Parents statewide are either praising or cursing Marty Fort, founder of the Columbia Rock Academy. A school that teaches the art of rock 'n' roll is, on one hand, probably the source of headaches for parents who must endure the squawks and squeals of electric guitar as their child practices the nuances of "Smoke on the Water." On the other hand, the school is plucking aspiring Eddie Van Halens out of their parents' garages and into the classroom, where they learn the ins and outs of riffs, licks, and rhythms.
The academy, which held its debut performance concert last month, gets its students onto the stage performing in age- and skill-level-appropriate bands in front of audiences in downtown Columbia restaurant venues. Fort says performance and consistent instruction are paramount for budding rock stars. Conversely, lack of direction and focus are the cause of many young bands' break-ups.
"If people know they have to perform, they're going to practice three times as hard," says Fort, who holds a degree in classical music and is an adjunct professor at USC-Spartanburg. "We're really raising the bar for studying rock music. These students take their instruments more seriously because they have direction and focus."
The Columbia Rock Academy, which boasts a student body comprised of fledgling musicians from around the state, opens on the heels of a national trend spurred by the Jack Black movie, School of Rock. A major difference between the academy and the movie, Fort is quick to point out, is that while the movie trashes the teaching of classical and jazz music, the Columbia Rock Academy encourages students to learn as many types of music as possible.
"As music teachers, we have a responsibility to expose students to all kinds of music, because in order to be successful, modern musicians have to be well-rounded," says Fort, who recently has performed country, rock, and classical shows. "The more types of music you can play, the more opportunities you'll have as a musician."
Of course, not everyone agrees that rock 'n' roll belongs in academia. Fort says in his experience, professors at most colleges and universities do not take rock seriously as a music style worth studying.
Steve Rosenberg, head of the College of Charleston's music department, says while he believes there is academic merit in the study of all musical styles, he's not sure it is necessary to formally study folk or traditional music, including rock.
"Normally music that is passed on by oral tradition is learned in an informal setting," Rosenberg says. "If you would do a survey of the prominent [rock] musicians, my belief is they did not have formal training. However, more and more instrumentalists are getting serious training in schools such as the Berklee School of Music in Boston."
While CofC doesn't currently offer classes in rock, students interested in performing rock can study theory and composition at the college and many study jazz guitar with adjunct professor and local musician Lee Barbour (also of Gradual Lean and the Cary Ann Hearst Band).
Fort predicts that in the near future, the validity of a formal study of rock will be accepted at more colleges and universities. In addition, he hopes to see a reemergence of serious rock as popular music.
"The musicianship and songwriting in the '70s and even the '80s was lot higher than it is today," he says. "Today's major music labels have really stunted the artist development, but kids are starting to go back to classic rock. Once the labels finally look at the bigger picture and stop looking for the flash-in-the-pan artists, there will be a resurgence of that higher level of musicianship."
Now that's music to anyone's ears.
For more on the Rock Academy, log on to www.columbiarockacademy.com.