The following is a conversation between David Wish, the Founder and CEO of Little Kids Rock, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: My next guest believes that we are all innately musical. He also believes, like so many of us, that the way music education has disappeared from many of our public schools is tragic. But unlike many of us, he’s done something about it. At first, with 30 first graders, and now he has helped restore and revitalize music education for more than 650,000 low-income children across the country. He is David Wish, the Founder and CEO of Little Kids Rock. Good evening Dave, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Dave: Thank you so much for having me, Denver.
I saw a collective, just a beautiful bond that formed between the kids that wasn’t there before, that the music brought.
Denver: You were a first-grade teacher in East Palo Alto back in about 1991, and it was there a few years later that the initial idea of what was to become Little Kids Rock was born. Tell us about that founding story.
Dave: My first year of teaching, I found myself in the murder capital of the United States unwittingly. I did want to work in a community where I knew that my passion for teaching could have an impact. So, when you’re in that kind of environment, all you want to do is make a difference. For me, it was clear. I could bring harmony to my kids, literally and figuratively. There was no music program in the area. I started giving as a musician myself. I just decided, “Well, I’m going to teach my kids to play.”
So, I begged and borrowed a bunch of musical instruments from my musician friends who owed me favors and such. We started a music program that really focused on the music that the kids knew and loved. They were listening to Selena and the Backstreet Boys and the pop music of the day, and they were passionate about it. So, I wanted to leverage that. We just started learning the music that was important to them. I could see the transformation immediately. I saw shy kids like Esmeralda start stepping up. I saw tough kids like Christian start to soften up, and I saw a collective, just a beautiful bond that formed between the kids that wasn’t there before, that the music brought.
Denver: Then what happened was with your first graders, more and more kids at the school wanted to be part of the action.
Dave: Yeah. We started. I also taught the kids to write their own music. Remember, these are very small people. First graders. Six years old. So we started releasing our own CDs. All of the other kids in the school started saying, “Why are the first graders having all the fun?” So, I started a class for the second graders, for the third graders, for the fourth graders. All before school, after school, during my lunch hour.
At a certain point, I hit a wall. That wall was, there was no more time in the day to reach more kids. Yet more kids kept coming and coming. So, it forced me to think about how do I not be the mean guy who has to say, “No, you don’t get to have music while all your friends do.” I turned to other school teachers that I knew had some kind of a background in music. I said, “Listen. Let me show you what I’m doing here.” I was rich in instruments at that point, because we were selling those CDs and funds from that were funding our instrument needs.
Suddenly, the program just started replicating. It wasn’t just me with all of my kids having all the fun. It was me and other teachers, and music started to propagate across the entire school… actually, in neighboring schools because word traveled. We got early support from people like Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt who heard the kids’ music being played on local radio stations, and who contributed funds and time and classroom visits.
After a few years of that, it suddenly dawned on me. There’s something bigger here than just this program I’m doing locally as a school teacher, and this problem is really national. Arts education being removed. Music education being deprioritized, and I knew that I was on to something that could stem that tide. So, in 2002, I decided to at the summer, when school was over, not renew my time as a school teacher, but start to look at Rock as a nonprofit organization for impact.
The wind is at our back. Now, it’s up to arts advocates to start painting the picture and filling in the numbers.
Denver: Fantastic. Let me pick up on what you just said. What is the state of music education in the nation’s public schools currently?
Dave: Well, that’s an excellent question. There are certainly millions of students that do not have access or participate in music education at their schools. The truth is, there is no national figure because it hasn’t been prioritized. Now, the Every Student Succeeds Act that Congress passed makes music education a core subject that has to be provided to all children “regardless of their personal circumstances.” That’s a historic first. The wind is at our back. Now it’s up to arts advocates to start painting the picture and filling in the numbers.
For example, there are a few states where we can tell… like in California. The average statewide participation in music education at the middle and high school level is 14%. When you consider how passionate kids are about music, what is going on that only 14% of kids are participating in music programs in California? We don’t know the data for all of the states, but we know that it’s a huge need. And we also know that there are a lot of people that believe that this is something that can be transformational for education in general. I’m optimistic. I’m upbeat. I actually think that music education being universally available– and its benefits universally shared by students– is something that I’m going to see in my lifetime and we can all expect. I’m only 50. Hopefully, I’ll still have some time.
