Behind the scenes:  School of Rock

Photo by Gary Miller.


By Gary A. Miller

On the edge of the Eastgate Shopping Center in Chapel Hill sits a building with a large red star, which previously served as the location of the 501 Diner.  David Joseph ate at that restaurant when he moved to town in 1999.  No doubt at the time of that meal he did not know that his future involved setting up his own shop in that same space. Now, that red star building is home to his School of Rock (SOR) location, which celebrated its seven-year anniversary last month.

Just one year prior to Joseph’s relocation to Chapel Hill and that first visit to the 501 Diner, Paul Green founded the original School of Rock in Philadelphia in 1998. The original school inspired the movie of the same name, which starred Jack Black. Joseph opened his local edition of the franchise in 2017.

Joseph speaks with passion when he discusses the role SOR plays in the local music ecosystem. “The thing we do differently than a traditional music school is that we are doing rock and roll – performance-based and group-based,” he says. “The idea is for everyone to participate in a band and perform in a local venue.  There is such a social aspect to what we do – once the kids get involved, they are meeting kids that go to other schools or are from other counties, and it is a place where they can ‘find their tribe.”

He also feels that the SOR bands’ performances can be a boon to the local venues that host their concerts, noting that the SOR performances may bring the students and families of those students into those venues for the first time, hopefully turning them into repeat customers.

Justin Ellis serves as general manager and music director for SOR in Chapel Hill, and he thinks that the school also contributes to the local scene in other ways.  He notes that it is common for former SOR students to continue to perform and participate in local bands after their “graduation” from the bands at SOR.  But, more than that, it’s “great to see them become energetic and empathetic young people.  I love seeing them blossom into amazing people.”

As other musical forms, such as hip hop and EDM, have taken front-and-center in popular music, the school also serves as an onramp to the rock genre for many young people.  It is not uncommon for students at the school to have their own process of musical discovery.  Ellis enthuses, “Being part of their journey is super cool.  I don’t teach as much as I used to.  But, I loved it when a kid would come in and say, like “Justin, have you ever heard this band Led Zeppelin.” and I’m like, YES!”

It is an interesting conundrum for a music school to connect young people to music that has been outside the mainstream for most of the participants’ lifetimes. That is generally reflected in the themes of the performance programs of the school – with most focusing on bands and subgenres that existed before 2000.  Ellis notes when themes are chosen, there is always risk that the artist or category won’t resonate with the students.  He says “It’s a gamble.  But, we’ve found a good way to mitigate what works and doesn’t.”

Photo by Gary Miller.

The school generally offers six to seven themes in every four-month session and covers a wide spectrum of subgenres within the rock category. Ellis indicates that in addition to themes focused on specific artists or albums, they’ve done broad categories like “classic rock” and “alternative rock” and themes that highlight BIPOC representation, which focus on acts like Bruno Mars, Price, and Michael Jackson or Motown artists.

When asked how some of the themes with legacy acts resonate with the younger participants, both Ellis and Joseph are effusive in their comments.  Ellis says, “There are a lot of things that are just universal.  Generationally, there are a lot of shared ‘a ha moments’.”  Joseph agrees and extends the thought, “Every genre that has come since can be connected by things like chord structures and rhythms.  Kids end up appreciating things, even if it wasn’t their original preference.  It’s like food – you might not like it, but you won’t know until you try it.”

Joseph also points out that exposure to various acts and styles can lead to a fuller experience in life.  “I was exposed to a wide variety of music when growing up.  Immersion in different styles set me up to enjoy music for my entire life,” he says.  Depth and variety are certainly part of what the school provides – by the fall of 2024, the school will have offered more than 100 themes. 

Ellis points out that at any given time there are more than 350 students enrolled in SOR with 90 or so participating in the performance program, and while some are drawn to a particular theme, others are simply ongoing participants – around half are repeat participants.

While SOR is a music school where students learn skills on both the instrument and the stage, Joseph points out that it is just one part of what participants experience, emphasizing that they also learn about being part of a community, being on a team, being accountable, and more.  And he says that parents take notice of that. 

“There are a lot of young people in this world who may not be the star athlete or cheerleader, or the popular kid.  They may be more introverted or artistic.  They may have social anxiety or lack confidence.  Then they come to the school, where they learn how to share themselves musically and stand up on a stage with all the eyes looking at them.  They grow in confidence, musicianship, and social skills, and that’s not lost on parents,” he proudly notes.

Joseph ends our interview with a rather philosophical tone, but one that is altogether appropriate in a town that has long been associated with a thriving music community: “The value of music to the soul of a human can’t be overstated.” With that, we can hope that SOR helps Chapel Hill continue to be a source of interesting local music for decades to come.

Gary A. Miller is a local musician who has lived in the area off and on since 1994. Gary is a Realtor, an avid traveler, and a still-active musician in several local bands. This reporter can be reached at

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1 Comment on "Behind the scenes:  School of Rock"

  1. Since 1960 or so, it has been called EastGATE—!!!

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