Beyond Baby Mozart, Students Who Rock

September 8, 2011, 9:05 pm

by David Bornstein

With school underway, I asked my eight-year-old son this week if he had any interest in learning guitar. He said he’d prefer the piano. I was pleased, but hesitant. I had my own stint with after-school piano lessons at age eight — plinking out notes from classical pieces that were foreign to me. My progress was agonizingly slow and I gave up within months.

Music education hasn’t changed fundamentally since the 1970s. Students are still taught to read notation so they can recite compositions that they would never listen to on their MP3 players or play with friends. The four “streams” in music education — orchestra, chorus, marching band and jazz band — have remained constant for four decades, while a third generation is growing up listening to rock and pop music. And my experience as an eight-year-old is all too common. Many children quit before making progress with an instrument, then regret it as adults. Others play violin or trumpet for the school orchestra or band, then drop the instrument after graduating from high school.

This is a loss for all. Playing music enriches life. That’s why so many adults wish that they could play an instrument, particularly guitar or piano, which are ideally suited for playing with others. The question is: Why do schools teach music in a way that turns off so many young people rather than igniting their imagination? Adolescents and teenagers are crazy about popular music. At a time when educators are desperate to engage students and improve school cultures, can we do a better job of harnessing the power of music to get kids excited about school?


Brian Gellerstein Elementary school students from the Bronx tested new guitars that Little Kids Rock donated to their class in Sept. 2008.

The experience of an organization called Little Kids Rock suggests the answer is a resounding yes — provided we change the way music is taught. Little Kids Rock has helped revitalize music programs in over a thousand public schools and served 150,000 children, most of them from low-income families. The organization has distributed 30,000 free instruments, primarily guitars, and trained 1,500 teachers to run music classes in which students quickly experience the joys of playing their favorite songs, performing in bands, and composing their own music. Along the way, the organization is working to institute a fifth stream in American music education: popular music — or what it calls “contemporary band.”

“Students truly experience just about immediate success in Little Kids Rock,” explained Melanie Faulkner, supervisor of elementary music for Hillsborough County Public Schools, in Tampa, Fla., where 14,000 students in 83 schools are served by the program. “The children feel like they’re right there making real music. And the success spills over into other areas of school.”

The key to Little Kids Rock is that it teaches children to play music the way many musicians learn to play it — not by notation, but by listening, imitation and meaningful experimentation. “The knowledge you need to get started playing rock music is very limited,” explains Dave Wish, the founder of Little Kids Rock. “In high school, my friend Paul taught me a couple of chords and, boom, my life was changed forever.”

“Making music is as much a physical act as it is a cognitive act,” he adds. “We don’t begin with theory when we want to teach a child to play tee-ball. We just bring the kid up to the tee, give them a bat, and let them swing.”

On the first day of class, Little Kids Rock teachers place guitars in the hands of their students and get them practicing chords that will enable them to play thousands of songs. (Many simple lessons are freely available online.) The kids decide what songs they want to learn and the class is off and running. Their progress is remarkable. Within a year, eight- and nine-year-olds are playing electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboards, and giving concerts, even performing their own songs. And the effect is predictable: the children can’t get enough of it.

Before launching Little Kids Rock in 2002, Wish spent 10 years as a first and second grade teacher in public schools in low-income communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of his students had little structure or supervision out of school, and they would often get into trouble. He decided to start an after-school guitar program. He got instruments donated and started one afternoon a week. Within a year, he was giving classes before and after school, five days a week, and still had to turn away children for lack of space. That bothered him, so he got the idea to recruit some of his musician friends to teach additional classes. “That idea failed miserably because they had no classroom management skills,” he recalled. That’s when he saw that it would work better if he focused on training experienced teachers.