…the future of the world lies in our children’s creativity… Music brings that out in ways that little else can.
Denver: Well stay in shape. I know music education is not just important to you. You really feel it’s a social justice issue. Why don’t you share with us your thinking around that?
Dave: First and foremost, some of the research points to the fact that children in low-income communities are less likely to get music education. Even in communities where parents are better resourced, they’re paying for it. It’s something extra and above and beyond. Of course, low-income families may not have that kind of disposable income. So, I think it’s a social justice issue in that vein.
I also think it’s a social justice issue in that, I’m a strong believer in the First Amendment, in every person having a voice in our democracy. There is something about music that empowers people to express themselves in ways. I can’t remember who said, “Music takes over where words fail.” There is something so powerful about the agency that music gives children, and I would say that it’s not just performing other people’s music. Of course it’s important. That’s like reading great literature.
But what about writing your own music? That’s one of the things that our program, Little Kids Rock, is really well known for. It’s empowering students to compose their own music. They’re going to have to compose their own future, right? This is not much of a stretch in my mind. It’s actually a direct analog. You have to make up your future, and children are the future of our planet, thankfully. I don’t think the adults are showing that they’re doing a bang-up job at this exact moment. Anything that we can do to give them… people say the future of the world lies in our children’s hands. I actually say that the future of the world lies in our children’s creativity. That’s the asset that they’re really going to use. Music brings that out in ways that little else can.
It’s a social justice issue because it gives voice to the voiceless. It’s a social justice issue because it’s not being evenly and fairly distributed across kids who live in this zip code and don’t get it. Or if kids in that zip code do… that’s not how public education should work in my mind.
Denver: It’s not that big of a stretch either, in that if you take a look at all the refrigerators around the country with magnets on them, the art up there is not something that Picasso or Rembrandt did. It’s their own creation, and you’re really applying the same kind of sensibility to music.
Dave: Without a doubt. And we’re helping music teachers that may not have been trained to do that understand how to get there. It’s not just about homages to the past. It’s about building the future right now. Because the kids are that future.
Music for every child, and every child for music.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about your methodology, and part of that is around music as a second language. What is the philosophy that informs that approach?
Dave: This is the thing that really defines who we are. We start with the belief that every human being, no matter how insecure, no matter how many negative messages they’ve received from anybody, every human being is profoundly musical. It’s simply our job as educators to draw that music out. Not to drum it in. The reason we call music a second language is, that’s very much like we are as musical as we are linguistic creatures. We speak. No one teaches us to speak. They merely speak around us when we’re infants, and we acquire the ability to speak. It’s not like your parents sit down with you one day, “Denver, Listen, we noticed that you say “mama” and “papa.” Those are nouns. Since you’re showing a talent for nouns, we’re going to double down on nouns, and we’re going to teach you all these other nouns like” cat,” “dog,” “fish.”
No, no, no. We just use language for meaning in our daily lives, and it’s like osmosis. It comes into us. The same is true of music. You have all of these people who have incredible pent-up musicality; and due to only one way of teaching– or a limited way of teaching– you wind up limiting the people who can express their musicality. For example, if you say that musicality must be expressed through singing, what does that say for the drummers in the crowd? Or the guitarist in the crowd? Or the hip hop artist? Or the lyricist? Etc.
If you say that the only pathway to making music is through reading musical notation, what about children who have learning disabilities? So, our methodology makes learning or acquiring music and making music just as natural as speaking is. We show that methodology to music teachers across the country. In fact, we’ve trained over 4,000 music teachers in our methods, and now colleges and universities across the country that are preparing the next generation of music teachers are using our method to make their music ed programs more inclusive, because we want every child to have music. Music for every child, and every child for music.
Modern Band is a music program that teaches children to play the culturally relevant music of their generation. It brings music education into the now.
Denver: Your organization has invented an entirely new kind of school music program, and that’s called Modern Band. This has been adopted by public schools in LA, in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Hartford and so on. What is Modern Band?
