Rock On 

A guitar program is a big hit in local schools.

In the film School of Rock, failed-guitarist-turned-substitute-teacher Jack Black turns a class of fifth- grade smarties into a group of rock-and-rollers. As their music appreciation grows, so does their talent, as Black and his band take their show on the road.

The story is the same for kids in some Memphis classrooms -- minus the famous teacher, a film script, and tour. In 11 elementary and one middle school, budding musicians are learning to play the guitar.

"The hardest part about learning to play the guitar was trying to get the D chord right," says 10-year-old Tenisha Middlebrooks. The Coleman Elementary fifth-grader is one of 14 students in Maria Spence's Little Kids Rock beginner guitar class.

In a music classroom adjacent to the gym, Spence directs the class of fourth- and fifth-graders in rhythm patterns while trying to ignore the sounds of basketball on the other side of the door. Inside the class are drums, xylophones, keyboards, and cymbals; guitars are the lesson of the day. "When [teachers] were approached to teach the classes, I volunteered," says Spence. "I've never taught guitar before and it was different. The kids were excited because it's something extra, and they soak it up like sponges."

Spence, a local musician, has been teaching music for 10 years but has only played the guitar for two of those. Her classes at Coleman are composed of children from the after-school program. Scheduling conflicts have transformed the class into a regular-day activity, and students take shorter lunches and sacrifice recess to participate.

When Little Kids Rock executive director David Wish came to the Memphis area soliciting teachers for the program, Spence and others signed on on a pro bono basis. Coleman began its program in September. In addition to learning notes and scales, students are also taught proper care, use, and storage of their instruments.

Wish, an elementary school teacher, got the idea for the program in 1996, when his public school's music-program funding was cut. Through donations and support from industry luminaries like Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King, Wish's group was able to provide free classes and instruments to more than 1,000 children across the country. Twelve schools are participating in Memphis, with another 12 slated to begin as early as next year.

Teachers are allowed to create their own curriculum (Memphis' is based on rock-and-roll), and students are encouraged to compose, perform, and record their own music. Nationally, the program has released four full-length CD compilations of children's works. The latest, released this month, is a coast-to-coast collection of Little Kids Rock performances.

Spence's goal is for her class to begin playing some blues progressions. "The classes really help the students. All music is math, and because we also have sessions on writing lyrics, it also helps with English," she says. "The appeal of the guitar is that everybody can do it."

In Memphis, the program has received assistance from Elvis Presley Enterprises. Since becoming a sponsor, the organization has donated more than $5,000, with $9,000 more expected. "[Little Kids Rock] contacted us to let us know about the organization, and we felt their mission was so on-target for everything that Elvis was about," says EPE representative Scott Williams. The company has raised the funds through the official Elvis Collectors Club.

"I like guitar better than anything because I love Elvis and want to be like him," says Middlebrooks' classmate Stuart Settles. "My friends ask me about it and why I like it and now they want to do it, too."

Spence expects to hold some sort of recital featuring the guitar students in the spring. Next year, she looks to expand the program to include more students and more guitars. "It's wonderful," she says, "especially in Memphis, to know that we get to make our own music."

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