As we’ve examined before, music has a knack for bringing people together. Often this happens with bands – duos, trios, quartets, or groups with even more members.
But what about bringing hundreds of folks together? That’s may seem outlandish to think about during this pandemic we’re all living through, but it’s still possible.
Located on 1802 Broad St. in Cranston, the You Rock School of Music is accomplishing this through online courses, socially distanced lessons and isolated band practice. It’s the kind of adaptation that enables a community to continue to flourish while experiencing the joy and fulfillment that come with learning how to play various instruments.
I recently had an in-depth conversation with owner and operator Sean P. Rogan about what made him want to start the school, being a professional skydiver, his love of teaching and wanting to make music a bigger part of people’s lives.
ROB DUGUAY: First off, what made you want to start the You Rock School of Music?
SEAN P. ROGAN: It kind of goes back to high school. When I was 15, I had recently gotten into Led Zeppelin and discovered rock ‘n’ roll. I started playing the trumpet, which I didn’t really like, but I knew I liked music. I got a Led Zeppelin box set for Christmas that year and at dinner that night I was banging on the table and my aunt said to me, I remember it in slow motion, “Why won’t you play drums?” I said, “I can’t, my friend Ben plays drums.” And he’s currently one of our instructors at the school.
Then she asked, “Why don’t you play guitar?” And I asked my parents if I could play guitar and they said, “Yeah, of course you can play guitar.” As soon as I started playing guitar I had the music director at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick during my freshman year teaching me. I originally went there to play baseball but I didn’t make the baseball team. Everything switched when I started focusing on guitar. Thank God I didn’t make the team because if I did I wouldn’t have been able to dedicate my life to music. The teachers I had along the way, including Rich Price at Bishop Hendricken, helped out a lot.
I then went to Pilgrim High School in the same city right after my freshman year because I didn’t like Hendricken. It just wasn’t for me and I wanted to be with my friends, so I went to Pilgrim and I had a great band director over there named Chris Pratt and I’m still in contact with him. I also had a guitar teacher named Rick DiRocco at the time and these guys know so much, so I absorbed all of the knowledge I could get. I wanted to be one of the people who made them feel as good as they made me feel. Afterwards, I went to the Berklee College of Music because I wanted to make friends, start a band and tour.
I ended up joining up with some friends to start a ska-punk band called Big D & The Kids Table. It was a dream that we all achieved that I’m still psyched about. My other dream I achieved there was getting my degree in music education because I’ve always wanted to teach. I never wanted to be a band director because I’d rather do guitar stuff and rock band stuff. I was in Big D for 15 years and I loved every second of it. We played over 1,000 shows, we toured and we just did so many cool things. Then I met my wife and I began not wanting to be on the road as much, and we were on the road all of the time.
I wanted to start a family and get married and there’s nothing stronger than love. Nobody can really argue that, so I decided to leave the band and stay home. I then became a professional skydiver in Lebanon, Maine, while taking pictures and videos of people jumping out of a plane. It was one of the coolest jobs I could imagine having and I worked really hard to get it. After a couple years of doing that, I broke my foot so my income stopped. I began to learn how to make money teaching guitar through a few mentors and I eventually started my own music school with You Rock School of Music.
One of my skydiving mentors would always end his emails with “you rock,” and it’s such a nice thing to say to somebody. Now I sign all of my emails, I end my Zoom chats and I even have a gif of it I use in texts. That’s why I started the school, I needed the income and I went down the rabbit hole of finding my purpose in life and how I can help the world. It’s coming up on 10 years now I’ve been running the school.
RD: That’s a great story, Sean. It’s cool that you got to be a professional skydiver, I’ve never heard of anybody getting to do that. Going back to you earning your degree in music education at Berklee, a lot of people know the college from its concentration on jazz, classical and traditional folk music. Taking that education and experience and transitioning it to a kid who is a big fan of classic rock, alternative or modern pop, how do you go about doing that?
SPR: I actually did study a lot of rock music at Berklee. I had classes where we would analyze Beatles tunes and classic rock, I was not limited to classical and jazz. I’ve certainly had my mind blown from listening to some jazz and I kind of forced myself to get into it. I have a deep appreciation for jazz but it doesn’t hit me the way rock music does, I have an emotional attachment to it. I love reggae just as much as rock. I love reggae and ska music and I really feel that.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter the genre you’re making because the principles of music are the same. You can write a ska song or you can write a jazz song, there are specifics to each style which includes rhythms, beats and chord changes, but we definitely explored all types of music at Berklee. One of the coolest things about that school is that it has the most diverse population of any school in the world. There’s students from hundreds of countries and it was just so amazing to jam with somebody from Africa, Brazil or Connecticut with us all being on the same page. That was a very cool part about Berklee, I really value the time I spent there.