Dave: For people who are listening that are familiar with school music programs, people can picture what a marching band is. At the football game. Or they can picture what a jazz band is. Or they can picture what an orchestra or chorus is. Each of those are separate classes typically in the school. What is Modern Band? Modern Band is a music program that teaches children to play the culturally relevant music of their generation. It brings music education into the now.
These other forms of music education are invaluable ways of preserving the past. Sure, there’s a connection to the future as well. It’s not like jazz is going anywhere, etc. The world of music has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Not so much, music education. So, Modern Band brings music education forward… because music is no longer recorded, disseminated, learned the same way it was 50 years ago.
So, music education needs to reflect those changes. Music education actually needs to move at the speed of music. Modern Band helps do that. What do children in a Modern Band classroom get to do? They play contemporary music, whether it’s rock or reggae or pop or disco… the music of today. They play it on the instruments that are of those genres – guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, technology, and Modern Band is the latest category of music education to enter the public school system in the wake of jazz. Jazz was sort of introduced in the ‘60s and ‘70s; so Modern Band is this new thing. We invented it with our partners, and currently there are over 3 million students that attend school districts that have adopted Modern Band as an official part of their in-school music curriculum.
Denver: It’s very nice when kids can see themselves in the curriculum, and I guess it also probably helps with their “cool factor” when they’re playing something that all their contemporaries like.
Dave: Yeah, and if you unpack the word “cool,”, cool is like, “I’m accepted by my peers. I’m admired by my peers. I feel self-confident in front of my peers.” These are traits that I think we would all want for our own children… and certainly teachers want for their students.
…D comes before E in the alphabet. So…Do, and then Explain.
Denver: These kids start playing music right away. This isn’t like going to class and writing things down and learning and doing notes. They’re making sounds together almost instantaneously.
Dave: One of the things we like to say is that D comes before E in the alphabet. So… Do, and then Explain. It’s a lot of hands-on music making and the things like theory and reading come once children have the ability… just like back to the language analogy. You don’t learn to read before you learn to speak. You speak, and then reading has more meaning. It’s very easy to get a child “speaking” on an instrument, playing many songs on guitar, piano, or what have you, in a matter of months, weeks, days, minutes in some cases. Now, once a child can do that, it makes much more sense when you say, “Hey, by the way that song that you’re playing by Lady Gaga, it basically has four chords. What’s a chord? Remember when you were doing this? That’s a chord. That’s a C major; that’s a G major; that’s an A minor, etc.” But if you start with that, you can lose kids. I think a lot of people in the audience will remember their own music education, and they might look back and say, “Well I didn’t have talent,” or “I didn’t understand” or “I couldn’t follow.” I would flip that on its head. What I would say is, “Actually, the educator that you worked with, whether it was private or school, didn’t really leverage the way that you’re hardwired to learn… you, as an individual.”
Denver: Little Kids Rock also donates musical instruments to the schools where these programs are being held. Tell us about that process. Do you buy them? Are they donated? How do you go about all that?
Dave: We give four things to every school teacher that we work with. First, we train them in our methodology. How can you make music education inclusive and expansive? Then we give them the curriculum we have developed which they use to teach in their schools, and we give them instruments, and we link them together in a community– sort of a community of practice.
The most expensive part of that is the instruments. Ideas are these beautiful things. They’re something you can give away to people and still keep for yourselves. But not so, instruments. The way that we work that is we work with foundations, individuals, corporations in the various school markets, and we’re in about 275 US public school systems, and our cost for going into a school and launching with a full set of Modern Band instruments, curriculum, and training is about $5,000 per site. So, it’s not actually such a heavy lift. It leverages two things that every school has…. Teachers and a site. So, we don’t have to build a separate school. We don’t have to hire a separate person. We’re leveraging that.
We’re now working on a model where we’re only offering training in schools. Let’s take a school community with high resources like in California, where we said only 14% of kids participate. What about a well-to-do- school district where 14% of the kids are participating? Why might that be? Are those kids any less interested in music? Well, no. What if we train the music teachers even in those districts to make their music programs even more inclusive, even more expansive? Well, that would bring more children to music making, and we can do that just by training them and giving them our professional development. We don’t need to buy instruments for them. They have already got the resources for that.
