Steve McFarland describes himself as a sports guy, not a music person. Nevertheless, he’s found himself in the world of rock and roll, and passing along that passion to others, which thrills him. It started nearly a decade ago when McFarland read about School of Rock in a magazine.
“I thought the way they taught music was so different in that the focus is on getting the kids out and playing,” says McFarland, whose own children took traditional music lessons years ago and despised the experience of learning notes, chords and scales.
At School of Rock, students approach learning in a whole different way that makes it fun.
“We’ll do a demo day where I’ll tell parents, ‘Give me 30 minutes and I’ll have your kid playing in a band,’” McFarland says.
After breaking into groups, students learn a three-chord song by AC/DC.
“These kids who have never touched an instrument in their lives are suddenly playing a rock and roll song,” McFarland says. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
Ten years ago, McFarland met with School of Rock executives in Chicago, who sold him on the concept once they shared the impact that this style of learning has on students. It was a phenomenon he witnessed firsthand once he opened his first School of Rock in Carmel nine years ago. During a parent get-together following their first season, one mom described the incredible transformation she had witnessed in her daughter.
“Prior to this program, she had no friends and was not plugged into anything – in fact, I’m not sure we could have made it another year if School of Rock had not come along because I know she had contemplated suicide,” the mother said. “Now she has friends, she’s connected, and she’s doing something she loves.”
According to McFarland, these kinds of stories unfold often.
“I’m constantly hearing, ‘This has been life-changing for our family,’” says McFarland, who opened a second location in Fishers five years ago and, most recently, a third school on South Main Street in Zionsville. Enrollment among all three schools is at nearly 400 students.
When he hires instructors, he doesn’t seek teachers so much as music mentors with a passion to inspire kids to rock on stage and in life.
“I’m looking for musicians with street cred, who love what they are doing and can inspire kids that want to do more with music,” McFarland says.
Students, who range in age from 6 to 17, learn guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals and drums. Adult lessons are also offered.
“We even have a rocker mom group,” McFarland says.
Weekly lessons are 45 minutes in length for younger kids, while older students have three-hour rehearsals.
“It’s cool to see how fast these kids learn,” says McFarland, noting that unlike traditional lessons where parents often have to nag their child to practice their instrument, students at School of Rock are self-motivated to improve. “The fact that we put them in shows is a powerful teaching tool. It not only allows them to ramp up their skills much faster, but they also know that when they come in, they’re going to be rehearsing with their peers in a band. They’re not going to be embarrassed in front of their friends so you’ll never have to bug your kids to practice again.”
When the pandemic hit, the school transitioned to remote lessons even before the governor’s stay-at-home orders were issued, simply because they were committed to keeping both staff and students safe.
“I went to Best Buy and bought 15 iPads for my teachers so they could teach from their homes via Zoom,” McFarland says.
Though lessons were easy to do remotely, rehearsals were trickier.
“They couldn’t play together because different speeds of the internet didn’t allow them to sync up, but they could do group check-ins and play their part of the songs,” McFarland explains.
After being shut down last spring for three months, they returned to live sessions last June and have been open ever since. Now that the school is offering in-person learning again, McFarland has implemented some stringent safety protocols.
“When the students hit the front door, they sanitize, then go straight to the bathroom to wash their hands,” he says. “Everyone wears masks and remains 6’ apart, even in lesson rooms. Plus, there’s a plastic barrier between the kids and the teachers, and vocalists sing with masks and use their own microphones.”
Providing a safe in-person environment was important, as the students were craving face-to-face interaction for their mental well-being.
“After having to do online schooling, the last thing these kids wanted was more screen time,” McFarland says. “They needed to come back, connect with their friends and do what they love. This is their community, their place to hang out and just be themselves.”
At the end of each semester, the students perform. They also do preview shows mid-semester, so students perform at least six times per year. Back in March, they did a preview show that was live streamed in order to keep attendance down. That allowed anyone, near or far, to watch from home.
The technological aspect of pivoting during the pandemic has equipped the students with tools they can use moving forward. For instance, future snow days don’t have to signal a canceled lesson, as everyone now has the ability to participate virtually. The same is true if a student has transportation issues. In addition, live-streamed concerts enable traveling parents or elderly relatives to still be able to enjoy the show.
“Those are the silver linings that COVID-19 brought us,” McFarland says.
Students can audition to join their house band or try out for the AllStars, which encompasses all School of Rock locations. This summer School of Rock also offered summer camps.
“What’s cool about camp is that kids come on Monday, some of whom have never laid hands on an instrument before, and on Friday they put on a show,” McFarland says. “Parents are always blown away, and kids love it.”