What do you get when you combine a real estate developer mother, a daughter with a passion for music and a community of kids anxious to rock? In the case of Denise and Anne Dills, the answer is Western Illinois outposts for the much lauded School of Rock. This past April, the mother/daughter duo collaborated to bring the nationally acclaimed music program to both Elmhurst and Hinsdale. Denise Dills spoke with Our Town about the program’s importance and the evolving relevance of rock and roll.
Our Town Rock music has undergone a cultural shift; we used to try NOT to expose our children to it, now it’s viewed as a method of empowerment. What do you make of that?
Denise Dills There definitely has been a cultural shift. For baby boomers and the generations that followed rock music has been integral. A rock song can bring back a memory of a moment in one’s life, a cultural phenomenon or even the political mood of a certain time. This is reflected in the use of rock music in almost every new sports ad, car ad or political campaign. Rock music also crosses the generational divide in ways that nothing else can. It is really amazing to turn on the radio or television and hear rock from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that is still relevant and loved by kids and parents and even grandparents. I can’t think of another genre that so connects a wide range of ages. This is the reason that rock music is now viewed not as a negative influence but as an empowering and inspirational force.
OT Lately schools are cutting arts programs. Is the School of Rock a reaction to this trend?
DD It’s an unfortunate truth that schools have been forced to cut music and other art programs because of budgetary issues. We are not a reaction, but we try to be a partial remedy. We are pleased to be opening our Schools of Rock in communities that still have wonderful music programs and clearly value music education. We try to be a complement to these programs and partner with the school community in different ways to fund raise or provide another resources for kids to learn music that isn’t taught in band class.
OT How did you become involved with the School of Rock?
DD My daughter Anne has had a lifelong love of music and played the guitar while growing up. After business school, she went to work at the corporate offices of School of Rock in a finance role. She had the opportunity to go on the road to spend time in schools and was excited by what she saw. She asked me to come and visit some locations. What can I say? When you are in the schools and hear the music and see the excitement and camaraderie of the kids, it really is compelling. Her passion was to operate a School of Rock so she and I decided to become partners.
OT What is the organization’s mission?
DD The official mission statement is “Inspiring kids to rock on stage and in life.” We love being part of a company that goes beyond a business plan and aspires to be a force for social good. We also have our own more individualized mission. We want our students to have a fun, stimulating place to pursue their passion for rock. The middle school years can be painful for kids who can’t quite figure out where they fit. Not everyone is a gifted athlete or scholar but everyone enjoys music. When our kids become part of a band, they really feel like a valued part of a team. All School of Rock kids get to feel “cool” and accepted for who they are.
OT How do you go about choosing locations?
DD One of the things I love about the School of Rock business model is that each school is unique in look and vibe. We try to let the building we choose steer the direction we go with the style and atmosphere. For example, the Naperville school is in a folksy, vintage house so we went with a homey, Woodstock feel. The Elmhurst school is in a 1960’s brick commercial building, so we immediately thought, punk rock, industrial style with exposed steel beams and factory lighting. The other factors that enter into choosing a location are that we want to be part of a community. So we try to find a spot in the town’s downtown that has been empty or is tough to fill. There is a great synergy with our business and other small shops and restaurants in the downtown. Parents drop off their child for a lesson or rehearsal and then can shop, grab a coffee or a meal. It brings families into the downtown after school and in the evenings. We want to be a part of the revitalization of our small business community wherever we are.
OT What’s it like working as a mother/daughter team?
DD One of the best experiences of my life. It is so much fun to have a vision and to build something together. Anne is a wonderful partner and our skill sets are very different but complement one another. When we are at a School of Rock show together, standing at the foot of the stage, watching the faces of the kids and seeing the transformation in their confidence and just the sheer joy in the music, it is awe inspiring. Almost every time, it bring tears to both our eyes and we just look at one another and know this is why we do this. It is such a privilege to live your dream and to help kids live theirs. For myself, I can say that whatever level of success this business achieves, it has already exceeded expectations on the emotional level.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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