Currently, there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 75,000 public school music teachers. We are working with about 2,500 of them. Our goal in 10 years is to be working with 55,000 of them. And we believe that with a blended model of philanthropy where it’s necessary, and fee-for-service where it’s possible, we will reach that target. And the thing that’s going to drive us to that finish line is people understanding internally in the US public school system just how much better music makes the schools. I like to joke, “They add music to everything… to commercials, to movies, to weddings, to funerals, to the bathroom sometimes in public places. But let’s take it out of school. That will make education better. Yeah. Someone please explain to me how that makes any sense.” I think administrators, they get it, but they don’t get necessarily how to scale it. That’s where we really come in. We’ve got a way that we can train any school teacher that’s a music teacher to bring children who might not come into an existing program through those doors and stay there.
We also have a program where we work with General Ed teachers. People who aren’t music teachers but have some kind of background in music, so that if there is no music program at the school, we can start a beachhead program, even if it’s just as an after-school program. We’ve found over the last 16 years is: quite often, that third-grade teacher that we trained to run an after-school enrichment program? The principal will be so taken with what it looks like, to suddenly have music at their school, and he’ll say, “You know what, Mary, you’re doing a bang-up job as a third-grade teacher, but we love this music thing; we’re going to actually hire you to be our music teacher. I can get another third-grade teacher that’ll be great, but I’ve never seen this in our school before. Last year, we tracked, we had over 110 music teachers hired at our schools that already had music programs. So, basically, that’s how we’re restoring music where it’s been eliminated.
Denver: When you start to talk about scaling, that takes us to New York City because, what bigger place to scale? And you have a great program called Amp Up NYC, and that initiative is in a partnership with Berklee College of Music and the New York City Department of Education. Tell us about it.
Dave: That partnership was launched as a result of the work that Roger Brown of the Berklee College of Music was doing with the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium(QJMC). We were both board members, and Berklee is one of the most forward-looking music education institutions in the world. I like to think that Little Kids Rock is similarly forward-looking, but in the schools. So, we had just gotten the New York Department of Ed to adopt Modern Band officially as a program, and we were in about 70 schools. Roger and I concocted a partnership that would leverage the higher-ed resources of the Berklee College of Music with boots on the ground training capacity of Little Kids Rock, and the desire of the largest public school system in the United States— New York Department of Education— to bring more children into music, to create Amp Up NYC which has scaled Modern Band throughout the New York Department of Ed.
We launched it about three years ago. Currently, nearly half of all music programs that are in New York City have teachers that have been trained and equipped by Amp Up NYC. Collectively, they have brought the transformational gift of music to nearly 80,000 students, and those programs are as permanent as those positions are in the schools. In other words, we have trained over 500 music teachers. Those teachers are going to continue doing Modern Band for as long as they are in the program.
Our goal in the next several years is to scale up to reach over 75% of all music teachers in the city. So, a teacher might be doing a marching band or jazz band of course, but they’ll also be doing Modern Band. What we’re looking to do is… it should be more normative that a music education program can reach children anywhere they happen to be than if they wouldn’t. So that a program, it’ll be unthinkable that there will be school music programs that don’t leverage the cultural capital of the children that they serve because, like you said, children need to see themselves reflected in their curriculum.
Not only, of course, we can expose them to all kinds of things, but exposure without cultural relevance can be a little bit like when we were kids, our parents liked to expose us to chicken pox, so we would never catch them again. We’ll get it as a little kid, but then that cured me. You can expose children to lots of things, but if none of it’s taking, you’re actually still not doing your job. It’s not enough just to expose. You need to include. Access is not the answer. Participation is the answer. I’ll give you an analogy. If I have strep throat, and I have access to antibiotics, but I don’t take them, that’s not really what we’re going for. Same thing. Having access to music education, sure it starts there. But unless a child’s participating, it’s just checking off a box.
Denver: You mentioned before you’ve been able to enlist the support of some major celebrity musical performers in this effort. Who have some of them been? And what do they do for you?
