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'Little Kids Rock' Turns Teachers Into Guitar Heroes

Stacy Nick
Cache La Poudre Elementary School teacher Melissa Flail leads students through the guitar parts of a new song.

The theory behind the modern band movement is pretty simple: Teach kids the music they like and they will like -- and learn -- the music you teach.

This summer, almost 400 music educators from around the country traveled to Fort Collins to find out more about the concept and the organization spearheading it.

Little Kids Rock is a nonprofit that provides training and instruments to teachers so that they can offer music classes that are relevant to them, said the program’s CEO and founder David Wish during a break at the Modern Band Rock Fest conference.

“Modern band is a student-centered, student empowering form of music education that puts children in the driver’s seat of their own learning,” Wish said.

However, the modern band movement is realizing that kids like to drive pretty fast.

“As a -- let’s just say -- older gentleman, I’ve found that youth move much more quickly than we do,” Wish said. “So, it only makes sense that youth music moves very quickly. What’s modern today, may well not be modern five years from now.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Kenrick Wagner leads a session on finding positive ways to incorporate rap in the classroom during the Modern Band Rock Fest conference.

Getting up to speed requires teachers to acquaint themselves with new technologies as well as a variety of musical styles.

Students now are just as interested in learning the music production software program GarageBand, as they are in playing in an actual garage band, said Chicago elementary music teacher Branden Lancaster-Williams.

“They definitely want to (DJ), like, ‘Let’s get up and mix some sets, some background tracks; let’s do some beats,’” Lancaster-Williams said.

For him, the idea of using a computer to create music isn’t odd. But, he said, a lot of teachers are apprehensive about incorporating computers and synthesizers into a classroom where guitars and drums have long been king.

“In those cases, the best thing that you can do is talk to your students, because most of them have already been trying to dabble in it,” Lancaster-Williams said. “A lot of the ideas that I’ve gotten for using things that I have no idea about, I’ve gotten from students.”

That doesn’t mean schools should start tossing out their traditional instruments.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Julia Kirkwood, 11, tunes her guitar before she and her classmates perform. Kirkwood is part of her school's Little Kids Rock program.

At home, 11-year-old Julia Kirkwood from Laporte, Colo. writes and rehearses her own songs using a launchpad. It’s like a keyboardless synthesizer that can be programmed to create music, loops and samples with the touch of a button.

But when she’s performing with her school’s Little Kids Rock program, the sixth grader said she’d rather play an actual guitar, even if the artist she’s covering doesn’t.

“Most of the music now ... they use all electronic stuff and loops and launchpads, and they never do anything just the old-fashioned way,” Kirkwood said.

Bridging the gap requires these music teachers to keep up to date not only on the latest educational and technology trends but different musical styles as well.

Credit Courtesy Little Kids Rock
Kenrick Wagner leads the session 'Rap for Good.'

In his Little Kids Rock session, “Rap for Good,” trainer Kenrick Wagner showed teachers easy ways to bring rap and hip-hop into their classrooms. In one game, Wagner used music from Michael Jackson -- an artist that both teachers and their students are likely to be familiar with -- to ease the teachers into more contemporary rap and hip-hop artists.

“We feel like we want to walk into a classroom and be Eminem,” he told the class. “Calm down, OK? It took him a lifetime to get where he is, OK? Chances are, it’s going to take you a lifetime, and you ain’t got time like that.”

After the class, Wagner said he got through to the teachers that they can include the hip-hop culture and still avoid the lyrical minefields that accompany some of today’s music.

“There’s a lot of negative press that (hip hop) gets and I’m hoping that I showed them tools to introduce it in a positive way to the classroom,” he said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Teachers talk about how to deal with inappropriate content in modern music.

Teacher Cathryn Deering attended the conference hoping to learn more about creating her own Little Kids Rock after-school program.

Deering’s school, Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary, is in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, and is part of former first lady Michelle Obama’s Turnaround Arts initiative. The national program aims to help low-performing schools by incorporating the arts.

Deering’s students are interested in reggaetón, rap and hip hop. The genres have proved a learning curve for her.

“I’m classically trained, so for me, I’ve really had to push out of that comfort zone,” she said. “Because classical, very structured music education -- very formal, traditional quote-unquote European music education -- is how I was raised and what I studied in college.”

According to Little Kids Rock’s David Wish, the fact that teachers like Deering are pushing their comfort zone is promising because in music education rock is just as important as Bach.

“It’s very important to preserve our rich cultural heritage, but it’s also equally important to be prepared for our rich cultural future,” Wish said.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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