Long Live Rock School

Hey kids! Dave Simon's music academy can transform you from a painfully shy teen to a guitar-slinging badass! Even your parents will approve!

Still, even a cursory look at the teenagers sprawled on the cheerfully mismatched furniture reveals that twenty years later, growing up still has a lot to do with Hughes-like categorizations.

For one thing, it's usually easy to tell what Simon's charges like to listen to by noting their fashion sense. Members of the coed sextet Royal Flush wear sunglasses in practice and onstage (Simon too, when he's pitching in to help), lending an aura of cool to their AC/DC and Weezer covers. Peek into the practice rooms and you'll get an earful of the jagged strains of the Clash's "Clash City Rockers" bashed out by a gangly teen sporting a mohawk, a faithful version of Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Going Down" sung by a punkish girl strumming a guitar plastered with band stickers, and kids in oversize Rush and Led Zeppelin shirts riffing on classic rock staples.

"When the kids come in and I meet them for the first time, I look at their clothes, their taste in music, their social skills," Simon affirms. "As an adult, I don't judge people — I don't really care. But as a kid? Man, it's everything. It's like: What are you? Are you a jock, are you a punk rocker, are you emo? It's a big deal, it's a big part of being a teenager: Where do you fit in? What category are you?

"That's something I just forgot — that kids are like that. It wasn't until I was around it again I was like, 'Oh right, they're really tuned into that!' They want to be so individual, but they need their categories. They can't take music at face value."

It's those elements, along with musical ability, that Simon considers when sorting his charges into bands (which typically comprise the traditional vox-guitar-bass-drums setup with the occasional keyboard thrown in). The outfits practice together weekly and eventually play shows around town, at Cicero's, Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, Mississippi Nights and (until it closed) the Hi-Pointe.

Beginners start off in what's known as Rock Band 101, graduate to a "concert band" and then — if they're "badass," as Simon jokes, though a rigorous skill assessment is more an indicator — earn the privilege of being placed in an all-star band. (The Junior Mints are about to collectively matriculate to all-star status as a group — a rarity at Simon's school.) Simon's matchmaking skills frequently lead to friendship and connection beyond music — especially after he made it a rule that anyone in eighth grade or lower couldn't be in a band that included teenagers. (Bullying was sometimes a problem for some of the younger kids, Simon explains, and in the mixed-ages bands "younger kids were always ignored by older kids, and younger kids damaged [older kids'] credibility.")

Rock School tuition varies — from $75 a month for half-hour weekly private lessons and free access to practice rooms to a $150 package that covers private lessons and participation in the band program (which adds 90 minutes a week of practice). The Stumpf family drives in 45 minutes from Illinois so Blake can sing with the Junior Mints and play guitar in a concert band. Other kids commute to Rock School from Wentzville and Cuba. Many of the teachers are members of local bands, like senior staffer Jordan Heimburger, who plays in Walkie Talkie U.S.A. and Red Eyed Driver; the vast majority of the ten-member faculty have rock band experience.

Yet for Marcy Magruder it was Dave Simon's infectious personality that immediately convinced her Rock School was the place for her thirteen-year-old son, Danny, to learn to play electric guitar.

"It's the marriage of [Simon's] love of music and the love of the kids," says Magruder. "It came through. It was tangible — you could feel it. He's such a positive person."

Simon's eyes do sparkle when he smiles and laughs — both of which he does often, in the guileless manner of a kid at his own birthday party. He's constantly in motion, whether shifting restlessly during conversation or flitting around like a hummingbird in order to hear a song better.

"Dave isn't your normal older person," says Junior Mints guitarist Henry Zimmerman. "He seems like he's twenty years younger. He'll always interact with us."

Adds Danny Magruder, "He's right there with you, instead of being, like, 'I'm a grown-up, nag, nag, nag.'"

Simon's wife of four years says it's not a put-on. "When kids tell jokes that are bad, David will actually laugh heartily," says Keri Simon. "I don't know anyone else like that. He's so transformed by their vulnerability of telling a joke, he can't help himself by not giving them that feedback.

"[There's] something he gets with interactions with kids," she goes on. "He glows. I really respect that type of passion. It's just how he lives, though."

Which is why, when Simon accidentally reaches out and speaks into his Starbucks cup instead of a microphone, causing Junior Mints bassist Claire Holohan to giggle, Simon laughs too and says, "Did you catch that? I'm, like, such a dork!"

Without missing a beat, Zimmerman shoots back: "Don't worry, Dave, when you're senile, I'll make sure your socks match."

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