At You Rock, we teach kids, teens and adults. What I’ve learned from my time at Berklee was equally as valuable as what I’ve learned during the past 10 years of studying yoga. I have a yoga instructor and the way she teaches us how to move our bodies I started putting that into my guitar teaching. If you’re able to describe a physical movement in exact detail without the motion, it’s easier to learn. I’ve had a lot of experience as a camp counselor through YMCA summer camps and the Boy Scouts, which I loved growing up.
I’ve never lost sight of the fact that if it’s not fun then you’re not going to do it. If you keep it fun while making people feel immensely valued, you can learn the giant umbrella of music and then go down the more niche of whatever your heart and soul is taking you. You can learn EDM as much as bluegrass and you can even mash them together to see what you get. Our mission statement is that we want to make music a bigger part of people’s lives. That can be super big like the way I got into it and the way our staff is into it, which we can perform and teach every instrument, or it can be something more leisurely.
RD: How much has COVID-19 affected the way the school operates? Have you gone completely online because of the pandemic or do you still do in-person teaching but in organized appointments?
SPR: It’s affected us immensely and as any other business, if you don’t adapt you die. Look at Toys R Us, that was the coolest place in the world and it’s not there anymore because they didn’t adapt. We have people between 30 and 60 minutes a week who are at home most of the time playing and learning. At the beginning of it back in March, I got on it immediately. If you’re stuck in your house without a guitar or a drumset or a piano, then you’re going to be sad.
I’m trying to make the world a better place through learning how to make music, and what better time than now to do it? Obviously there’s a lot of terrible things happening, but the fact that we’ve been given time for something that we need and crave as humans is a silver lining. Every single culture has music, it’s not an elitist activity like skydiving or glassblowing. We all need love, we all need clothing and we all need music like we need water and nutrition. All of those things come in many forms but I’ve never met a parent that doesn’t want music for their child.
We empower people to play music and before they know it they’re jammin’. It only takes a few hours to learn the basics of a guitar and you could be learning a song day one. It really has been an inspiring business to run, I’m so in love with it. And it’s my whole life, my community and my family. My daughter even plays.
RD: You’ve mentioned earlier about being a founding member of Big D & The Kids Table, and you were with the band full-time until 2009. What would you say is your proudest moment of being in the band?
SPR: There are so many moments. My first two goals were to randomly hear myself on the radio while driving, which I’ve experienced at multiple times in multiple cities and it’s fucking amazing. It’s an incredible feeling and I feel quite emotional thinking about it. I’ve gotten to experience it multiple times, and the other goal was to play at the Hatch Shell in Boston, which is an amazing venue on the Charles River … It’s so cool what we can do with music. With venues being closed, we have to adapt. Let’s live stream, let’s make recordings. Actually, we just opened a recording studio called You Rock Studios in our basement so we can take our students to the next phase after they write their own songs.
RD: That’s awesome.
SPR: We’re also transitioning to an awesome setup for live streaming and just being creative, which we need to still be.
RD: As the owner and operator of the You Rock School of Music, what do you think is the most positive aspect of joining up with the school?
SPR: I would say it’s our community, to be honest. It’s great, and I think the other thing is the results. We keep it simple while telling you to put your fingers in a certain spot and playing it to a beat. We teach the fundamentals of music so it can sound like music rather than just noise and people can learn that in a short time. We have over 500 students, but with us adapting to online we can teach anyone in the world now, but our community is physical. We’ve adjusted all of our rooms and our spaces so we can have socially distant practices.
Through the recording studio, we can give people a product. It can be a really cool video of people playing live, which not a lot of bands are doing because of COVID-19. It’ll be a really amazing experience, but we have this live music itch. I haven’t been to a show in a while, but when I’m in the studio it goes away because I’m accessing that part of my brain, my mind and my body when I’m playing. It’s a really fun place to hang out and be a part of. To learn more about You Rock School of Music, follow its Facebook page or visit yourockschoolofmusic.com.
CREATIVE COMMUNITY: Teachers and students gather in front of You Rock School of Music in Cranston’s Edgewood neighborhood. (Courtesy of You Rock School of Music)