Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?
Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?
Little Kids Rock Takes a Radical Approach to Musical Education in the Schools
by Mary Eisenhart
The sad state of music and arts education in most of America’s schools, especially the public ones, is an oft-told tale. In 1996, a Bay Area teacher decided to do something about it. What began with scrounged instruments and after-school lessons for his students is now Little Kids Rock.
When musician David Wish reported for his day job, teaching 1st and 2nd graders at a Redwood City, California elementary school, back in the mid-’90s, he quickly found that music, along with art and PE, had simply disappeared from the curriculum in an educational culture of tight budgets and obsession with test scores.
In contrast to untold numbers of frustrated teachers before him, Wish took matters into his own hands, scrounging instruments wherever he could find them and teaching his students music on his own time. After school. Before school. During lunch.
While the project’s immediate popularity owed a lot to Wish’s contagious enthusiasm, it was also due to the course materials Wish found himself developing, based on the radical notion of teaching the kids the music they liked. Rather than force young Ricky Martin fans to slog through “Down in the Valley” and “Swans on the Lake,” he taught them “La Vida Loca.” (As he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005: “Take Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s two chords: D and A. Do you realize how many songs are structured around only D and A? When you teach a kid how to play a Selena song that is D and A, you’re also teaching them to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’re teaching them to play. Period.”)
Pretty soon his music classes became a victim of their own success and he had to start turning students away because he had no more time. At that point he started recruiting his fellow teachers to teach a class or two.
One thing led to another, word got out, rock stars started taking notice, and the program started to expand. In July 2002 it formally incorporated as the not-for-profit Little Kids Rock, and a few months later the Rex Foundation became one of its earliest supporters.
Today, Little Kids Rock, now based in New Jersey, serves thousands of students in grassroots programs in nine states, and continues to expand rapidly. We checked in with Wish to find out why music education matters so much, and how LKR’s work extends far beyond its own classes.
Rex Foundation: Why is music and arts funding in the schools being cut and why is that a bad idea?
David Wish, Little Kids Rock: I think it’s being cut because the constituents that it affects can’t vote. It’s always easiest to take away from people who don’t have the power to stick up for themselves, like the very young or the very old that’s one of the places that you see people cutting because you don’t hear the screams from the victims till much later.
Why is that a bad idea? I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.
Rex: For example?
LKR: Try to solve a math word problem just by knowing how to multiply, divide, add and subtract. It can’t be done. You need to think creatively. You need to be able to take information that you’ve never been presented with before and synthesize it in new and exciting ways even if it’s something as unexciting on the face of it as solving a word problem.
Or coming up with a scientific theory. Or trying to explain the motivations of a political ruler that lived in a century and a continent light years away from your own. All of these things require creativity. Problem-solving in your interpersonal life requires creativity.
I believe there is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.
It would fly in the face of what we expect from an educational system if an adult could grow up and in every other way be whole, but couldn’t add, subtract, multiply and divide. They can hold a job, they can write, they can read the paper; they just can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide.
Or maybe they can do everything except they can’t read. Or that they don’t know the most basic scientific principles like gravity exists, the earth is round, there’s an atmosphere and different types of matter. It’s unacceptable, and it actually doesn’t happen if you go through the school system, unless you have severe learning disabilities, you come out with something of an education in all those areas.
But one exception would be music.
Rex: So you’ve been doing this 10 years how did you get started?
LKR: I was working in a school in Redwood City that had no music program. I was also a guitar player, so I took it on myself to start giving guitar lessons to the kids in my 1st and 2nd grade classes. That was the sum total of my aspiration: I felt it could be done, I felt it should be done, and it was something I could do. So I begged and borrowed a little fleet of instruments and started teaching them.
But there was a little interim step. I needed teaching materials. So like any dutiful teacher I went to the source. I went to music stores and music publishers, and I looked at what was available.
I found it basically so uniformly dry and unappealing and useless that I had to come up with something in its place. You’d pick up Volume 1: Guitar, and open it up to the first page, and there’s “Red River Valley.” You open up the next method book and it’s Beethoven’s Ninth.
I’m looking at a class that’s filled with first-generation immigrants from Central America who are obsessed with Selena and Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana. So I thought, why don’t we make that the canon then? Why don’t we take a student-centered approach? Why don’t I not take my own musical tastes and make that the starting point; why don’t I take the radical idea of “Well, kids have this cultural capital, let’s put that in the middle”?
At the time I would have defined it as “Why not teach the kids the music they like?” You like Ricky Martin? Sure, we can do “La Vida Loca.” It became a very natural thing.
