School of Rock San Jose may be part of a worldwide franchise, but it still conducts itself with the personal touch of a small business. Opened in October 2013 in a strip mall along Almaden Expressway, this small school is a labor of love first realized by Eric and London Delicath, who had an empowering mission in mind when starting the joint business effort.
“Both Eric and I were musical quitters as kids,” jokes London Delicath, who headed west from Illinois for tech and then left a nine-year career with Apple to start School of Rock’s San Jose location. Both were passionate about punk while growing up in the Midwest. An ad in Entrepreneur magazine promoting School of Rock franchises caught London’s eye in 2011 while she was on maternity leave. As fans of both music and kids, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the couple. She returned to Apple, but the ad stuck with her. A year later, the two finally decided to make a School of Rock in San Jose a reality.
School of Rock takes its curriculum and philosophy from musician Paul Green. After inviting some of his students to jam with his band, he made a striking discovery: within a month, these students were progressing much faster than students that only received solo instruction. Acting on this breakthrough, he began to integrate group sessions into his curriculum, and he officially launched the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia in 2002.
Green’s efforts were captured by the 2005 documentary Rock School. He’s also quite likely the main inspiration behind Jack Black’s character, Dewey Finn, in the 2003 hit comedy School of Rock. In the years since, the Paul Green School of Rock Music has been rebranded to School of Rock and become a franchise. It now operates in 140 locations across the US and in eight countries around the world, from Canada and Mexico to South Africa and the Philippines.
The schools offer both individual instruction and group study, and San Jose’s location offers programs for students as young as four. There’s performance group, which features groups of around 20 students rotating in and out of different four- or five-piece ensembles. For more advanced students, there’s audition-based house band. Students are accepted at any skill level, and each student’s part is tailored to fit his or her level of competence. In performance group and house band, instructors coach and correct in real time as needed, but as London emphasizes, “The goal is to teach them how to communicate together.”
After four months, group performances culminate in community concerts based around a given artist, era, or theme. For example, “I Want My MTV” was organized around songs from key music videos during the network’s infancy. One past show even focused exclusively on the Beatles.
“In most music schools, instructors come in, give the lesson, and leave. In our school, our entire teaching staff has to work together,” notes London, pointing out that their team emphasis forces instructors to be accountable in individual study to ensure their students are prepared for group performances.
Of course, getting thrown into the mix with strangers as a beginner can be frightening, but she says the welcoming tone set by students and staff soon alleviates such fear. “Until you experience it, you don’t know how powerful it is to play music with other people and create something together,” she says.
For Riley Towle, his first show with School of Rock was the catalyst that helped him piece together the possibilities. Suddenly, he and classmate Avery saw an avenue to make their dream come true—a breakthrough he never gained through years of individual drum instruction. “When we played that show, that was a moment where we thought this is what we want to do for a living. We don’t want to just play drums as a hobby; we want to get out there and perform,” he recalls. “I think that’s the biggest thing about School of Rock: they get you to have fun and collaborate.” Since leaving the school in early 2017, after two years of instruction, Riley’s gone on to form the bands Crosswalk and the Cultbusters.
“That’s like the ultimate compliment to what we do,” says London when asked about Riley’s experience. “We’re launching them, and to watch them go and be inspired to do it on their own, aside from some of them wanting to come back and be teachers themselves, that’s the ultimate that you could hope for.”
As for highlights, she mentions Annapurna “AP” Tobler, 2017 Drum Like a Girl Contest finalist and popular vote winner in the under-18 category—at only age 11. Yet London also highlights the impact of students who didn’t just find a path to a career—they found themselves.
“We’ve got kids that just don’t fit in, that haven’t found their thing, and this becomes their thing,” she says. “I’ve cried with moms and dads [who said] thank you—their kids didn’t have a place until they came here, and this is their place. They found their people, and it’s going to leave an impact on their lives forever.”
Emma Preston has certainly seen a change in herself since starting at School of Rock, and she’s currently so involved that she’s dropping in for individual and group instruction no less than three times a week. She’s nearing her sixth showcase at the school and says that above all else, her time on stage has helped her show off her vibrant side. “I love being able to perform and be a little different than the person I portray myself as to regular people during the day,” she shares.
However, after five years of building School of Rock San Jose into a successful venture that now reaches nearly 170 students, the Delicaths have chosen to step away. Starting in March, School of Rock San Jose will become a corporate venture.
“It’s just a personal decision for us,” she says. “We’ve got three kids of our own, and for us, we feel it’s a natural breaking point. [The school is] something we can feel proud that we did and feel confident it’s going to carry on with the team we have here.”
Though ownership may be changing hands, she says the School of Rock intends to retain her current staff. That news is encouraging to London, who stresses how the developed connection between students and their instructors is at the heart of the school’s success. In that sense, the mark the Delicaths have left in five years of business will endure long after their absence.
“They’re the coolest group of people that I’ve ever had the chance to work with, because all of their motivations are really pure,” she concludes. “They want to pass on what someone gave to them, and they want to keep music alive.”
Though it was years before she’d take the stage, Emma Preston traces her first “performance” to a musical moment inside a car when she was five. “I cleared my throat, and everyone laughed,” she recalls. She informed everyone, to more laughs, that clearing her throat made her sing better. “I’ve been singing ever since,” she explains. Preston’s been studying voice and guitar since age eight and started at School of Rock San Jose two years ago. Now 17, she just began rehearsing for her sixth showcase at the school, a cycle based around the theme of protest rock, where she’ll be singing and playing rhythm guitar for Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black,” among other tunes.
“Up on stage, I can just be free and the person I want to show people but probably shouldn’t, because it’s loud and big and sassy,” states the Leigh High School senior, finishing that final thought with a hearty laugh.
“When you join a regular teenage band, someone has a setup in the garage, and that’s kind of where you exist,” she adds, “but here, I’ve played the State of the City address, Santana Row, Elk Grove—it’s a lot of fun.” Those performances also helped her land her latest gig: a former School of Rock member enjoyed her playing and asked her to play bass for the band Half Undressed.
Riley Towle’s first musical spark came thanks to children’s music group the Wiggles.
“I know, it’s kind of weird,” the sixteen-year-old Lincoln High School sophomore laughs. “I saw the drummer, and I told my parents I wanted a drum set for my birthday.” He had a new kit and signed up for lessons when he turned four, and he’s been taking individual lessons once a week ever since. But it was his first show with School of Rock San Jose that helped him see a path to a full-time career in music.
“It was this light bulb: this is how I’m going to take those steps and get to where I want to be,” he recalls. During his two years in the program, he branched out by learning to play guitar and bass. He even tried his hand at singing lead vocals.
Towle admits that School of Rock took him very far during his time with the program. He had just arrived at a point where he had to strike out on his own. “That was the next step: learning how to write music instead of just playing it,” he says. He’s been working out that goal on two fronts. There’s Crosswalk, his pop punk five-piece, and Cultbusters, an indie rock trio. The latter just released their debut, Stop Being So Dumb.
Written by Brandon E. Roos
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.2 “Sight & Sound”