Young musicians morph to seasoned rockstars

RVC School nurtures confidence on stage, in life


“Getting out and performing,” Katie Bacchi began softly, listing the highlights of her two years at Rockville Centre’s School of Rock. She paused in thought before her face lit up. “Stage diving,” she added.

Bacchi, 17, a senior at South Side High School who sings for the music school’s 10-member house band, said that before finding her role as a part-time rocker, it took a lot for her to talk to anyone.

“I thought I’d be a public speaker before I even went on stage and sung in front of a bunch of strangers, or jumped off a stage…,” she said. “The fact that I’ve come this far, and I’m just doing it like it’s nothing, has become like a lifestyle in some sense.”

Monica Rubin, owner and general manager of the Rockville Centre business, said this is the story of many of her students, who transform their timidity into undeniable confidence when they are given an instrument or microphone and an opportunity to perform in front of energized crowds.

“I have a front-row seat to all [of] their lives,” said Rubin, a former concert photographer who opened the school after seeing the effect it had on her son, Michael, now 18, who thrived at the Roslyn location. “It’s so funny, because I have one biological child, but whenever people ask me, ‘How many kids do you have?’ I go, ‘Well, I have 130 in Rockville Centre and about 50 in Huntington,’ and they’re like, ‘What?’”

The first School of Rock opened in 1998 in Philadelphia, and there are now nearly 200 locations around the world. Its method of performance-based music education was the basis for the 2003 movie with the same name, starring Jack Black and a colorful cast of youngsters who learned the art of rocking through an eccentric curriculum. Replace Black with house band co-directors Dylan Gross and Tom Diognardi and it isn’t much different.

About 25 of the roughly 130 students submitted audition videos for this season’s house band, which members named Trip Wire. After callbacks that included challenging live auditions, the school selected 10 of what Rubin described as the “hungriest” students for a group that operates like many of the rock bands it regularly covers.

After the auditions this spring, the hopefuls filed into Rubin’s office where they opened a note revealing whether they had earned a spot in the band.

“They all give you a really bad look, so you always think you’re not getting in,” said 14-year-old drummer Jack Viceconte, of Lynbrook, known around the school as Shades. “But then I read that [I] was actually in the house band. It was just a really fun moment.”

Fellow drummer Emily Bacchi, 13, Katie’s younger sister, came into the room shaking and began to cry, Rubin and Gross recalled. “From fear to this huge smile is unbelievable,” Gross said.

Not only did Emily want to play one last season in the band with Katie before her sister graduated from high school, but she also hoped to be surrounded again by what she called “a nice big happy family” at her “home away from home.”

“Everyone’s so loving to each other,” Emily said. “Nobody judges, nobody criticizes. … If you’re upset or angry, you can come here and take out your anger on the drum kit.”

Other members of Trip Wire include keyboardist and guitarist Sam Civil, 14, and bassist James Banding, 14, both of Ocean-side; singer Erika Isaacs, 16, of Bellmore; guitarist Ben Goldsmith, 11, of Merrick; guitarist Hayley Sottovia, 14, of Rockville Centre; singer Amber Cresser, 16, of Valley Stream; and bass player Jack McDonough, 13, of Levittown. Rubin’s dog, Wally, often found mingling excitedly around the school, is the group’s mascot.

Along with rehearsals every Friday, the group has been busy touring this summer, Rubin said, opening for bands and playing at charity events.

The most memorable show for many of the band members took place earlier this month at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, where they electrified an already-buzzing crowd with some of rock’s greatest hits. “We were just so pumped that day, and we put on an amazing show,” recalled Goldsmith, who played lead guitar that night on Boston’s “Piece of Mind,” one of his favorite tunes. “It was so sick.”

Since Goldsmith first heard the guitar solo in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which spurred his interest in the instrument, his father, Aaron, said he knew he needed to find a place for Ben to nurture his passion and skills. Now, he added, watching his son tackle advanced riffs in front of crowds is an incredible feeling.

“There’s the superficial side of being, like, that’s so cool, I wish I could do that,” Aaron said. “But there’s the much more satisfying side of it that he’s found what he loves.”

Isaacs recalled the band having “tricks up their sleeves” for the Knitting Factory performance, throwing glow sticks into the crowd during their cover of “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers. As they rocked out to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” Bacchi hopped off the stage to belt out the 1969 classic surrounded by an audience that jumped to the music.

Katie and Emily’s mother, Debra, noted that Katie was once “painfully shy” and wouldn’t even sing in front of her. But now her daughter’s alter ego takes over on stage, and watching her and her sister transform the way they have has been unexpected. “They blew our minds,” Debra said. “To see the evolution of the kids, them going from these shy young people into these confident outgoing folks, it’s really great.”

Rockville Centre’s School of Rock will celebrate its three-year anniversary on Sept. 5. Though it offers a cozy setting, which Rubin called a “clubhouse” that students can come to whenever they want, it forces them out of their comfort zones. Many might not become future touring musicians, Rubin explained, but they can use the self-assurance they gain in everyday life. “If you’re a lawyer, you’re in a courtroom, you’re on stage,” she said. “If you’re in a classroom, you’re on stage. In a boardroom, you’re on stage. No matter what you do in life, you’re always on stage.

“If we can start teaching them at a young age that confidence to be on stage, whether they’re holding a guitar or a notebook,” Rubin concluded, “then why not?”