It was a very successful class, for me and the students, so I added another one and another one. I was teaching so many students at my school, while being a regular classroom teacher every single one of these classes was either before school, after school, or, towards the end, even during my lunch hour. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t take on any more students, which put me in the ironic position of having to say no. Where I was trying to extend the franchise, now I became the axeman, which sort of seemed karmically unfair.
So I started reaching out to my colleagues, initially just to handle the overflow, and say, “Hey look, I’m running all these classes, why don’t you do one?”
I tried that, and I realized for that to be successful I had to articulate, concisely and in teacher-friendly language, what I was doing specifically with the children that was resonating so strongly with them. That led to me codifying and defining what was happening naturally into something that could be replicated by other people through a set of pedagogical beliefs and a set of curriculum. By using that and using teachers to teach, all of a sudden it started replicating. It wasn’t about me as a teacher, it was about a set of teaching ideas being more effective at eliciting success from children.
Why does this work? Well, Little Kids Rock leverages a number of things that make it successful. One of the things is that we leverage the cultural capital of kids everywhere by focusing on the music they like. But I also leverage the human capital of schools everywhere by identifying individuals who have committed themselves to teaching, namely teachers, and then arming them with our content and our training, so they can then dovetail that into what they’re already doing.
When I started doing that, that’s when it really started to replicate and grow to the point where my first class was 20 kids and now we’re at more than 10,000, and we’ve basically doubled each year since 2000. We’re poised to do that again this year. By the end of the 2007-2008 school year we’re likely to be at 20,000.
Rex:: What determines which schools get the program?
LKR: We identify large urban districts where more than 50% of students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, which is a poverty index that all public schools are required by law to maintain. They have a very high concentration of low-income families.
The schools of the United States are outrageously segregated in terms of economics. Those who get to choose their ZIP code have the best schools in the country. The people who don’t get to choose have less, sometimes deplorably so.
We go into those districts, and recruit and train those schoolteachers. There’s nothing about our curriculum or our pedagogy that’s class-specific. I believe this program would be equally compelling to children of every economic class. But because we have finite resources, we direct them to where the need is greatest.
That’s beginning to change a little with Little Kids Rock TV (see sidebar), where we’re going to take the same pedagogical ideas and create video of them. Those are going to be given away as a free public resource to whomever. We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.
Going into a school is a little bit different. It costs us about $100 per student, and we generally don’t enter a district with fewer than 4-600 students.
Little Kids Rock gives out thousands of free instruments to music students every year.
Rex: Does the district invite you, or does somebody say, “Hey, you ought to be going into this district?”
LKR: At this point it’s both. We’re still a very young organization, and most of our growth is opportunistic, undergirded by some strategy. Some are no-brainers the Los Angeles Unified School District, biggest school district in the country, totally meets our criteria, slam-dunk, so we’re there. We chose that, we tried to get funding, and we were successful. We’ve been there going on four years.
But we’re also in Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re there because James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley and is one of the most recorded guitarists in history, is from Shreveport. He has the James Burton Guitar Festival, and he wanted to bring the program into his city, so he facilitated that.
So we go where there’s interest, and we go where we see an opportunity, where a community might support this kind of an effort. Or we just go in because we come up with the resources ourselves and just direct it that way.
We might not go to a single school because it’s just one school, but some of our programs have started with a single phone call from a single teacher. We’re in DC for that reason now. Philadelphia’s another example.
Rex: So you do want to hear from teachers.
LKR: Oh, we always like hearing from teachers. We serve children only because we serve teachers. If we didn’t serve teachers we couldn’t reach the children.
Our model isn’t to find volunteers to go in and pay them and have them teach; we’re having the teachers do it. And teachers can get free resources from us as well, even without being in the program.
There are two crises facing music education today. One is that it doesn’t happen; that’s a problem that no nonprofit will ever solve, because it’s too vast in its scope. We’re talking about 15-20 million U.S. school-age children not receiving music education; show me a not-for-profit that can generate a budget to address that. I don’t even think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could do that for more than 50 years, and then it’d go bankrupt.
It needs to be something that we as a culture place importance in. I do believe it’s cyclical, and I do believe it will come back.
That’s the first issue, and we do address it, because we’re giving away thousands of free instruments every year. But that’s just a drop in the bucket.
On the other hand, there’s the second problem, which is that oftentimes music education is outdated, oftentimes people have exposure to it, and oftentimes they vote with their feet and they leave, and they grow up with regret. They grow up without fully developing themselves and their education because they’re alienated from music at any other level than just being a consumer of it. That’s an issue that Little Kids Rock is really seeking to address, or at least I think it’s a place where we can affect millions and millions of people in this country, and it doesn’t take a giant budget. It takes vision, and that’s what we’re supplying.
If the expectation of music education is that you leave and you can be first, second or third chair in a symphony orchestra, or you can be a sight-reading session jazz musician then yes, it’s true, only 5-10% of the population could and should bother wasting their time with music education. Unfortunately, in a de facto way, that’s kind of how it’s structured; the unspoken aim is that you’re going to get to the end and be either a concert violinist or a sight-reading session jazz musician.
Now, if you look at the world of commerce, that is a miniscule slice of the music-making pie of how you could make a living; and if you look at the world of life, it’s an infinitesimally small slice of what playing music could mean in your life.
Public speaking is something we all have to do, for example. I may not be Martin Luther King, and I may not ever be able to speak as eloquently and with such an on-fire sense of mission as he was. So I have a decision to make: either I’m just not going to talk, or I’m going to do it the way I do it, for myself and for meaning in my life.
Likewise math. I wouldn’t say that I’m mathematically inclined or that I have some special facility, but I use math for meaning in my life, and it’s very important to me. I can balance the budget for this not-for-profit and make sure we’re fiscally solvent and that we can meet our mission. I can figure out the tip on a bill. I can figure out my household budget. So math is very meaningful to me.
Now what if music were similar? You might not be Jimi Hendrix, or Andres Segovia, but is that the standard you need? Is that the point of entry? Shouldn’t the point of entry be that you should be able to express yourself on an instrument? And then you, as a democratic citizen of this democratic nation, can define how much time and energy you want to put into that, and rise to your own ability, to the extent that you want to.
That’s the thing that really amazes me and I find really upsetting as an educator meeting these people who spent their entire childhood studying and can’t play a song. It’s mind-boggling, and it wouldn’t be acceptable in any other arena. I think it’s indicative of a need to revitalize the way music education is taught, and that’s what I think LKR is really striving to do.
Rex: Are the same kids in the program for multiple years, or is it a fixed-length program?
LKR: The answer is really both, because we work in districts that have no music teachers, and when we do that it’s an after-school enrichment program. Those students may only be in the program for a year because perhaps the teacher elects not to do it the next year, because it doesn’t fit their schedule. Or they may be in it for multiple years, but it’s a little more tumultuous. There’s a lot of variables.
We also work with music teachers, and the music teacher’s there year after year and it’s their defined job, and therefore there’s no problem. They structure it so the students can continue.
Again, while LKR can provide guidance in the curriculum and the pedagogy, when it gets to scheduling, that’s up to the individual teacher at different schools. If we were to start dictating it we would lose our constituents, because some teachers can’t do it after school, and some can’t do it during the school day.
Our only requirement is that it be taught at least once a week, for at least one academic hour. And then we have some teachers who cram in 15 hours of LKR time a week; we have some that cram in as little as one hour. We have some teachers who reach as few as 10 students annually, as an after-school program, and we have some teachers who incorporate it into their school culture and reach literally every single child at their school.
Rex: To what extent do you chart what happens to the kids who go through the program?
LKR: We use a product called SalesForce, which is an online customer management system they’re a great company, they give their service free to nonprofits, and their services are extremely valuable.
All of our teachers use it to track their students, to see how they’re doing against the LKR rubric. How is this student doing in terms of their psychosocial gains? How is this student doing in terms of composition, in terms of improvisation, in terms of the discrete didactic skills by grade level that we’ve identified as necessary?
Now, this is new for us, and it’s being implemented for the first time. Basically all our students will be being tracked and given a LKR report card, if you will I know it’s not in vogue, but it’s a way for us to determine the efficacy of our efforts. We’ve developed a measurement system that’s different from a standard music evaluation, because it’s much more competency and performance-based assessment, as opposed to task or skills-based assessment.
Like, for example, “Has the child composed original music?” That would be one very important rubric. “To what extent does the child know how to improvise?” That would be another one. “To what extent can the child play music that’s appealing to them?” “To what extent has the child mastered a self-defined canon?” All these things are being measured. I’m just talking about an honest assessment and having metrics. I’m not talking about having mandatory testing, but determining a set of criteria by which you can measure your own success, and holding yourself accountable.
Up until we started using this system, all of our reporting has really been more anecdotal. We hear back from the teachers, we hear from the students. But I’m a schoolteacher, and I don’t really like anecdotal measurements. They’re really great for ego gratification, but they’re not really great for efficacy.
One of my great friends and counselors is a man named Bob Morrison, who’s the founding executive director of the Music for All Foundation, the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation he’s a heavyweight in the world of music-based philanthropy. He says, “Without statistics, you’re just another guy with an opinion.” And I like that. I’m not a statistics wonk, but I want a healthy balance of both. Anecdotal is great, but it’s far from enough.
When I was teaching 1st grade, you’d be judged on one criterion alone as a teacher: Did your students learn to read? It’s not like, “Gee, Juan’s such a sweet little boy and he really learned to get along with his peers and it was really wonderful having him in the class, and he loves me and I love him and we’re all just a big happy ed family.” OK, can Juan read? “Well, he’s really applying himself, he’s really trying, he loves to read…” OK, but, can Juan read?
As a first grade teacher it was always a major point of pride for me that my students and I only worked in troubled districts read at or above grade level in the 1st grade, this in districts where this was not the status quo.
I believe that as the founder I have a few more years to put my cultural imprint on this and set the organizational tone for the years to come. I want to bring that same kind of transparency and accountability for ourselves internally, and of course for our funders externally, as we measure the impact of our work. Because when you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.
“I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.” David Wish
"There is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.”
Rocking the World: Little Kids Rock TV
When David Wish first started recruiting his fellow teachers, he realized he had to codify the hands-on, “teach the kids the music they like” methods he’d come up with not just because they were so successful, but because they were so radically different from conventional music education. As a result, when a new teacher comes on board with the program today, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel a wealth of materials evolved from years of finding what works best is already available.
But even as Little Kids Rock reaches thousands of new students every year, Wish readily concedes that not even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can provide music education to every child who needs it. So Little Kids Rock got creative again with Little Kids Rock TV.
Whatever your age, location, or economic status, you can check out tutorial videos on the site, from guitar power chords to drum licks, all delivered with the trademark LKR style of, as Wish puts it, “the Suzuki Method meets the Rolling Stones.” And it’s all free of charge, with more lessons added often.
Says Wish, “We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.”
Rex, Youth and the Arts
Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education. Over its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation has, like many other philanthropic organizations, helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.
This is consistent with the Rex mission statement: The Rex Foundation aims to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, assist others less fortunate than ourselves, protect the rights of indigenous people and ensure their cultural survival, build a stronger community, and educate children and adults everywhere.
Says Executive Director Sandy Sohcot, “The Rex Foundation has supported youth-oriented educational and creative arts programs throughout its 24-year history, sharing a relatively common view that such programs help young people thrive and succeed and that helping young people flourish is not only good for the individuals, but also for the greater community. The different art forms dance, music, poetry, fine arts provide a range of opportunities to engage young people in positive, constructive and healthful activities that tap their creative energies and encourage all kinds of learning.”
The benefits extend far beyond fun and creativity. Explains Sohcot, "Many of these programs provide safe and constructive vehicles for helping young people express their concerns about and more positively grapple with their own challenging social and economic situations: poverty, homelessness, violence, threats of family deportation, and unhealthy, even toxic environments. And, because of their positive experiences in these programs, many of the participants are often able to gain greater academic success and leadership opportunities, which in turn lead to enhanced and transformed life situations that might otherwise have not been possible.”
These are some recent Rex grantees whose work enriches youthful lives with art and music:
Marsh Youth Theater (Jerry Garcia Award, 2005)
Kids on Broadway (2006)
Tule Elk Park Child Development Center (1994, 2006)
Destiny Arts Center (2007)
Youth Movement Records (2007)
Rex Board Perspective
Rex Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says: As David Wish explained his motivations for beginning the Little Kids Rock program the simplicity, yet power of engaging kids with easy-to-learn guitar chords of the music they liked, and his Teach-the-Teacher approach for extending the reach of the program the teacher in me was immediately interested. I was even more intrigued by the video showing the broadly diverse young students performing their original songs with such spirit and enthusiasm, and by seeing that spirit reflected when I visited the sites. Clearly, Little Kids Rock was a very effective way to provide life-enriching musical involvements to young people in schools that, due to declining funding, could not otherwise provide this vital experience.
A few months after the Rex Foundation grant had been issued, I had the pleasure of attending a special program for Little Kids Rock at a San Francisco elementary school. The program included Bonnie Raitt, Norton Buffalo and Tom Waits. I saw David Wish in action. First he engaged the students to show off their knowledge of different key chords. Then, within minutes he elicited a few words, two being treasure and measure, along with some chords, and then had everyone playing a new song created on the spot called “Measure the Treasure.” The celebrity musicians joined in for quite a jam.
Though several years have passed, I still recall the magic of watching these young kids being so engaged, and having such a wonderful opportunity to experience their creativity and talents.
The Rex Foundation includes in its mission statement promote individuality in the arts, recognizing the value of the arts to the human experience, whether to elicit each person’s creative potential, encourage learning of other disciplines, foster cultural development and community connections, or simply to engender positive feelings. Supporting Little Kids Rock is one great way to make it possible for young people who, through no fault of their own, might otherwise miss the opportunity to have this invaluable life experience.
“When you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.” David Wish