Guitar Hero is the video game of choice for would-be rock stars, and that's good enough for some kids, but not for 8-year-old Cary resident Payton Kashmier.
"I was almost a master at Guitar Hero, that's why my dad said I should try real guitar," he said.
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At nearly the same time, Payton's dad, David, saw the fortuitous opening of the national chain School of Rock in their Cary neighborhood and quickly signed Payton up.
After a few lessons, Payton's dad knew his son had found his musical home.
"For somebody of his age, it really allowed him to experiment with multiple instruments at the same time, focusing on a primary instrument," David said. "It's a very easygoing atmosphere and that's very encouraging. He gets to see people who are similar in age, and how they progressed and he found himself wanting to be that kid that's in the band."
Founded in Philadelphia in 1998, School of Rock boasts more than 100 franchises worldwide. In the Chicago area there are 11: Cary, Chicago, Elmhurst, Plainfield, Oak Park, Evanston, Glen Ellyn, Highwood, Hinsdale, Mokena and Naperville.
Aside from ongoing lessons for beginners and beyond in guitar, keyboards and percussion, School of Rock offers camps that focus on a particular genre or artist. Funk and Reggae, The Beatles, and Punk are a few of the focuses taught over an abbreviated time; from a seven-hour Saturday to a full week ending in a performance. Each school determines its own subject matter.
A step inside Cary's storefront chapter makes it clear that this isn't your parent's music school. The lobby is dimly lit with clusters of large paper lanterns highlighted with bright colors. Posters of John Lennon, Robert Plant, and Jimi Hendrix are tacked to the wall with the note: Can you draw them? A number of attempts are posted, one painted directly on the wall.
All things considered, it resembles an enormous and neatly kept college dorm, down to the loud rock music. The only difference being, these kids are studying playing in their own band with a college-aged teacher/musician.
They are banging out a credible version of AC/DC's "Back In Black" with the occasional pause as an instructor points out the areas that need polish. After a rush of laughter, the chords ring out again in the band room, a large, glass-fronted space filled with the kind of equipment most young people would never have at their disposal and at which they are encouraged to give each a go.
Most of the kids focus on a single instrument and after band practice they break off into individual rooms to study one-on-one with the instructors. The smaller rooms are more muffled than the band room, and glass fronts give parents constant access to the sessions.
Their studies have a purpose; every student plays a live gig at a local venue after three months and regularly after that. Students learn that School of Rock is much more than learning to keep a beat and wearing a guitar on their hip, which is why School of Rock only hires working musicians as instructors.
"We focus on performance and learning," said Cary manager and instructor Erik Grant. "They go hand in hand. We perform shows to learn music to go out and play shows. The show aspect is as important as everything else we learn here."
Grant has a long history of performing and teaching rock, jazz and classical music. "I've known since the third grade that I was going to be a musician," he said. "The drums were the loudest so that's what I picked and then I was set for life."
He began playing gigs in middle school and was teaching by the time he was in high school. As an adult Grant has toured and worked as an audio engineer. He admits to wishing School of Rock had been an option when he was a kid. "I was a metal head at Jazz Camp," he recalls.
Joanna Vassilatos, manager and teacher of the Naperville location, agrees that School of Rock would have made her childhood a little easier. "First of all, I was a girl and it was totally bizarre that I was a drummer and my parents were first generation immigrants so they didn't know what to do with me," she said. "Who would have thought there would be an organized business to deal with people like myself?"
Vassilatos went on to rub elbows with the elite of the rock world while she ran The Grammy Foundation's mentor program; connecting high school students with their heroes while the musicians were on tour in their area. "They were able to watch a sound check and then sit with the artist," she said.
Given her background, even Vassilatos is a little surprised to find herself teaching kids in Naperville. What she couldn't have predicted was the effect the program would have on kids, and the satisfaction it would bring to her.
According to Vassilatos, many a budding rock star walks in and is too shy to speak to the adults in charge, but by week seven or eight, things have changed. "They're bouncing off the walls, trying to use our keyboards so they can find a techno beat so they can have a dance party," she said. "They totally start coming into their own."
Their confidence level can take a bit of a dive at the first live show, when a peak from behind the curtain finds a house packed with friends and families, Vassilatos said.
"Every kid says, I don't want to do it. Then you push them on stage and they do it. At the end of it all you see a physical transformation in them," Vassilatos said. "It's a massive confidence builder."
"Right after, they're like 'Do you want my autograph?' They come to class wearing ripped jeans and a faux hawk. You see them come into a place that they're so comfortable with themselves, they're able to truly freely express themselves.
"For me to provide that and see it over and over; it's the most purposeful thing that I've ever done," Vallisattos said.
Grant has seen the same transformation in Cary. "When you get comfortable on stage and you're really rocking there's no choice that it follows you in your every day life," he said.
"It changes you as a person. It drives you as a person. What you're doing onstage is directly affecting offstage," Grant added. "Almost everyone that comes in for a band session is shy for the first couple of weeks. Then they start making friends and getting comfortable. That's when the magic happens."
Fifteen-year-old student Skye Benyo of Cary knows firsthand how performing rock-n-roll on stage can grow confidence. She stresses that she didn't arrive at the Cary School of Rock armed with attitude.
"Back then I was kind of nervous and I didn't think I'd do much," she said. "Now I want to pursue it. I want to become famous because I'm not nervous. Everyone's friends here.
"I'm much more confident," she added before returning to painting flames on the lobby walls. "We all have our strengths and our weaknesses and we work them out together."
Unlike the majority of kids, David Kashmier admits Payton didn't lack confidence upon his arrival at School of Rock. In fact, silly is the best word his dad can think of to describe his happy and outgoing son.
He credits the instructors at the studio for the ability to rein in some of Payton's enthusiasm and focus his energy. "He's having fun and the instructor has a lot to do with that, too. He's very friendly, easygoing, encouraging and the same time able to keep things in order without taking the fun out of it."
Payton's dad has enjoyed the School of Rock experience nearly as much as his son.
"I'm excited because he's playing songs I enjoy, he's playing songs he hasn't had much exposure to, but when he sees the excitement in my face, that I know the songs he's playing. I think that encourages him to play even more," he said.
However, the ultimate question is: even with the instruments and the live shows, is School of Rock really better than the instant cool of immediate rock stardom that comes with video games?
"I don't know how to say (it)," Payton said. "But, a lot."
For more information about School of Rock and to find a school in your area, visit schoolofrock.com or call (866) 695-5515.
Cary School of Rock
835 Feinberg Court
Naperville School of Rock
220 North Washington
To see a live School of Rock show:
Naperville School of Rock Naperville
2424 N. Lincoln Ave
May 18 at 3 p.m.
Tickets are $5
For more information visit:
Cary School of Rock
April 5 at 7:30 p.m.
At: Elite Kids
825 Munshaw Lane
Crystal Lake, IL 60014
For more information, contact Cary School of Rock.