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San Juan’s Los Rios Rock School teaches local kids the language of music

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Photos and text by Allison Jarrell

Forget what you know about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

The band’s critically acclaimed eleventh album, which was largely recorded in California, is getting a serious makeover in the heart of San Juan Capistrano. And I’m here to tell you—these young musicians aren’t messing around.

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of students gathered for a rehearsal in the lobby of the Los Rios Rock School, tucked back in an unassuming business plaza off Del Obispo Street. There’s one instructor and 20 or so kids. And although I’ve been witness to some of the astounding performances these students have put on in the past, I didn’t know what to expect.

From the first seconds of Buckingham’s “Second Hand News” to the last haunting notes of “Gold Dust Woman,” I was stunned.

Did the songs have that much energy on the original record?

The airy harmonies in “Dreams” and “The Chain” will give you goosebumps. Fifteen-year-old Seth Whiteaker, of Laguna Hills, made the acoustic guitar picking in “Never Going Back Again” look like a breeze. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the sophisticated crooning of 14-year-old Austin Jenner, of Dana Point, during his rendition of “Songbird.”

Sean Fitzgerald, 16, of Laguna Niguel, rehearses a song from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on a recent Saturday. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Sean Fitzgerald, 16, of Laguna Niguel, rehearses a song from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on a recent Saturday. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Instructor Justin Norman rocked out with the students for most of the songs, adding minor critiques here and there, but mainly looking like a guitarist who was thoroughly enjoying a Saturday morning jam session.

“They’re good right?” Norman said with a grin as he jumped off the stage.

Good is an understatement.

The young rockers I watched are just one group of the nearly 200 students from all over South Orange County who are pursuing their dreams with the guidance of expert instructors at Los Rios Rock School.

The students make it look easy, but growing this miniature music empire in San Juan has been no simple feat. Rock school founder and co-owner Tyler Marolf will tell you that it took a lot of sacrifice from him and his wife, Melissa. It took drive, persistence and the ability to turn connections into a dream team of professional musicians. During a time of financial uncertainty, the Marolfs put everything they had into the school, and the risk paid off.

Perhaps Stevie Nicks summed it up best—thunder only happens when it’s raining.

A Dream on Los Rios Street

It’s been said that music is energy. If that’s true, then Marolf has enough music in him to power at least 10 rock schools. The 41-year-old musician-turned-entrepreneur of Los Rios Rock School has an infectious optimism and passion for all things music. Talk to Marolf for a few minutes, and you’ll find yourself wanting to pick up the nearest instrument and give it a go.

Tyler Marolf and his wife, Melissa, with their two children, Raylan and Zella May. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Tyler Marolf and his wife, Melissa, with their two children, Raylan and Zella May. Photo: Allison Jarrell

A native Iowan, Marolf moved to San Juan Capistrano in 1988. He went to Marco Forster Middle School, and grew up not too far from where he and his family live now, in the Los Rios Historic District.

After moving away for a bit, Marolf has called San Juan home since 2005, and it was only a few years later that he decided to take a chance and pursue music as a profession. Marolf, his friend, drummer Chris Bates, and a couple other musicians started up a band—The In Between.

Marolf said the move to pursue music came after the recession hit. He had been in the mortgage industry and made the decision to live off of savings for a bit while writing an album. He said his band had decent success, but not enough, and he wanted to find a way to stay in the music business. And he really wanted to write a second album.

So in 2010, he obtained an in-home business license and took on his first music student, drummer Mary LeBlanc—who, Marolf noted, is still a part of the school and now a professional drummer. The rock school gained momentum, growing quickly in Marolf’s Lobo Street home over the following 18 months. The lessons and rehearsals didn’t always sit well with some neighbors, Marolf noted.

“All I was trying to do was write a second album. And I haven’t written it yet. It’s been seven years,” he laughed. “The kids showed so much promise and learned so fast and it was so much fun. And I thought, this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Learning the Language

Olivia McHenry, 13, of Laguna Niguel, practices her vocals for an upcoming show with instructor Erin Blagdon on piano. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Olivia McHenry, 13, of Laguna Niguel, practices her vocals for an upcoming show with instructor Erin Blagdon on piano. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Los Rios Rock School officially opened its doors off of Paseo Adelanto in 2012 with what can only be described as the most rock and roll ribbon cutting San Juan has ever seen. Since then, the school has grown from one student and Marolf as the sole instructor, to nine faculty members and nearly 200 students from across South Orange County.

Students enrolled in the private, tuition-based school have access to weekly hour-long private lessons, professional gear, group rehearsals, and can audition to be a part of the school’s live shows. The young musicians can also learn about songwriting, recording and even take AP music theory courses.

Marolf said since its inception, students have performed more than 1,000 songs, and most kids stay for an average of three and a half years. Patrons of the Coach House or the House of Blues may have noticed that the rock school often has weekend-long performances at such venues, pulling crowds just as large as national acts. Advanced groups get to perform songs of their choosing during shows, and recently the school has started performing classic rock albums from start to finish, including The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” Queen’s “A Day at the Races,” and coming up next month: Fleetwood Mac and Van Halen.

“I had no idea it would get this big, or that the culture was going to exceed any one of its parts,” Marolf said. “I thought I was going to be teaching 30 students until I died!”

Rather than teaching nonstop and running the school for 70+ hours a week, it was Marolf’s bandmate and rock school co-owner Chris Bates, who convinced him to start delegating responsibilities. Marolf brought on a team of professional musicians, all of whom have degrees in music and can play multiple instruments.

Logan Seifres, 18, of Coto de Caza, practices the bass part of “Stray Cat Strut” with instructor Justin Norman. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Logan Seifres, 18, of Coto de Caza, practices the bass part of “Stray Cat Strut” with instructor Justin Norman. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Last summer, the rock school became Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accredited with guidance from curriculum director Dr. Clint Haycraft. Earlier this month, Marolf signed the school’s very first transcript.

Haycraft teaches music theory and songwriting, as well as individual lessons, and said the school is continuing to make positive strides in the way of curriculum, including corresponding with the Capistrano Unified School District and working on getting their classes to count for school credit.

“My hope is that these kids come here, and they have a great experience playing on stage and getting to know each other, but that they also take something with them,” Haycraft said. “That they don’t just leave here and say, ‘That was really fun playing those covers at the rock school.’ I want them to say, ‘Okay, now I’ll be able to do music for the rest of my life.’”

Spencer Askin, the school’s program director, said hiring passionate musicians has been especially important to him during his five-year tenure at the school. Askin is currently recording in the studio with his own band, in addition to teaching students a variety of instruments. He said all of the school’s teachers can often be found in the studio or gigging around town.

“Growing up and taking guitar and voice lessons, I learned from some amazing teachers, but I also saw some teachers who don’t have that fire, they’re not actively pursuing music,” Askin said. “Students who want to be musicians themselves get really inspired when they see their teachers and their mentors doing what they want to be doing.”

The passion and experience that Haycraft, Askin, and all of the school’s teachers utilize during their lessons seems to be paying off, according to 17-year-old singer Sophie Martin of Mission Viejo.

“You’re surrounded by a bunch of people who all have the same dream as you and the same interests, and it’s not only a learning environment, but it’s like your second home,” Martin said. “I love them so much. You’re doing what you love with them, which makes it really special. I never thought there could be a place like this.”

Fourteen-year-old Kade McKelvie of Aliso Viejo agreed, saying it’s not just the music that attracted him to the program, it’s the whole community.

“We’re all really good friends, and everyone is really supportive,” McKelvie said. “I started off very timid, and now I’m very loud and expressive on the drum set. I have my own style now when I play.”

(From right) Jordan McFadden, of Dana Point, Alex Oliver, of Aliso Viejo, and Taylor Hopper, of San Clemente, perform a song off of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Photo: Allison Jarrell
(From right) Jordan McFadden, of Dana Point, Alex Oliver, of Aliso Viejo, and Taylor Hopper, of San Clemente, perform a song off of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Photo: Allison Jarrell

“I think I speak for a few of the teachers when I say, we all kind of wish we had something like this when we were kids,” said instructor Justin Norman. “What’s really neat, is that a lot of the kids, they take this seriously here when they’re performing, but then a lot of them start bands outside. It’s one big network here. And that’s ultimately the end goal, that these kids take our love of music and they run with it. It’s just going to be really interesting to see in the next five, ten years how much bigger it gets.”

Many of the teachers credited the school’s success to Marolf creating a safe, supportive environment, and for truly listening to what the kids want.

“From day one, I’ve never seen him treat a kid like a kid,” Bates said. “He immediately connects with them, and gets them to raise their bar. He treats them with the respect he believes they deserve.”

“There was a period of my life, from eight to 14, when no one was listening to me. So you find people who will, and those aren’t the best people sometimes,” Marolf said. “That’s why our culture here in the school is so adamant about listening to kids.

“The wisdom thing happens fast if you just believe in them,” he said.

Bringing Music to the Masses

Tyler Marolf, founder and CEO of Los Rios Rock School, and his business partner Chris Bates, co-owner and COO of the rock school, opened Teacher Zone two years ago in San Juan Capistrano. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Tyler Marolf, founder and CEO of Los Rios Rock School, and his business partner Chris Bates, co-owner and COO of the rock school, opened Teacher Zone two years ago in San Juan Capistrano. Photo: Allison Jarrell

In addition to growing the rock school, Marolf and Bates have been working for a couple years now on their new company, Teacher Zone, which is also based in San Juan. Together, with their knowledge of music and Bates’ previous experience in software, they created teacherzone.com, a learning management system designed by music schools, for music schools.

They kicked off the effort by cold calling over 4,000 schools in a 10-month period, asking them what they’d look for in music school management software.

A team of seven developers helped create the Teacher Zone software, which today is being tested by more than 8,000 students in 52 schools across 24 states. With the program, schools and teachers can curate their own content, manage communications and schedules, and handle billing and attendance. Teachers can even record video assignments for students, who can then play them back and work on their technique by slowing the video down or looping difficult sections.

“They don’t have to do what we do, but what they get is Chris and Tyler’s music school business strategy coaching,” Marolf said. He noted that a lot of schools showed interest in learning about a range of subjects, from managing security and building community to booking shows and hiring employees.

Bates said their goal over the next five years is to get the program out to two million students. Eventually, the duo said they’d like to begin curating content for public schools, and maybe one day even be able to provide the software for free to schools around the world that can’t afford to purchase it.

“We believe that music is the most powerful language on earth,” Bates said. “Everybody should speak it.”

For more information on Los Rios Rock School or upcoming shows, call 949.456.1081, visit www.losriosrockschool.com or follow the school on Facebook: @losriosrockschool

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