New music program ready to rock Memphis schools, by Bill Ellis ([email protected])
March 15, 2003; (Memphis, TN)
Online at,1426,MCA_437_1813279,00.html

Little Kids Rock, a San Francisco-based organization that offers free music instruction and instruments to elementary and middle school children as a way to tap into their creativity, is bringing its program to 11 city schools.

The nonprofit organization, which has programs in several states including New York and New Jersey, will launch its Memphis program with a teacher-training seminar March 22-23 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Soulsville’s Stax Music Academy. Teachers will then take that training back to their respective schools. Participating schools are Brookmeade Elementary, Caldwell Elementary, Coleman Elementary, Cypress Middle, Getwell Elementary, Grahamwood Elementary, Hollywood Elementary, KIPP DIAMOND Academy, Knight Road Elementary, Lester Elementary and Sea Isle Elementary.

Printed fliers invited any and all teachers who wished to attend the free seminar, according to Little Kids Rock founder Dave Wish, 35, who will lead the Memphis tutorial.

Instructors will learn Wish’s method, which places less emphasis on the technical side of music training than it does on improvisation and composition. The approach is more conducive to getting kids excited and engaged, says Wish, as well as lowering their anxiety level.

“The power of it for the students is hard to over-estimate,” says the New Jersey-based teacher and jazz guitarist. “That sense of, ‘OK, I picked up this awkward instrument a year ago, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know which way to hold it, and now I’m a composer – I’ve created this thing out of nothing other than my own hard work.’

“It’s a very deep thing for kids, especially the kind of kids we work with, who often times don’t have a lot of resources, don’t have a lot of outlets.”

Such impact makes programs like Little Kids Rock, established in 1996, desirable on many levels, especially at a time when budgets for school arts programs are being curtailed.

To make the program work here, Play It Again Memphis – the local nonprofit that refurbishes musical instruments for needy students and school music programs – stepped in to get help. According to Wish and former Play It Again Memphis executive director Michelle Slack:

A grant through the Thomas W. Briggs Foundation will provide more than 100 student guitars.

Epiphone will donate teachers’ guitars.

The Mockingbird Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the rock band Phish, has come up with a stipend for a lead teacher to head the program in town. Wish says that person is currently being recruited.

Little Kids Rock funding also helps pay for students to make their own CDs and videos.

A fourth album, “Coast to Coast,” is available (go to and features such originals as Little Dinosaur composed by 8-year-old Sergio Betancourth and the Star Wars homage Yoda by 9-year-old Tristan Troupe.

CD sales go back into the Little Kids Rock program, though one bonus the children take away from the experience is that their material becomes legally protected.

“We have no desire to own the copyright or publishing to their music,” says Wish.

Wish began the Little Kids Rock concept while working at a San Francisco school where he became frustrated over the lack of money to buy instruments. Going through the process of raising the funds himself sparked the idea for the free-to-students educational endeavor.

Some seven years later and the program has gone national. After Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington are all on the expansion list, says Wish, whose instructional seminars have turned into a full-time job.

The Little Kids Rock idea isn’t unique. Regionally, Lambert, Miss.-based guitarist Johnnie Billington has taught kids how to play blues for years through his Delta Blues Education Fund, while the local Kids ‘N Blues program, where schoolchildren learn about the music, resulted in two 1998 CDs. And the Stax Music Academy offers plenty of instruction for youths.

“We’re advoctates for exposing children to all kinds of music,” says Deanie Parker, president/executive director of the academy’s umbrella organization, Soulsville. “And when presenters seek out our site to showcase what it is they have to share with children, we’re thrilled about it because that is precisely why we are here.”

Little Kids Rock has gotten some high-profile endorsements. B. B. King, for one, is a fan – so much so that he is an honorary board member. Others who support the program are Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead.

Wish hopes to make even more fans of the teachers he will train next week. Tapping into one’s creativity isn’t just for the students and the seminar will include a number of songwriting exercises.

“Everyone is going to write a song,” he says. “I cannot tell you how instantly powerful it is. At first there are no songs in the room, and then all of a sudden there are 20 newly minted tunes. I’ve had teachers come up and say, ‘I thought I’d never write a song.’ ”