Riverhead is ready to rock!
Following an open house last Saturday, Downtown Riverhead’s new School of Rock, located at 212 West Main Street, has welcomed its first students. The educational chain with more than 300 academies nationwide teaches children, teenagers and adults the fundamentals of rocking out, from practicing songs to performing in front of audiences.
North Forkers may be familiar with School of Rock, not only from the popular 2003 film of the same name — which the actual school predates — but also from its Port Jefferson location, whose students have rocked many stages including those at Patchogue’s 89 North, Katie’s of Smithtown and The Suffolk in Riverhead. The Port Jefferson and Riverhead schools are both owned by Tracie and Jamie Smith.
School of Rock offers an array of programs for students of varying ages and the option to either stick to weekly 45-minute one-on-one lessons, or pair those with group rehearsals in its signature performance program, which sees students ages 8 to 18 play together live as a band. In this program, students learn and hone their technical prowess and comprehension of musical concepts related to the songs they will be performing during their weekly one-on-one lessons. With each spring, summer and fall School of Rock semester, students learn a themed repertoire to build their setlists, which vary from school to school. Starting Feb. 6, Riverhead students will learn a “Best of the ’90s” setlist boasting popular tracks by Nirvana and Foo Fighters, heavy hits like Pantera’s “Walk” and catchy rockers such as Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”
“We have a song-first approach to music education,” says Justin Smith, the couple’s oldest of two sons and the general manager of the Riverhead school. “From there, we then train the students to branch out into more difficult music. We try to challenge them musically with different genres … We then teach them music theory, ear training, how to read sheet music, which a lot of parents are concerned about [for getting into] most music schools. That is definitely a part of our core element.”
While the education is more comprehensive than the name “School of Rock” may let on, students who would rather stick to rocking out are merely encouraged, not forced, to learn to read sheet music and become fluent in music theory mumbo jumbo.
For the Smiths, rock ‘n’ roll is a family business, despite the fact that Tracie and Jamie, parents to musically inclined sons, can’t play a note themselves. After Justin began learning to play the bass and younger son Harry took up the drums at the School of Rock in Melville nearly two decades ago, Tracie was given the chance to transition from proud mom to successful franchisee.
“I was that crazy mom head banging in the front row,” Tracie says. “The owner at that time came over to me and [offered me a job] … I kind of just grew with the company. I started out just helping them out at the front desk in Port Washington and I became the manager. Then I became a regional manager and I was training people. I was helping them sell franchises for a while, so basically I worked for the corporation. Then as soon as the franchise opportunity became available on Long Island, my husband and I branched out and became franchise owners.”
The parents saw the chance to own their own school as a two-fold opportunity.
“When we first got started we thought this was a perfect opportunity and a perfect fallback for our kids,” Tracie says. “This way they can they can pursue music, they can really go for the gusto in their field, and [they would] always have this business and. It also gave us the opportunity to participate in their field. Us not being musicians, it kind of helps us to connect with them a little bit more.”
The couple purchased the rights to open a school on Long Island’s East End back in 2020. They decided to open in Riverhead, where they are one of two other Main Street establishments which offer music lessons — East End Arts and Music & Arts — due to its central location. As Jamie puts it, “all roads lead to Riverhead.”
Justin and Harry are currently both advancing in their fields and joining their parents on the educational front. While helming the Riverhead School of Rock as its general manager, Justin, a Juilliard graduate, also works as a substitute player for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera House. Harry, who recently graduated New York University where he studied jazz drumming, teaches drums at both his parents’ Schools of Rock. The brothers participated in School of Rock’s All Star program, through which the top students from all the franchise’s locations throughout the nation are rounded up and sent on the road for touring and performing at various festivals. Separately, both brothers opened for the rock outfit Jane’s Addiction.
It was through group rehearsals and performances, Justin says, that he learned more than just how to play music.
“I think social awareness amongst colleagues was one thing that I really lacked when I was in school, and when I came to the School of Rock, I really did find a social group where I was able to flourish and find myself and also find a passion amongst friends,” he says. “I would never would have had that if I did not have the school because that really brings the community together, it makes you want to practice more … I learned a certain work ethic that’s required because we have songs that are given out to students individually, where the director will tell you, ‘you need to learn these four songs in this month, otherwise the show won’t go on.'”
The students from the Smiths’ Port Jefferson school will rock The Suffolk on Sunday, Jan. 28. The couple says anyone who visits their Riverhead location before then can pick up free tickets for the performance. The Riverhead academy will host another open house on Saturday, Feb. 3.