There’s more than one way to teach kids the beat. On a recent school day, Liberty DeVitto, the longtime drummer for Billy Joel, asked third-graders at P.S. 176 to flip over their guitars and tap out rhythms on the wooden backs. In seconds, the kids were banging away and singing lyrics of their own. Grins lit up the classroom as teacher David Wish picked a fancy accompanying tune on his guitar.
As fans flock to “School of Rock,” the hit movie about a rock ’n’ roller masquerading as a teacher, Wish and friends are doing it in real life.
The year-old program called Little Kids Rock reaches about 2,000 children in 130 public schools in New York, San Francisco, Memphis, Tenn., and Newark, N.J. The goal is to fill a void where music education has been cut, while building a curriculum based on improvisation and participation.
Children are treated to classroom visits from stars like Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits, who recently showed up at the Spring Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. Harmonica virtuoso Norton Buffalo, former Metallica bass guitarist Jason Newsted and singer-songwriter Austin Willacy have also turned up in classrooms.
“I don’t think of the arts as a luxury — no more than phys ed is,” Raitt said after one recent class. “When I got a guitar for Christmas, I found my voice. A lot of my adolescent pain and angst were expressed through music. Kids learn self-esteem, and action, through music.”
“Little Kids Rock brings cool water to the desert,” Waits said. “Unfortunately, a desert is what the arts in public education has become.”
In uptown Manhattan, Wish and DeVitto encouraged the children to improvise with lyrics. “Can you think of two words that rhyme?” Wish asked. “Yes, red and bed. Make a sentence out of it!”
In a flash, the kids created the lyrics and rhythm for their own song, then the tune and harmony, their fingers shaping an E major chord that Wish said “stands for energy!”
The children’s energy comes from the rock and hip-hop traditions of their neighborhood, rather than more classic influences. “It’s the music kids hear around them that’s built into each child, that feeds composition and improvisation,” Wish said.
New way to teach music
As a child, Wish recalled, he used to stand before a mirror with a broom, pretending to be a guitar hero. That was after his violin teacher refused to show him how to play a Beatles song. “So I quit violin,” said Wish, who eventually learned to play well enough to perform in jazz clubs.
The experience helped shaped Wish’s view of how music should be taught. Cutbacks in public school music curriculum, while unfortunate, can “give us a tremendous opportunity to reinvent music education. Instead of learning by rote, we encourage participation, improvisation,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, when he was a regular first-grade teacher in Redwood City, Calif., Wish noticed that music as a subject was falling between the cracks. That’s when he first tried out his spontaneous style of teaching in after-school lessons for a few kids.
Playing their guitars — even out of tune — gives these kids “a chance to love something,” DeVitto said. “That means they’ve got a better chance of staying out of trouble.”
Wish started Little Kids Rock with $60,000 in foundation and individual contributions. Most of the 200 teachers volunteer their time, although some get a small stipend from their schools. Some classes are part of the school day, although many sessions are scheduled after regular school hours.
Wish has enlisted a number of stars by sending them samples of the children’s music. CDs of Little Kids Rock were mailed to the likes of B.B. King and Carlos Santana. Some have lent their names to the project; others have volunteered classroom time.
Wish hopes still others will record some of the kids’ songs for a fund-raising CD to be released next year.
At P.S. 176, Hatuey Rodriguez has adjusted his career plans to include music.
“I want to be a singer and a baseball player — a Yankees shortstop,” the 7-year-old said. “I could sit in the bullpen and sing Little Bow Wow.”