Dave: Some of the earliest were Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker who lived close to where my initial program was– visiting schools, donating instruments. Carlos has the Milagro Foundation which has been a generous contributor for many years. But also every year, we do benefit events, so we’ve had people like Elvis Costello, Lady Gaga, Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen come out for our annual benefit event. We also have had wonderful artists do actual curriculum for us. We like to create curriculum that features some of our artist friends because they’re inspirational and aspirational for our children. They get involved in all manner of ways.
I think that one of the reasons that attracts them to the program is they’re living what we’re teaching the children to do. We’re showing them how to write their own songs. So, if you were somebody who like Slash from Guns ‘n Roses, you know what that feels like to write your own music. You know what it feels like to have someone sing a song that you wrote. Of course it resonates for a person like him.
Denver: I know you’ve done some evaluative studies conducted by folks like Teachers College at Columbia University, and they’re not just looking at the students. They’re also looking at the teachers. What have you found the impact of Little Kids Rock Modern Band to have been in these schools?
Dave: The impact is on the students, on the teachers, and actually even on the school community. Teachers express overwhelmingly that they’re experiencing greater connection to their students, greater connection to their schools, and greater overall job satisfaction. There’s an emerging picture that educators that embrace this approach to teaching stay in teaching for longer. That’s really important, writ more largely in terms of just education. One of the challenges that inner city schools face is a high teacher turnover rate. If you were a company or a business, you would say, “Wow, if we keep losing staff, what does it say about us? Why do we have to keep retraining people?”
All that means is whatever your sales people or your marketing people, are the least experienced people out there, and you want the most experienced. If we’re helping music teachers stay in the career, in the profession, for longer, that’s a completely different angle on service, and the data are beginning to show that.
Similarly, students are showing benefits in ways that are not necessarily directly related to music but highly correlated with better attendance, highly correlated with higher academic achievement overall. This all underpins a growing body of scientific research and evidence in the field more broadly. If there are studies that are showing that music education has no impact or negative impact on students’ overall outcomes, I have yet to see a single one. People can find all kinds of wonderful studies online at a website called nam.org. There’s all kinds of research there.
Furthermore, in New York, we haven’t released this study yet, but I think it’s a telling one. We worked with Quadrant Arts that showed that schools that have this program in New York… and there are hundreds of them… are highly correlated with over a third higher participation rates in music in New York City. That’s a big deal to say, “Wow, a third more children will participate in music education if you offer this as an option.” That’s a strong correlation and a wonderful area for exploration as we try to make music education matter for every kid.
Denver: With a program that involves kids and music, I guess that probably has some kind of influence on your workplace culture. Tell us about the corporate culture at Little Kids Rock and what you do to shape it and influence it.
Dave: Many of our staff members are themselves music makers. Many of our staff members are themselves former educators, and we’re passionate about it. This is something that’s changed our own lives personally. It’s not an abstract. For example, we have a room in the office which we call the jam room. In the jam room, it’s just a fully-equipped room with guitars, keyboards, drums, basses, and etc. Our team will just go there at random intervals to make music themselves. We have a culture that I think really celebrates people’s creativity. We consider ourselves all inventors. So, we’ll share our inventions at staff meetings. We also understand a really strong connection between the people; we don’t look at our funders as somehow radically separate from our staff, as somehow radically separate from our teachers.
There’s a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Every week, we’ll call up a certain funder as a staff, all 30 of us at our staff meeting, and surprise them with a “Hey, we’re just calling to say, you rock!” We all scream it in the phone. “Maria, thanks so much for your incredible donation.” So, I would say the culture is passionate, the culture is music making. But also very demanding. We work with a sense of urgency. You can’t sit around on a day-to-day basis and say: Wow, we’re reaching 2,500 teachers. That’s great. But we need to reach 55,000 in 10 years. There’s not a lot of time to waste. We are, I would say, obsessive about what’s our ROI? If we put our time into this, how many students will we reach? How many teachers will we reach? That means refining the model in a constant way. Little tweaks here, little tweaks there. I would say, it’s a culture of obsessives having a good time together with a sense of urgency. How’s that?
