Learning to Rock at an Early Age

Mike Lawson • Commentary • April 1, 2003

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The cynical could paraphrase Mark Twain and say that everybody talks about the lack of music in our schools, but nobody does anything about it. But David Wish did: he founded a national organization called Little Kids Rock. The 501(3)(c) nonprofit comes into economically disadvantaged communities and bestows hundreds of guitars on children who would otherwise not have a chance to strum and pluck.

When he started teaching at a San Francisco public school in 1992, Wish, like many of his fellow public school teachers, was shocked at how little music was being taught.

“They did hire a guy to come in for half an hour once a week,” Wish recalls. “But he was focused on nursery rhymes. I knew the students’ preference was for pop music, and their pop sensibilities were being left out in the cold.”

Wish felt that there was something he could do: teach children the kinds of music they liked to listen to.

“I took it upon myself to start offering a guitar class. I begged and borrowed instruments from friends to launch the first class.”

Soon Wish found himself working two full-time jobs: teaching and running a volunteer guitar program.

Little Kids Rock had its first official anniversary in February. The program is currently in place in New York City, East Orange and Newark, N.J., Memphis, Tenn., and San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Oakland, Calif. Wish says in the next two years he’s launching the program in Chicago and Los Angeles, and the hope is to establish Little Kids Rock in dozens of additional urban areas.

“We provide children with entry-level instruments, which are first on-loan to the students,” explains Wish. “Once they’ve stuck with the program one year and one day, they get to keep the instrument.” Wish further points out that the parents of children with instruments become, by necessity, regulars at music instrument retail outlets. And while they’re in the store with their parents, kids “end up wanting electric guitars, Britney Spears song books, those kind of things.”

Sunlite Guitars Partnership

Little Kids Rock is also a publicity magnet: the late John Lee Hooker was its first honorary chairperson, and the pictures and media coverage of little kids in awe of the legend still resonate for the foundation. Currently, B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt hold that position jointly, with Carlos Santana being an active supporter as well. His Milagro Foundation donated $10,000 worth of electric guitars to the program.

Another big supporter is Sunlite Guitars, which now sells their inexpensive 3/4 and full-size acoustic guitars directly to the foundation at below rock-bottom prices.

“David approached us at NAMM, and we were looking to support the organization any way we could,” explains Paul Cummings of Sunlite. “We were more than happy to accommodate and provide an instrument that can hold together for the kids – that’s why I’m excited. I know the guitar will do the job. It’s tough enough to be a student [learning guitar], let alone having to fight an instrument that doesn’t stay in tune.”

Cummings acknowledges that his company is selling instruments to Little Kids Rock at prices well below wholesale. “And we pay the sales tax,” he adds.

What is Sunlite looking to get out of it, then?

“Happy children,” he says. That and a lot of publicity, an indirect association with guitar legends like King and Raitt, which Sunlite Guitars wouldn’t normally have, and the chance for thousands of parents and new guitar students to be exposed to the Sunlite brand first. But Cummings’ enthusiasm spills over beyond the professional level as well: he says that when Little Kids Rock launches in Los Angeles, he plans to be a mentor himself and “get out there and give kids lessons.”

“What is unique for our program is it creates a very special bond between teachers and their students, and students and their school,” Wish says. “This is a situation where students are not being graded, it’s not a mandatory program, and it brings out other sides of the children’s personalities. And it’s a really powerful thing – as a teacher it is a central joy. It’s fun to share with other teachers: ‘Hey, you can do this really cool thing.’ I’m happy to be in a position to facilitate that.”

Support from the Industry

To make it work, Wish and his family moved closer to their roots in New Jersey, where the cost of living is considerably lower than the Bay Area. He received a $30,000 grant from NAMM and raised enough money to pay a part-time employee in San Francisco. So far he’s recruited 100 people to volunteer their time to the cause. This includes everything from musicians donating instruments and graphic artists designing their Web sites to lawyers doing the necessary paperwork, and so on. But he’s looking for more support.

“We provided some funding in the last fiscal year to try to help them grow their program,” says Rob Walker, NAMM director of market development and executive director of the American Music Conference (AMC). “We like the way the program is set up – taught after school by school teachers. We liked the way it introduced young children to what is really more of a blues-type curriculum. We felt if this could extend nationally, it would be a great step toward NAMM’s mission of creating more musicians.”

“Industry support is something we’re just beginning to leverage,” Wish says. “Right now, we’re seeking corporate [partnerships]. This can be an incredible PR program for any music company.” Wish is also speaking with publishers about releasing a method book he’s created especially for Little Kids Rock. He would use royalties to help further finance the program.

“Currently we’re working in partnership with Guitars in the Classroom,” he adds. “They try to teach teachers, and we’re trying to establish relationships with local music stores to offer their facilities to educate teachers once a week.” Right now, volunteers are already guitar players, but he hopes to also have tie-ins with local music stores where public school teachers could go to take lessons themselves. When starting out in San Francisco, he forged an early partnership with the Guitar Solo dealership.

“I think it’s amazing, the response of people in general,” says Bob Brumbeloe, Manager of Guitar Solo. “And it pays off in many ways – [kids] don’t even have to stick with the guitar long-term in order to benefit from the program. They just develop an appreciation for music itself and develop how to get there – and the kids will appreciate the amount of work a guitarist puts in.”

“I think it will go nationally,” predicts Walker, who says he and others are watching the growth of Little Kids Rock carefully and are pleased so far with its progress. “David is a very passionate young man and has the right credentials for this, and this is a great way to do what he’s setting out to accomplish.”

“If I was a retailer, I’d be encouraging that program to come into my area because you’re talking about building a customer base,” Sunlite’s Cummings says. “If a retailer gets involved, it’ll do nothing but help their contacts with the school districts, parents, and these kids. When you see what they are doing with young kids – they’re bringing in major stars to sit down with these kids.”

“A natural byproduct is that this is going to drive up sales in local stores and for manufacturers. It’s just an incredible opportunity to get the foot in the door,” says Wish. “Together with NAMM, we are producing an entirely new generation of guitarists; we are reaching kids who wouldn’t normally be reached.”

Wish is producing one CD a year of some of the music produced in the program. Next year, for their fourth CD, they plan to have a celebrity guest artist play along on each track. So far, Little Kids Rock has raised over $5,000 in CD sales alone.

Future plans also include working with high school band directors and creating a “bridge to the secondary level. We feel a lot of band and orchestra teachers would find this a welcome addition to their teaching toolbox. The fact that this hasn’t happened yet is just because of our youth as an organization.” Also, parallel programs for keyboard, bass, and drums are being discussed. Latin Percussion has already been in contact about creating some drum circle-type curriculum.

The short answer to how the program currently works is basically “any way possible.” Wish and his crew pick a district and recruit volunteers by sending flyers to every teacher in the area. Additionally, teachers who have heard of the program have approached Little Kids Rock. So far, grants have propelled the start – it takes between $15,000 and $20,000 to start the program in an area. But every day Wish sits at his desk figuring out new ways to do more. And he’s taking all calls.

For more information, contact David Wish at www.littlekidsrock.org or, Little Kids Rock, 21 Oxford Street, #2, Montclair, NJ, 07042.

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