By Rachel Wisinski | Photography by Holly Leitner
Several years ago, Tommy McEneany saw the beloved, 2003 cult classic “School of Rock,” and was inspired. The then-10-year-old decided to ask his parents for a guitar for Christmas. After some hesitation, Mike and Susan McEneany agreed on one condition: Tommy take lessons rather than let the guitar gather dust in the corner of his room.
Susan searched for a place for lessons and stumbled upon Rock Central, a Lake Geneva-based music school that “aims to enrich the quality of life for children and adults of all ages through music education and experiences.” It was a serendipitous find — Rock Central was originally known as the School of Rock, just like the movie that Tommy loved so much. And like the plot of the movie, part of Rock Central’s mission is accessibility; the nonprofit school runs on donations and aims to make music lessons available to anyone who is interested in learning.
It turned out to be a great fit for the McEneany family. Participants in Rock Central’s programs learn music theory, receive weekly one-on-one lessons, take part in group rehearsals and perform quarterly throughout the year to showcase what they’ve learned and help raise money for the school. The program has been in existence for about 12 years, moving from Williams Bay to Lake Geneva nine years ago, according to manager Rickie Wetzel. Rickie’s husband, well-known local musician “Big Al” Wetzel, is one of nine people currently teaching at Rock Central.
Rickie says the program is open to anyone with the drive to learn and perform. Students can choose to learn the guitar, bass guitar, drums or keyboard, or they can sing. After a free trial lesson, students are placed in a group according to their ability level, which generally coincides with age: 5- to 8-year-olds, 8- to 12-year- olds, 12- to 17-year-olds and an adult program. Rock Central also features a House Band, whose members receive their spots via an audition process. The House Band performs about once a month and can be hired for special events.
Teachers at Rock Central all have different musical backgrounds — some studied music theory in college while some learned their instrument by playing in bands. Rickie says this helps diversify the education they provide. “I think it’s great that we’re teaching kids the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” Rickie says. “In this day and age of social media, they wouldn’t really learn about these artists anywhere else.”
While growing up, Tommy, now 17, and his sister Annie, 15, always heard their friends talking about the hottest new songs. However, the pair had a slightly different playlist, immersing themselves in classic rock: Led Zeppelin, Rush, The Who. “We grew up with a different taste in music than everyone else,” Annie says, crediting their influences to the music they heard their parents playing around the house.
About one year after Tommy began guitar lessons, Annie began playing the keyboards at Rock Central. She has also now eased her way into singing and performs as a vocalist. Both McEneany siblings are in the 12- to 17-year old group, called Show Rockers, as well as Rock Central’s House Band. The self-proclaimed “twins” practice in their basement at home, which Mike and Susan have transformed into a kind of music studio. “I keep kind of putting fuel on the fire to see where this thing goes,” Mike says. “I think it’s just like any parent would have, whether their son or daughter is in a sport and there’s that moment of pride to see how well they’re doing, or if they’re in the theater, to see them deliver their lines.”
In fact, both Annie and Tommy participate in musical theater as well, and they feel that Rock Central is a good place to combine their love of classic rock and performing. Since beginning lessons at age 8, Tommy has seen his skill level on the guitar take off. However, at first, he says he encountered some difficulty learning the pentatonic scales and questioned whether he wanted to continue. “I was sitting around one day practicing it and I got the first half down,” he says.“ Then I’m like, ‘OK, try to get the second half,’ and something instantly clicked in me.”
Rehearsals at Rock Central generally revolve around a specific genre, theme or artist, though sometimes the setlist is hand-selected by the musicians themselves in what the school calls “students’ choice.” Mike says that’s one of the biggest perks at Rock Central: Students get to play songs they want to play. In their time there, Tommy and Annie have played all eras of rock music, from The Rolling Stones and Supertramp to Green Day, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band. “It’s cool to get them turned on to this stuff,” Mike says.
Just giving Tommy and Annie the opportunity to perform in a band has been a game-changer, Mike says. Not only have they made friends at Rock Central, but they’re learning the power of playing their role as one piece of the puzzle. “It’s like a big melting pot,” Tommy says. “Everyone has to do their part to make the soup taste good.”
