School Of Rock Strumming Up Success With Hands On Approach

The following article appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on Saturday July 7, 2012.


By Becky Yerak, Chicago Tribune reporter

July 7, 2012

Chris Catalano, 48, remembers taking piano lessons as a first-grader.

"I went to a house that looked like the 'Amityville Horror,' and the lady smelled like mothballs," he recalled.

His mother would remind him that the piano teacher was a Juilliard graduate.

"I didn't care," he said. "I wanted to play Elton John."

Today, Catalano, a former McDonald's executive, is aggressively betting that even in a tough economy, his Burr Ridge-based School of Rock LLC is poised to take advantage of a revolution in childhood music education.

School of Rock — whose founding predates by five years the 2003 Jack Black movie of the same name — has 93 locations, most of which are franchisees, in 31 states and Mexico. It plans to triple that number by 2015.

"We've already mapped where we can put schools in the United States, and we know there are 300 to 500 opportunities at least," Catalano said. It has eight locations in Illinois.

Parents shell out up to $300 a month for weekly 45-minute private lessons and up to three hours of weekly group rehearsals, open to children ages 7 and up. Students are quickly immersed in rock performance, and at the end of each season, every student is cast in a rock show in which they play live on stage in a real venue.

School of Rock opened an Elmhurst school in late April, and one of its first enrollees was Mason Kosowski, an aspiring drummer.

"He loves it," said his mom, Oak Brook resident Elizabeth Kosowski. "It's at the top of his list" for things he likes to do.

"The first thing I noticed about School of Rock compared to traditional lessons is that it's fun for Mason," she said. "They get to play in a band day one, rather than practicing one technique over and over."

Mason, 10, says he particularly likes playing songs by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

During a recent practice session, an instructor stressed the importance of listening to each other as the students attempted to cover the Beatles' "Come Together."

"Before you know your individual parts, it's more important to play together," the instructor told the boys. "All those little parts will come together, no pun intended."

Mason and his fellow Elmhurst students have a "gig" scheduled July 27 and 28 at Fitz's Spare Keys in Elmhurst.

Founded as a single school in the Philadelphia area in 1998, School of Rock is ramping up nationally amid several challenges, including lower-cost music education options.

Some traditional instructors give lessons via Skype, and the Web is filled with both free and less-expensive instruction., for example, charges $15 a month, as well as providing some free content. Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music has teen group classes that run once a week for 8 weeks, 45 to 60 minutes, at $120.

Also, public music education hasn't fared as poorly as one might think, according to a U.S. Education Department study released in April. More than 90 percent of public elementary and secondary schools offer music instruction, virtually unchanged since 1999.

Despite the weak economy and the array of competition, revenues at School of Rock locations open at least a year were up 18 percent in 2011. In April, buyout firm Sterling Partners, already an investor, placed $5 million in the company.

"Even when there are arts programs in middle schools and high schools, they generally focus on theater-type music or jazz or classical and rarely do they embrace pop, rock and the roots of rock," Catalano said in a recent interview from an office tucked away in the Burr Ridge Village Center shopping mall.

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