Like many nonprofit organizations, Little Kids Rock’s main constraint is resources. Significantly, one problem the organization doesn’t face is drawing teachers. Its trainings frequently attract many more applicants than available slots. Teachers volunteer their time to attend trainings, which are often held over weekends. The trainings are popular because they provide simple and practical methods to get high levels of participation from students.
Little Kids Rock bears similarity to the Suzuki method, which also stresses learning by ear (initially) over reading musical notation. Wish also draws from language acquisition theory and applies it to music (as he explains in this talk). But the big distinction is that Little Kids Rock places a lot of emphasis on improvisation and composing, which are rarely encouraged in traditional music education. If you wander around a public school, for example, you will find the walls adorned with paintings, drawings, poetry, essays, even math problems — all done by children. “What’s notoriously absent?” asks Wish. “Where’s the music the kids created?”

“If you put a bunch of kids at a table, and give them a box of crayons and paper, and five minutes free time, they’re going to make art,” he adds. “Teaching a few chords is just like giving a kid a musical crayon. If you give them time, they will start to compose their own songs.”

There is one barrier to overcome. Every art teacher has drawn a picture, but many music instructors have never composed a song, so they may have no clue how to teach children to do it; they may not even believe their students can do it. In trainings, therefore, every teacher has to write a song, perform it, and record it for the other teachers in the room — all in 30 minutes.


Timmy Schneider, 10, makes a rock star face during the Little Kids Rock Jam Summit in Dallas in May 2010.

There are tricks to jump start the process. You can start by making a list of pairs of words that rhyme. You can pick a song you like, write down the chords, scramble them, then play the chords in the new order, while saying words over them. It will help in making up a little melody. “What you find is that it’s actually remarkably simple,” says Wish. “You need to be given permission and a forum and a few basic tips, but most people are never given any of those.”

For improvisation, every teacher is also asked to play a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar solo, a novel experience for many. Kids think solos are very cool, and Little Kids Rock gives them shortcuts so they can learn how to play them, literally, in minutes. “I have kids who learn one scale, or even two notes, and will play solos all afternoon,” explained Allan Adkison, a Little Kids Rock instructor at Lola Rodriguez De Tio Academy of Future Technology, a middle school in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. “When they start to express themselves and start to hear it, you see them become free.”

It’s not just the children who have this experience. Wish recalled that one music teacher of 20 years started to cry after performing a solo in a training program. “She’d been playing music most of her life but never thought she had the ability to improvise,” he recalled. “I’ve heard that from a lot of people. I think the biggest thing that teachers leave the training with is the notion that they themselves have great untapped reservoirs of musical potential.”
We do a disservice to children when we force them in school to learn jazz or classical music because we think it’s good for them. Too often, rather than creating an entry point for a life of music appreciation, this approach tends to weed out those who don’t make an immediate connection with the music, or don’t have parents who force them to stick it out.

Getting children excited by teaching them to play the music they love doesn’t mean they’ll be stuck listening to three chord songs their whole lives. “When I taught kids to read Dr. Seuss books,” says Wish, “I didn’t go home and say, ‘Oh man, when they grow up, they’re only going to want to read rhyming books.’”

If children make a durable connection with music, it’s more likely that over time, their musical tastes will evolve. “I don’t listen to the same music I listened to in high school,” adds Wish. “But some of my non-musician friends do.”

One of the biggest advantages that music offers is the ability to inspire students who are otherwise bored or demoralized by school. “I’ve had students start coming back to school because of this program,” said Adkison. Elaine Thomas, who heads up music for the Dallas Independent School District, where Little Kids Rock serves 9,000 students in 89 schools, added: “One of the best things is that the teachers discover a new side of their students. They see kids become successful who weren’t before.”

And the connection the kids make seems to last. Erik Herndon, a Little Kids Rock instructor at the Jean Childs Young Middle School in Atlanta, told me: “I’m just starting to see kids go on to college and a lot of them are sticking with it. One kid said to me, ‘I keep playing my guitar, but now when I listen to music I hear all the parts of it.’ That’s the whole idea: to promote that life long love of the music, rather than feeling that we killed it out of them.”