A father of four, Mike says that he didn’t initially have expectations for Tommy’s guitar lessons, noting he wouldn’t have been surprised if Tommy lost interest after a year. “Lo and behold, it’s been one of those things he really gravitated toward,” Mike says. “Over time, his playing has become quite exceptional, to the point where he’s being asked to play with other bands.” When the pandemic put Rock Central shows on hold for a few months, Tommy started playing with a band called Gravity of Youth in Lake Geneva. Mike says that people who hear Tommy play often express disbelief that he is only a teenager.
Rickie says that Rock Central students have performed locally at the Abbey Resort in Fontana, the Ridge Hotel in Lake Geneva and Endzone Sports Bar & Grill in Delavan, and the Show Rockers group played at Venetian Fest in Lake Geneva last summer. “The main objective is to go out into the community so these kids can learn the gig of going out and playing in front of strangers and all that comes with learning that confidence,” she says.
Mike marvels at the growth his kids have showcased during their time at Rock Central. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint when he realized Tommy had a special talent, there’s one moment he remembers vividly. At some point during the pandemic, Mike was in the kitchen and heard a song with a heavy guitar presence from the basement. He says he thought it was a record, but when he went downstairs and peeked around the corner, he found Tommy, with guitar in hand. “You could have sworn you were at a happy hour,” Mike says. “That’s when I realized, somehow he had gotten really good.”
For Annie, growing up and performing with the same people throughout her time at Rock Central has been an occasionally intimidating experience. She started participating in the Show Rockers group in seventh grade, when everyone else in the group was in high school. (Her older sister, Molly, was a singer at the time.) “I was terrified,” Annie says. “It didn’t feel right at first, but once I started playing, it just clicked.”
Less than a year later, she auditioned for the House Band. When she was told she got a singing role, she thought it was a joke. But fostering a sense of self-assurance is a key objective of the Rock Central program, according to Rickie. “Every time they do a show, it’s really emotional,” she says. “We get to see kids who didn’t have a lot of confidence, who were really shy or sometimes struggling with things outside of the school, and we see the transformation in their performance.”
Asked what it’s like performing with each other, Tommy and Annie say it works to their advantage. “When you’re related it’s like, ‘Let’s just have a good time,’” Tommy says. Even though they’ve performed in musical theater and choir together, Annie says, Rock Central is a different experience.
“It’s almost calming because I know how Tommy normally plays,” she says. “It’s easy because when we’re playing a song and he’s soloing, I know when he’s going to transition. It’s like twin telepathy; I already know what’s going to happen because we’re close, and I think Rock Central has made us closer.”
Tommy says his experiences at Rock Central have significantly influenced his career plans. One of his Christmas presents this year was a five-day trip to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he’ll play guitar and learn things such as the history of the instrument and how to pick patterns. When he graduates high school, Tommy hopes to continue his studies at Berklee, a college attended by countless famous musicians and guitarists. “It’s my passion to be doing something with music,” Tommy says, “whether it’s music therapy or becoming a professional musician or a music teacher.”
As a high school sophomore with an interest in business, Annie says she hasn’t thought that far ahead, but she is passionate about music and performing and could see herself continuing with it, whether on Broadway or in a band. Susan says regardless of what Tommy and Annie choose to do full-time, the pair will always be able to pick up their talent wherever they left off. Annie agrees: “I think it’s a really good experience, and everyone should try it out,” she says.
Starting this year, more people will get the chance, as Rock Central will introduce a tots program for 2- to 4-year- olds. The program will teach toddlers the fundamentals of music. Rickie says demand for such a program is high. It will differ from others offered at Rock Central in that it will only involve a weekly group class and no individual lessons. She hopes the new group will provide even more opportunities for people to experience Rock Central.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t realize how much you’re changing kids’ lives, but I hear that from parents and it’s so rewarding,” Rickie says. “Everyone has stuff going on in their personal life, and this isn’t just about the music, it’s about teaching them how to be an adult and how to deal with life. It gives them an outlet and helps them grow.” And Rickie points out that it’s not just kids who benefit from Rock Central’s programs. “A lot of people say they wish they had this as a kid,” Rickie says. “I hear that all the time, but it’s never too late to start.”