This Thursday (Oct. 23), Little Kids Rock will bring together Alice Cooper, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, Cheap Trick, Tommy James, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) with Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz (Beastie Boys), Darlene Love, Glen Hansard, Mike Ness (Social Distortion), Jesse Malin, Brody Dalle and Jake Clemons (E Street Band) to pay tribute to Joan Jett, who is being honored as "Rocker of the Year," at their sixth annual Little Kids Rock Benefit. The event takes place at New York's iconic Hammerstein Ballroom at 6:30 p.m. and will also honor Guitar Center CEO Mike Pratt for his support as well as Jake Clemons, who will receive the "Big Man of the Year" Award, a prize originally named for his uncle and former E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons.
Little Kids Rock began in 1996 when elementary school teacher David Wish grew frustrated with the lack of music programming at his school. He took matters into his own hands and began teaching guitar to his first grade class. Not long after, students from other grades became interested, and he began offering free afterschool courses.
"I started with the proposition that all people are inherently musical," he told Music Times. "Turning children into music makers is part of a well-rounded liberal arts education."
What made his program successful, however, was his approach.
"I was teaching kids to play the music they knew and loved," he told Music Times. "At the time, my kids were listening to Ricky Martin, Selena, the Backstreet Boys. I was leveraging their cultural capital, which is not the way I experienced music in school, where we only had marching band or orchestra. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, and there wasn't, at the time, a place for that in the school system."
With the help of a few volunteers and some celebrity supporters, Wish helped grow his small program into Little Kids Rock, which now provides free music education to more than 320,000 public school students in than 30 cities across the nation. It is now the largest instrument and vocal music program in the United States public school system today.
They call their programming "Modern Band" and partner with schools across the country to build youth-centered programs. They've even partnered with universities to educate young music teachers on how to teach Modern Band.
"We first ask what are kids listening to," Wish explains. "You're listening to Taylor Swift? Great we'll learn to play Taylor Swift. You're inspired and moved by Beyoncé or Usher or John Legend? Great, that's what we're going to learn."
What they found is that children are more intrinsically motivated by music they care about, and teachers are able to capture their attention longer.
"A question I like to ask people is, 'Do you like to listen to music you don't like?' It almost sounds like some logical fallacy," he says, noting the problem with music programs that focus on classical music rather than popular music. "So why do we think children would want to play music they don't like?"
Beyond learning to play music, Little Kids Rock also focuses on writing music.
"A huge part of popular music is writing, so a huge part of our program is teaching kids to compose and improvise," he explains. "In fact, at the benefit concert, for me the highlight of the evening will be when a small group of 10 year olds get up and play a song that they wrote called 'Valentines Song.' When you hear it, to think that it was penned by a bunch of ten year olds is just really inspirational."
Wish believes that music in schools needs to be more than just music appreciation.
"You realize that we leave so much on the table in terms of our children's own creativity when we don't show them how to make music," he says. "Although it's fine to expose kids to music, I aim higher than music appreciation."
He compares a need for music education to the need for core Math, English and Science education.
"It's important for you to have the rest of your life, not as an appreciation but something you can actually use," he says. "For example, I'm not a mathematician, but I use math in my work all the time. I have to manage a $4.5 million budget. Math is meaningful to me in my day-to-day life. I'm not an author, but I use writing as a persuasive tool all the time in my life. I'm not a scientist, but when I hear about Ebola or global warming or whatever, my grounding in a basic exposure to science education gives me a point of reference."
He continued: "It's not enough, in my opinion, to say that we've given a child an appreciation of music because I think that it's actually hugely inherent to who we are as human beings. So to me, what's the equivalent? Every child should grow up and be able to make music to some extent. They don't need to be a professional; they don't even have to be particularly sophisticated, but the power of just being able to pick up an instrument to give yourself solace when you're sad or join friends in a garage band, that's the goal of music education in the public schools - to turn out a generation of music makers."
Wish has a vision for this "generation of music makers." He believes that they will be the ones to find creative solutions to the problems that older generations have bestowed upon them.
"If there's any hope for anything, it's in the creativity of the next generation. Not investing in that is extremely shortsighted from my point of view," he explains. "Music helps turn people into creative problem solvers, and poetically, I'd say if we want our children to live in a world that's more harmonious, we have to invest in harmony. If we want our children to live in a world that's beautiful, then we have to invest in beauty. And it's not just the aesthetic value of it. It's that incredibly necessary creative human impulse that we need more than anything right now to solve the mounting problems that we are facing. Music serves people, people don't serve music."
Beyond music making being a life skill, Wish also sees it as a way for students to channel energy in a positive way, especially in inner city schools where lack of extra-curricular activities often leads to kids into trouble.
"If you can put children in touch with their creative side, then they are infinitely less attracted to the cheap thrill of destructive behavior," Wish explains. "They know that it is inherently more satisfying to create something than it is to destroy something. It's more fun to be part of a band than it is to be part of a gang. It's more fun to write a song than to tear down a mailbox. The sad thing is, in the inner cities where we work, a lot of times kids don't have the option. If you don't have an option, and you're looking to make your mark on the world, you might wind up doing that in a negative way. But given options, I just don't think there is any contest."
So what makes Little Kids Rock different from other charitable music organizations? Beyond providing instruments to children, they train and equip teachers with the curriculum they need to run Modern Band programs.
"Many of our peer organizations also donate instruments," he explains. "They help ensure that music is being taught. We insure not only that music is being taught but we also have an impact on how it is being taught. Our goal is to make music education more accessible and more meaning for more children."
Musicians from Lady Gaga to Bruce Springsteen have given support to the organization, volunteering their time, money, and talents to raising awareness for the cause and bringing music education to the next generation of musicians.
"From day one, the musicians have always been connected to the mission of the charity because it's very clear to them that the music they make is moving millions," he explains. "They also understand that the music they make has not yet really had a place in the public school systems. What they see is that this music that they helped bring into the world - American pop music - is in many ways still the soundtrack of planet earth. It's kind of ironic that this incredible cultural asset hasn't yet come into the public school system. I think a lot of artists understand the value of that. Many of those artists came to music and the kind of music they play outside of school. Now we're bringing that opportunity to schools on a national level."
If like these musicians, you'd like to get involved, head over to LittleKidsRock.org, where there are a number of volunteer opportunities to explore. Table reservations for Little Kids Rock Benefit event are now sold out, however, a limited number of concert-only balcony tickets are still available for purchase on the organization's website. Annually, the event raises enough funds to bring music education and instruments into the lives of tens of thousands of additional public school, who otherwise would not have access due to school budget cuts.
"Music changes children. Children change the world." — David Wish.