“School of Rock,” the musical based on the popular Jack Black film, opens on Broadway this week, with its pint-sized stars forming a middle school rock band. But off the stage, you can find the real thing in Manhattan.
The Third Street Music School Settlement, the longest-running community music school in the country since its founding in 1894, offers a rock band program among its tuition-based, weekly after-school and Saturday instruction, in addition to its ensemble, instrument and dance lessons.
Since starting about 30 years ago with just one band made up of five students, its popularity has only grown over the years, with seven bands currently comprised of 40 students ages 9 to 17.
“As historical as we are, we also are contemporary,” said Valerie Lewis, executive director of Third Street. “The Third Street program has evolved over the past several decades, and rock and roll is part of that evolution.”
Through rock band, students learn how to play cover songs, from classics like the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to modern fare like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and even the theme song from “School of Rock.” They also have the opportunity to learn songwriting through partnerships with Third Street’s theory and composition department.
In addition the school’s main location in the East Village, Third Street brings its rock band program into three New York City public schools — P.S. 33, Tompkins Square Middle School and East Village Community School. The latter two are funded through the Department of Education’s Arts Continuum Grant, which helps bridge the gap in music education between elementary and middle school and provide musical opportunities where there wasn’t any before. Indeed, before launching the rock band program in its school in February, Tompkins Square Middle School didn’t have any music classes.
“We don’t have enough funding to offer music to all the kids in the school,” said Sonhando Estwick, principal of Tompkins Square Middle School. “It’s nice that we’re finally able to offer music to them. And rock band is obviously a format that they can relate to pretty well.”
Tompkins Square offers rock band instruction to its sixth graders during the school day, as well as to sixth and seventh graders as part of an after-school program.
“It opens up a whole new world for them — of the language of music, what’s behind making a song, what it takes to make a song,” said Estwick, who before becoming an administrator was a professional vibraphone player. “Music is in a certain way like sports — there’s that teamwork, collaboration that it takes.”
Siena Sherer, a high school senior at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, is a veteran of Third Street’s rock band program, participating first in seventh grade and then again in her sophomore and junior years at the East Village location.
“It’s made me a more confident musician,” said Sherer, 17, a singer-songwriter who recently released her debut album, “Sincerely, Spaceman,” and currently plays guitar in Third Street’s guitar ensemble as well as her friends’ indie-rock band, Starbat. “We were all really kind and supportive, it was such a positive experience. It was also a lot of fun to get to make a lot of noise in the basement.”
As Third Street continues to evolve, it is opening a recording studio in September 2016 whose programming would pair well with the rock band program. It also recently renovated its performance space into a state-of-the-art concert hall, where the seven Third Street rock bands will perform this Thursday in a concert open to the public. Eventually the school hopes to open up the band to more students by adding instruction on Sundays.
“We have more kids who want to do rock band than we can accommodate,” Lewis said. “Part of the attraction is it’s highly accessible to many, many people. At the end of the day the rock band program is about ensuring access to the arts.”
IF YOU GO: Third Street Music School Settlement’s rock bands perform Dec. 9 from 7-8:30 p.m., FREE, 235 E. 11th St., 212-777-3240