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School of Rock Austin moves to bigger, fancier space

Chad Swiatecki
Bryce Martinez 14, left, and Harrison Pavlasek, 14, soon will have more space to rehearse.

There's a '70s basement-issue couch in the lounge of School of Rock Austin. Plaid, ratty and beat down, it looks at least twice as old as most of the school's teenage students.

Sitting against a wall plastered with posters and a short novel's worth of song lyrics and marker scrawls, the couch and the whole room reek of rock 'n' roll and of the thousands of hours spent learning, writing and riffing that have gone on in the school's five years of existence.

So it's a little bittersweet that the couch will get retired next week when School of Rock Austin moves to a new, larger and (for now) fancier location at Northcross Mall, but it's about the only feature the new school won't have.

"There's no way I'd ever sit on that thing, but the kids love it and it's as much a part of the place as they are," laughs Michelle Keller, whose daughter Payton enrolled in the rock-based music school just more than two years ago. "We talked about framing a piece of the couch and the wall and bringing it over, but we're all excited about the new school and everything that it's going to have for them. I'd drive to San Antonio if that's what it took for her to learn what she has by going there."

State-of-the-art recording equipment, new instruments and more than twice as many rehearsal and practice rooms as the school's current home are the biggest benefits of the move, which will be celebrated Saturday with a free parking lot party featuring performances by the school's 70-plus students.

The expansion is a sign of the school's popularity and growth, said Rick Carney, the school's lead instructor and general manager for most of its existence.

"We're not just teaching them music, we're empowering them with what they can be as part of a rock band," said Carney, a veteran of the Austin punk scene who still plays in area bands in his dwindling free time. "A 12-year-old might come in very shy and awkward, but they grow out of that here, and that confidence spreads into all other parts of their life."

In a departure from traditional music lessons, School of Rock outposts across the country — of which there are now 58 with plans to triple that number in the coming years — teach basic instrument and voice instruction and put students in ad hoc bands with others of varying ages and skill levels. The company's philosophy is that learning how to work with other musicians with guidance from musical vets prepares the students to be better performers.

Furthering that, groups are put on a 12-week schedule to perform an assigned show for the public at an Austin-area venue, with themes covering everything from glam rock to punk to roots music.

In a somewhat adventurous effort earlier this month, a group of students including Payton Keller, 13, and Jabari Earl, 17, played with a group that scored an entirely new soundtrack to the silent horror film "Nosferatu," which was shown while they played for a crowd at the ND club in 501 Studios downtown.

Both students praised the experience of writing new music and the challenges put to them during three times-a-week sessions with the School of Rock staff.

"You learn your instrument, but you also learn about things that go on behind that and about the history of people like Jimi Hendrix," Earl said. "You get so much from being in those shows, and by my third show where we did a whole set of (the) Who songs, I learned how to go up and play in front of total strangers and not be afraid at all. You learn so much, it becomes like a sixth sense."

Earl won't get to immerse himself in the amenities of School of Rock's new home because he's going to college, but the school's officials expect plenty will once the doors open. The current facility's 1,900 square feet in an industrial park off Metric Boulevard near Howard Lane features only three lesson rooms and one band practice space.

With a newly remodeled 2,700-square-foot-space, the Northcross Mall location will feature seven lesson rooms, three rehearsal rooms, a recording studio and more visibility that should let its enrollment grow to more than 200 and its staff of seven to eventually double.

"It's a lot more central, and since we're effectively an after-school establishment, you won't have to deal with the hassle of taking I-35 to get here," said Kris Chomout, the school's general manager since March. "We think we'll be able to get between 200 and 250 kids in here with everything we'll have available to us, and with that, we'll be able to get the group shows at more and bigger venues around town."

Carney and Chomout declined to give cost figures for the move, other than to say the company's central office in Manhattan sees Austin as worth a sizable investment.

Whatever the price tag, both said, it won't immediately affect the school's $300-a-month tuition that is reviewed throughout the year and adjusted as needed. Students go four times a week — one private lesson and three band rehearsals.

There doesn't seem to be much worry from parents like Michelle Keller about the cost. Especially when you consider the ringing endorsements from students like her daughter for the school.

"I'm really excited about the recording studio and I'll be really involved in that, but it's also going to be better by having more than the 60 kids that are there now," said Payton Keller, who has received vocal, guitar and drums lessons from the school. "I'm going to miss the place that we've all known as the School of Rock, but there's so much more we're going to be able to do once we move."