the band is setting up for the evening’s show.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that tonight’s performers are a Doors tribute band, promising a good two hours of the Lizard King’s better known hits and lesser known spoken word pieces. That being the case, 30 minutes into the set, a voice that’s the sonic spitting image of late lead singer Jim Morrison blasts from the amplifiers, backed by a tight rhythm section and a deadon rendering of Ray Manzarek’s signature keyboard and organ stylings. Basketball and MMA wrestling silently play on the establishment’s flat-screen TVs, but all eyes are on the band as they channel the sounds of the 1960s.
But rather than being a band of Baby Boomers, it turns out that not one of the performers is old enough to be served a beer, several aren’t old enough to drive themselves to the gig, and a couple—if asked—would probably prefer to order off the kids’ menu. They’re all students at Wilmington’s School of Rock, and what the audience is hearing is the sound of them passing an exam with flying colors.
That crowd is heavy on supportive friends and family of the performers, but even the regulars, many of whom likely grew up on The Doors or were marinated in them when they were in heavy rotation on FM radio stations like WMMR or the old WYSP, are also impressed. Indeed, a casual listener would be hard-pressed to distinguish the vocals and guitar riffs of Greg McKinnon or Tyler Dill from Morrison himself.
Three-quarters of the way through the show, Dill tears through “Twentieth Century Fox” while Eric Svalgard, the School of Rock music director, leans in to the sound board operator. “I’m so happy with this show!” he declares.
Just a day earlier and 125 miles north in New York City, auditions were taking place for another show—this one the Broadway version of the 2003 movie that everyone thinks of when they hear the words “School of Rock”—the one that Paul Green, who created the first School of Rock Music in a Race Street walkup in Philadelphia in 2002, says was inspired by his own school. It’s also the movie that’s the basis for a live-action series set to debut on Nickelodeon, the kid-centric cable network.
All of this might be called a School of Rock Renaissance. But don’t sarcastically ask these kids if their teacher will be Jack Black. This is the real world, man, and they’ve got far too much rockin’ to do.
The name Paul Green looms large in the history of the School of Rock for good reason. It was his manic, single-minded, often over-the-top teaching style as founder and supreme overlord of the Paul Green School of Rock Music (PGSORM) that was the focus of the documentary film Rock School. And, Green insisted at the time, it was his style that formed the basis for the Jack Black character Dewey Finn in the 2003 feature film.
Since its inception, the purpose of the school has been to teach kids musicianship and performance using classic rock as the source material. Throughout the year, rotating groups of students perform theme shows based around a single artist, band, style of music or particular decade—David Bowie, all ’80s, “bad” music (where they reinterpret “bad” songs into new versions), and one show featuring any song with a heavy dose of cowbell percussion.
Green was bought out by an investor in 2009, and the school’s name was changed to simply School of Rock. There followed an explosive expansion beyond the first few schools in the Delaware Valley to places like San Francisco, New York City, Austin, and Utah, and eventually to more than 300 locations in the United States and Mexico.
Despite all the noise about Green, the documentary and the iconic movie, the dude did some fine work. An inordinate number of regional and national acts now feature grown-up players who honed their youthful chops under Green’s tutelage. One of them is Eric Svalgard’s daughter, singer-songwriter Madi Diaz. It was her time at the PGSORM that eventually drew Svalgard, a Berklee College of Music-trained keyboardist, into a role not just as rock parent, but as rock mentor.
When Svalgard saw his daughter perform in her first School of Rock show—featuring the paragons of punk rock—he realized what Green was creating.
“When I saw all these 14- and 15-year-old kids doing the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, I just fell in love with the idea [of the school],” he says. “And at that time, 2001, there was nothing like it. No one was doing anything like that.”
His father had recently passed away, and Svalgard was in the midst of a life reevaluation, wondering what he would end up doing for the next 20 years. At the time, he was earning six figures a year selling woodwork in New York for a Coatesville company. Then the school’s keyboard instructor abruptly resigned, and Svalgard’s love for Green’s mission led to a volunteer teaching gig at the school one day a week. That day became two, then eventually grew into an official $12-an-hour part-time job.
“I found Rock School. So I started weaning myself from my high-paying job and started working there three days a week,” he says. “And then [Green] sold his first franchise to one of the students’ parents, and that was Downingtown.”
Svalgard would go on to serve as music director at the Downingtown location, eventually moving on to open the Wilmington school after being invited to play keyboards with a Frank Zappa tribute band Project Object. That gig not only helped him further refine his keyboard skills, but also reinforced his commitment to keeping things true to the rock spirit. That led him to striking out on his own by opening a new branch of the School of Rock at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House.
“The opportunity to be at the Grand was unique and awesome, and I loved being there—just being surrounded by the opera at the time, an experimental theater group and the First State Ballet,” he says. “I recognized that there were going to be roadblocks. Rock is not ballet. Rock is not classical music. And although many classical musicians understand rock, they still don’t want to have to hear it in the background. And so it was a difficult marriage for us.”
In 2009, the Wilmington School of Rock relocated out of the city to Prices Corner, where it makes its home in an unassuming office park adjacent to Wal-Mart. “Moving was the best thing to ever happen to the business,” Svalgard says.
Inside, the space couldn’t be more different from that of the Grand Opera House. Rather than being surrounded by classic opera house architecture, students instead work among posters of rock gods and goddesses, with the walls of one room in the midst of being covered with vinyl LPs.
It’s here that the students at the School of Rock have found their home away from home, a place that has taken nascent—or perhaps totally undiscovered—musical skill and turned it to the cause of rock.
The core members of the band Zymology are a perfect example. Twins Bill and Josh Sweren (bass and drums, respectively) and guitarist Brendan Moriak are all School of Rock students who credit Svalgard and his wife, owner and General Manager Carol Forsyth, with opening their eyes to the foundations of rock while significantly boosting their musical skills.
“I had been playing violin, so I’d already been in music and I wanted to play guitar, and my cousin’s friend in Virginia was talking about School of Rock, and I remember I was so confused,” Moriak says. “I was like, ‘You’re in a band? Who’s your lead singer?’ And he said, ‘Well, it changes.’”
That constantly rotating team of musicians and vocalists is part of what makes the School of Rock curriculum special, because rather than settling in with three or four players as in a traditional band, students have to learn how to play with everyone. It results not just in bands like Zymology being formed outside the school, but in the perpetuation of music in kids’ lives long after they might have given it up.
“If School of Rock wasn’t here, I probably would have just dropped violin and given up music in general,” Moriak says. “I may have continued drums, because I did drums in the eighth grade, but the whole guitar thing and recording music wouldn’t have been there.”
His bandmates agree, pointing out that for many, pursuit of a classical instrument is often considered an end unto itself by parents and music instructors. Even with those who take up guitar—the cornerstone rock instrument—there’s little emphasis on learning how to play in a band.
“[Guitar instructor] Chris [Gordon] and Eric both have a lot of experience, which can help with the performance side,” says Bill Sweren.
Drum student Maddie Sneider, who performed in the Doors show, says the School of Rock made all the difference in her continuing with her instrument and improving her performance.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” she says. “I was just taking lessons. I wasn’t doing anything like this. And then I got kind of bored with that because I wanted to play music and rock out and have fun.”
With traditional lessons, little emphasis, too, is put on the mechanics of actually running a band, and it’s another thing that School of Rock students learn. Josh Sweren has stepped up as his band’s manager.
“I’m the only reason we’ve gotten this far,” he deadpans, and in agreeing, Moriak emphasizes that everyone has his or her own role in the group, whether it’s songwriting, management or tech.
“It’s kind of frustrating at this age when they’re trying to do a band,” says Beth Sneider, mom to Maddie, her twin brother Jacob (bass and guitar) and their sister Izzi (bass), all School of Rock students. “Everyone has different schedules, so if you’re missing a singer for an hour practice then nothing gets done. Here, people will fill in. You can still get so much done.”
The school became so important that the Sneider family eventually chose to relocate from Pennsylvania to Wilmington to be closer to it. All of them—parent and kids—know that the school has made a major positive impact on their lives.
“When you play what you want to play, you feel like there are a lot more things you can play, and then you just get lost in it,” Jacob says.