'School of Rock' brought to life in Oviedo

Kids learn to rock a stage with the School of Rock program that teaches kids to play instruments, then puts them in real rock and roll shows to get experience in front of live audiences.

Kids learn to rock a stage with the School of Rock program that teaches kids to play instruments, then puts them in real rock and roll shows to get experience in front of live audiences.

Allison Olcsvay

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The young musicians flash fleeting grins at parents and friends as they nervously walk on stage, some of them for the very first time.

Above them, portraits of rock and blues legends Eric Clapton, BB King, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix seem to look on, as lovingly as the proud parents in the crowd.

A few last fidgets with strings and sticks and suddenly the drummer is counting them down to the first song. It’s showtime.

The band members settle into the rhythm and seem to find their groove, finally letting loose relaxed smiles and showing their excitement of performing on stage.

The students at Oviedo’s School of Rock have been working toward this very performance for the past three months. They met with their instructor once a week for 45-minute private lessons and they spent two-and-a-half hours a week practicing together as a performance band.

This season they performed the classic rock hits of KISS and Led Zeppelin, much to the delight of the dads in the audience who could be seen singing along on many of the tunes.

“It took me a while to get comfortable on stage,” said 15-year-old guitarist Athena Hagerman. “I really like the feedback I get from the crowd though.”

“When I perform, I feel really nervous, excited, happy and alive,” she said.

The gratification of performing on the big stage with everyone counting on you is what helps the students stay motivated to learn, School of Rock director Wes Simmons said.

At the school, working musicians teach a mix of classic rock, blues, funk, reggae and R&B to students, ages 7 to 18.

“A lot of research goes into what we teach,” Simmons said. “We try to go back to the bands that started it all historically.”

“Our performance-based approach provides an accelerated music education,” he said. “It gives them incentive to learn and practice because they are committed to their group and the performance.”

Some kids, like 11-year-old guitarist Hunter Heusel, seem born to be on the stage.

“I love the thrill of it!” he said.

“When we found out all the school had to offer, I just couldn’t say no,” Hunter’s mom, Dayna Heusel said.

Other students like Athena needed a little push from mom and dad to get on stage before they realized how much they liked it.

“Athena was shy and a perfectionist,” said her mom Victoria Hagerman.

“We had to push her a little to get her up there, but we felt it would be a good experience for her,” she said.

15-year-old Athena is an honor student at Lake Howell High School who dreams of becoming a physicist one day.

Athena’s only problem is she studies too much, her mom said jokingly.

“This has brought out her self-confidence and she’s made a lot of friends from other schools,” said her mom.

“It’s made me open up more, become more confident talking to people. I am much happier now,” Athena said, moments before going on stage and rocking out her Led Zeppelin set.

Every season concludes with the final performance for family and friends, but instead of taking the stage at school or church, these kids take their first major performance step into the spotlight at BB King’s Blues Club.

Those who really excel are offered an audition for the School of Rock All-Star performance groups. Those who are accepted do regional tours, sometimes performing during Vans’ Warped Tour or even Lollapalooza.

“The most important thing though,” Simmons said “is that they are meeting other like-minded kids, learning together and from each other and gaining not only a skill but confidence.”

It’s not too late to sign up for next season said Simmons, “We still have parts for our performances of Jimi Hendrix and Queen this spring and not just for guitar, we also teach bass, drums, keys and vocals.”

“No other school is like this,” said Dayna Heusel. “[Hunter] has learned more here in two months than he learned in the last year at another place.”