School of Rock is like playing team sports, only with guitars and drums

“In the words of AC/DC: We roll tonight ... til the guitar bite... and for those about to rock ... I salute you.”

That’s Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, motivating his fifth graders in the 2003 movie “School of Rock.”

Since the movie, about 250 real-life Schools of Rock have sprouted worldwide, teaching musical basics and performance skills. Little-known fact: An actual school of rock in Philadelphia loosely served as a model for the movie. So it’s not correct to say the movie spawned the School of Rock, at least not completely.

Now Northern Kentucky is home to a School of Rock, too.

Owner Josh Ullrich has spent the last two years renovating the former Hotspot restaurant (earlier home to Steinhaus restaurant), a location at 6415 Dixie Highway that had collected cobwebs for a few years.

City borders for Florence, Elsmere and Erlanger cross through the parking lot and building, as do the Boone and Kenton county lines. You can’t get more Northern Kentucky than that. For simplicity’s sake, the school uses a Florence mailing address.

It’s a big building, and Ullrich has transformed its 10,000 square feet into rehearsal and performance space. Josh hoped for a 2020 opening, but he ceased construction during the height of the pandemic. But now it’s time to rock.

Students ranging in age from 7 to 18 will get one-on-one instruction in soundproofed rooms along the building’s halls of rock knowledge. Corridor “A” has a poster cleverly listing A-named rock heroes: the above-mentioned AC/DC, Aerosmith, ABBA, and so forth. The “B” corridor is topped by The Beatles, the “C” row, The Clash.

The space is cool, and School of Rock Northern Kentucky is wired, miked up and ready to go. Opening day was in late April.

“Everybody's been really welcoming to us,” says regional manager Scott Higgins.

Josh started his first School of Rock in Cincinnati in 2018. Students from Northern Kentucky – one from as far away as Falmouth – were driving to the Madisonville branch, which draws from all over Greater Cincinnati for an enrollment of 150.

As for the Florence location, “This is our fourth day of operation. I think we're going to hit 40 new clients before the end of today. … The excitement is real. The music is real,” Scott says.

The movie “School of Rock” contains a small reference to Kentucky. Is it a premonition of success for the Florence school? The film’s star Jack Black wears a green and white T-shirt in one scene that reads “Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky.” Fans share a photo on Twitter as a badge of pride for the Bluegrass state. 

On that day, students ranging in age from 9 to 17 were taking a stab at learning “Come Together,” the Beatles song that serves as one of two School of Rock anthems. (The other is “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes.)

Quentin Tomlin, 11, who says he loves The Beatles, looks comfortable with his Fender guitar. Quentin had private lessons for three years and liked taking a School of Rock online camp last summer.

Music, he says, “really makes me happy. Like just all the power of this,” he says, nodding to the electric guitar. “Noise is just everything, when you put all those amps together. It’s just so much, this power and music,” says Quentin, who also sings.

Ollie Luckes, 17, had an easy time choosing his instrument. “We had a drum set in the attic. I want to learn an instrument and drum lessons are pretty cool. What’s not fun about that?” Luckes says.

But the Edgewood teen calls himself “a second-class drummer.” How come?

“It means this is my second class,” he says dryly.

The room erupts in laughter and instructors encourage Luckes to do a rimshot after the joke. Sorry, he says, he hasn’t learned how yet. Fun group.

“Coming together as a group is one of the biggest things that we talk about in how to operate as a band,” Scott says, “It's kind of like team sports, just with instruments.”

It’s been eight years since Josh’s son Charlie started playing the drums at School of Rock in Mason. Charlie, then about 8, thrived as a drummer at the school, where Scott, a professional guitar player, was involved.

“Scott talked us into coming to a show. So, we saw ‘The Who’ performance by the kids,” Josh says.

“Oh my God! Charlie was up front on the stage and couldn't believe that these were kids and neither could we. And we signed up and never left.”

Josh, who owns a plastic distribution company and buys and sells real estate, is relieved the Northern Kentucky branch has finally opened. With all the challenges of the pandemic, one aspect had a silver lining.

“All the gigs stopped. All of our musicians that worked for us lost most of their income,” Josh says. But about 20 instructors at School of Rock in Cincinnati managed to keep working by devising and carrying out online instruction. “Yeah, we definitely kept a lot of musicians employed,” Josh says.

What’s next as the vaccines take hold and life returns to normal?

Classes are underway now two days a week. Four-month sessions for youth and adults will begin in August. Theme of the adult class is Tom Petty Tribute. By November, they’ll be ready to give a performance.

The Florence Y’alls baseball team has scheduled a “School of Rock Day” in August. The musicians will perform before and after the game, between innings, and during the seventh inning stretch.

Registrations for weeklong summer camps are filling up. “We'll take pure beginners and then get up and have them rockin’ on stage in five days,” Josh says.

Then on Friday you have a show for friends and family. “It’s a great experience.” Scott says. The topics are Beatles Camp, ‘80s Camp, Classic Rock Rewind and Punk Camp.

“Anything from the birth of rock and roll in the ‘50s ‘til present is fair game here,” Scott says.
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