Denver: Not happy with the status quo. That’s for sure.
Dave: No. Definitely not.
That term “movers and shakers” appeared for the first time in the English language in that poem. Even though we’re interviewing here at Wall Street, it was never meant for the Titans of industry.
Denver: Let me close with this Dave. Share with our listeners a story or two of children… or maybe children and their parents… who have been part of Little Kids Rock and what it has meant to them.
Dave: I’ll frame this just by saying that, music brings people together in ways that very little else can. Particularly during this time, which I think every listener… or most listeners… will agree would be one of the most divisive periods in recent memory, easily. The role that music plays is pretty powerful. There’s a poem that has a short stanza that says,” We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams… World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams: Yet, we are the movers and shakers Of the world for ever, it seems.” That term “movers and shakers” appeared for the first time in the English language in that poem. Even though we’re interviewing here at Wall Street, it was never meant for the Titans of industry. It was meant for musicians who changed the way we see the world. Who changed the way we see each other. And it’s always been that way throughout history. That’s the power of music. That’s the power of the arts. A story about how I’ve seen that manifest itself in a particular child’s life? There are a lot, but here’s one in particular.
There was a little girl… we’ll say her name was Marla. Her family were refugees from the war in Kosovo. They has lost family members. They has come over. They landed in the Tenderloin in San Francisco; not a great neighborhood, a very challenging community. The whole family living in one small apartment, and the mother and father got into a huge argument over the stresses of daily life. Who knows what it was about. The mom and the dad were screaming and yelling, and Marla grabbed her guitar and went into the bathroom and slammed the door and started playing music. The mother and the father stopped arguing, and they looked at each other, and they listened to the music, and they started to weep. They wept for their lives, and they wept for their circumstances, and they wept for the fact that they lost themselves in front of their child, and they wept for the power of the music coming through that bathroom door, just as a nonverbal queue like, “People, please!” The reason I know this… I wasn’t in the house. Marla’s mother came to me and explained to me, “You don’t know what this program means to my family. You don’t know what this program means to my daughter or to my husband.” I’ve got to say that I have the privilege still of being in touch with Marla who’s now probably in her early 30s.
Many of our students. What I’ve noticed is the impact of music education lasts a lifetime. It’s not about what children are doing during the school day. Of course it is. I don’t think we invest in music education because children can make music beautifully. We invest in music education because it can make children beautiful, and it makes for me, it gives me hope that we can restore civility and harmony. Our national motto has music at its core. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. Not, out of one, one. Not, it’s my way or the highway. It’s not, the people who don’t agree with me are an existential threat to my existence, and I will do anything to overpower and overawe and overcome. It’s like, we are all different voices in this great American chorus; we better sing in harmony if we’re going to live up to our creed.
Otherwise, there are lots of examples across the planet of people who give up that ghost. Of people who say: Democracy was a great experiment, but we don’t have the wherewithal to stick with it. And I think that the soundtrack of keeping our democracy alive and healthy, part of it can begin with the music because the music forces harmony. The music forces listening. You can’t be a good band member if you’re only listening to yourself. So, to me, we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. That resonates, and that we are the movers and shakers; that’s what education has to contribute to this country right now. And music education has its very own special contribution that it can make. That’s why I believe in the possible and the now and the urgency.
Denver: A very nice note to end on.
David Wish, the Founder and CEO of Little Kids Rock. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how listeners can become involved if they should be so interested in doing so?
Dave: Please visit www.littlekidsrock.org, and you can learn more about the program, ways to get involved, ways to support and donate. You can contact me or my team through there. You’ll see all of our contact information. Furthermore, there are a bunch of lessons that you can take if you yourself are an aspiring music maker. Or let’s say you have a child in your life that you love and would love to connect to music, there are many resources there as well. We share the same resources that we give to our children and teachers and schools with the general public. You are a music maker too if you hear over the sound of this voice, or even if you don’t, likely you are. Make music and make the world a more harmonious and beautiful place.
Denver: Thanks, Dave. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Dave: Likewise, Denver. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving, right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving