Kids rock at Oak Park's School of Rock

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

Rock-and-roller Frank Zappa once said, "Most rock journalism is for people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."

Well, let's blow the roof off that notion by focusing on a story about a business that is booming in the brick building at 219 Lake St. in Oak Park, formerly Tuscher Roofing, aka the Oak Park School of Rock (SOR).

 The music school is a franchise in the international School of Rock network, which now has outlets in 31 states — as well as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Panama and the Philippines.

This "bad" gathering space for musical kids, age 8 to 18 (plus adults) started several years ago when Amy Renzulli, with her spouse Bob Miller, succumbed to the pleas of their elementary-school-age daughter, Abigail, now 15. 

She was playing ice hockey but wanted to start playing something else.

"I don't like telling this story, but my Mom does, so … When I was in fifth grade I started crying and crying, and said, 'I don't think you understand. I really, really want to play bass guitar,'" Abigail recalls. 

That rant went on until Renzulli caved and eventually Googled rock-and-roll summer camps, fortuitously finding the Chicago School of Rock, which had multiple programs for musicians of all levels and ages.

"I went to Chicago School of Rock for two show seasons," says the OPRF High School freshman. "Then my mom started talking to Jennifer, the vocal teacher there. After that we started getting things going."

Since opening last May, Renzulli's second career quickly staged its first show.

Enrollment reached 100 students, their first-year enrollment goal, in the first four months, Abigail crows. Currently, 145 budding to bedazzling rockers are being nurtured there. 

"This is totally a family business, and we all joke and call my dad our roadie because he drives the van for the gear, is the janitor and the landlord because my dad owns the building, and my mom owns and runs the business," the teenager explains.

In her SOR franchise, Renzulli says, whether students take guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards or drum lessons, all of the performance kids transition from the lesson room to the stage quickly.

Historically, that is the SOR way. Their "world" stages, though, are local — FitzGerald's or Wire in Berwyn or the Cobra Lounge in Chicago.

"For the first two shows [The British Invasion and Pink Floyd's The Wall] the older students just blew us away, and packed the venues with 250 people each day," she recalls. "Then came Green Day, and my expectations were so much lower. No offense, but most of the kids in that show were the youngest, 8 to 14, and had only been playing instruments since we opened our doors in May. They knocked it out of the park."

Ian Wilson, her director of outreach and education, explains that the idea of SOR is that all students are encouraged to perform, regardless of their future interests or current skill level.

 "I would have gone crazy if I had this kind of musical opportunity as a kid, or at least that is my take on it," says the freelance singer/songwriter and keyboard player whose job it is to help Renzulli engage in community building.

Last month they staged a fundraiser, in conjunction with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, in support of that organization and to help replenish the School of Rock's scholarship coffers, Renzulli says. 

If attending is a stretch for some families, SOR offers opportunities for financial assistance. Currently about 10 percent of her enrollment receives a full scholarship.

Moreover, in May they plan to join in helping with the established Park District of Oak Park program, the Battle of the Bands. 

"The plan is for a three-way partnership between us, the park district and the Oak Park Public Library, which is great because they bring so much knowledge as to what youth are looking for in this area, and we bring the music expertise, so it helps," Wilson says.

Right now they are in a win-win partnership with the OPRF High School Art Department, where the students will design and draw promotion posters for the next set of student shows: The Doors, '80s Prom Music, and the Beatles. 

Down the road, Renzulli hopes to build a bridge between her SOR and the business community on the east side of Oak Park to create more business and program interconnectivity.

"Eventually we want to be working with the middle schools and OPRF to figure out how rock music can fit into their curriculums," Wilson says. "This is very unique to us because it is what Amy wants, and it is a passion of mine."

Windmilling and wailing

Less than a year ago, when 8-year-old Daniel Golden carried his 3/4 scale Fender bass electric guitar across the threshold of Renzulli's place, the youngster knew he loved Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but he could only play open notes, no fretting.

Now, thanks to his SOR guitar teacher — professional bass player Adam Instefjord — the second grader at Mann School has learned lots of licks in several rock-and-roll styles. 

Earlier this year, Golden proudly reports, he was a lead guitarist for the Green Day recital and performed several showy solos on his bass, including windmills (like Pete Townsend of The Who) whenever he could. At one point in the show, he took the strap off his guitar, laid his instrument on the stage, and played it while kneeling. 

"My teacher is Adam, and if I hadn't come here, I would have just been like da … da … da on my guitar. Now, because of him (he says smiling, pointing to mentor), I can go rang … rang … rang."

 When he strummed a Green Day hit, "Wake Me When September Comes," Renzulli recalls, Daniel's parents cried. And so did Renzulli.

Just a singer in a rock 'n' roll band

With her wardrobe of mostly black clothing, and possessing only two colorful vintage dresses picked up in a resale shop, Abigail Renzulli's Mohawk has been every color of the rainbow. It is now growing out a bit and has faded to a shade she calls "grey green," which she likes. 

"Playing the bass is a really nice outlet, helping me figure things out [because] not everything is easy to figure out for someone my age," she observes, noting that her current favorite band is Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Playing the bass gives me something to focus on, like whenever I sit down and learn a really cool song, or nail some harmony part when I am singing, I think like, wow, I am really doing something." 

Oak Parker Ryan Canfield, 23, SOR's assistant general manager, muses that some parents "get geeked" when they realize their kids are starting to listen to their music. Conversely, some parents are sometimes put off by a song's irreverent lyrics, or how they impersonate a band's public behavior. 

 For example, during the Green Day performance, all the guys did the "guy eyeliner thing," Canfield says.

"You could kind of see their concern, hoping that it wouldn't become an everyday thing and that on Monday when their kids went to school their sons were not going to be wearing eyeliner," he said, laughing.

But rock-and-roll is as rock-and-roll does, and "in the Green Day Show's finale, "Holiday," I had a drum solo that made my fingers bleed — like a lot [related to blisters on his fingers from learning to play the bass and drums]. It was so much fun," says William Miller, Renzulli's 13-year-old son, a seventh-grader at Percy Julian Middle School. 

The other day, he says a band dropped by the school and in it was a guy who used to open for The Doors. 

"So one of the older kids came in and sat down at the drum and they all started freestyling. Then my drum instructor, Dave [Vaccano], hopped out of his lesson, just to play the drums with this really cool bass player," William recalled. "That is why I come here and hang out an hour early, because of things like that."

Reader Comments

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Abigail Miller from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 3:43 PM

Thank you for the great article and for spending time with us! I just need to clarify that I play ice hockey, not field hockey :)

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