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The Rock Underground rolling with the pandemic punches

Iconic music school celebrates 10-year anniversary

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It’s been 10 years since lifelong musician Paul Casanova — armed with a roll of painter’s tape — mapped out the blueprint for a music school in an empty 2,500-square-foot storefront in Bellmore Village, but the Rock Underground’s fiery logo and “Dazed and Confused” décor clearly suggests that it “isn’t your typical music school,” Juliette Kealy said.

At 10, Kealy signed up for piano lessons at the Rock, and within a month she wanted to learn how to play guitar and drums, too. “Once you start going here, you pick up every instrument,” she said. “It’s just that type of environment.”

Now, at 21, Kealy and other longtime students are becoming the teachers at the music school, setting a tone to keep it rocking for the next 10 years.

The Rock’s rumblings

Casanova was a former music director at the School of Rock in Port Washington, but when the company went corporate in 2010, he decided to open his own school. Having worn many hats in the music industry — including booking many now famous bands  such as SoundGarden, Nine Inch Nails,  A Tribe Called Quest and for the CMJ Music & Media Conference in New York City, writing a song for the platinum-selling soundtrack for the cult movie classic  "Empire Records" and touring as guitarist for Gloria Gaynor — he was inspired to pursue music education.

“The path to succeeding in this industry isn't necessarily a straight one, and I had the opportunity to show the generation behind me that it can be . . . ever-changing and evolving," Casanova said. "You have to be versatile."

Steve Eplan, of Merrick, showed Casanova the Bedford Avenue space 10 years ago. He recalled that before the Rock Underground opened, kids would enter through the back entrance for lessons, since the front doors were still locked.

“I call that first group of students ‘The Militia’,” Casanova said with a smile. “We were rising up against corporate interests to create our own body of music.”

The school offers programs for students of all ages, including a rock performance program for adults. Through monthly memberships, students can either take lessons, join one of the Rock Underground’s bands or both. In addition to live concerts, students also provide entertainment at the annual Bellmore Street Festival.

"We take the windows off of our school and schedule multiple ensembles to perform," including a presentation of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" on the festvial's mainstage with a cast of veteran students,  Casanova said. “It’s like our Woodstock weekend.”

Covid hits a chord

The Chamber of Commerce of the Bellmores canceled this year’s festival, citing Covid-19 health and safety concerns, but the event wasn’t the only thing impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The school lost nearly 70 percent of its students during the crisis, and Casanova had to cut the space in half to save money on rent, he said. To comply with state guidelines, performance-based programs were put on hold and music lessons were moved online.   

As the school prepared to reopen, Casanova said a small army of students who lived much of their entire lives through the Rock Underground returned to help rebuild in time for the 10th anniversary.

Kealy said she and fellow student-turned-teacher Thomas Stoerger, of Bellmore, will soon teach music to a group of 5- and 6-year-olds in the same studios they learned in. “I took [the downsizing] as an opportunity to give this place life again,” she said. “You’re not just teaching kids music — you’re building a community.”

As Kealy grew up within the soundproof walls of the Rock Underground, she forged lasting friendships with fellow students after lessons ended or during late-night jam sessions, she said. “We were so lucky to have this place, and I want kids to have the same experience that I did.”

Adjusting to a different tune

The Rock Underground also has locations in Massapequa, Patchogue, Commack and Greenwood Lake, and while the pandemic has hit the live music industry particularly hard, Eplan is convinced the school will “explode again” once it passes.

Casanova added that being a member of Gaynor's touring band and — and performing an anthem of revival, hope and empowerment around the world to legions — he adopted the mantra "I Will Survive" when re-envisioning the Rock Underground's next decade. 

“Being a musician, and being inspired and motivated, is a gift,” Casanova added. “To see [my students] come back 10 years later, saying they’re not going to let it go, makes us ready to launch into what will hopefully be the next 10 years.”

The Rock Underground is at 300 Bedford Ave. in Bellmore. For more information, call (516) 221-7625 or visit www.rockundergroundmusic.com/bellmore.