Training the next generation of rockers

Throughout 2018, Epiphone and national nonprofit Little Kids Rock® will continue their year-long initiative to bring music education back to public schools through a series of special events in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles as well as visits to schools throughout the U.S. Last December, Epiphone and Little Kids Rock visited Mt. View Elementary School in Antioch, Tennessee to drop of Epiphone PRO-1 Classics, EB-0 basses, and Les Pauls in time for the school's holiday music program. Recently we went back to visit the same class again and enjoyed an incredible mini-concert by the kids who have now graduated to rock classics like The Beatles' "Come Together," "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots, and "Join Together" by The Who. We spoke with Little Kids Rock teacher Mark Hale about his program, how the kids have progressed, and how music is impacting his student's lives.

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What is a typical day like for a Little Kids Rock student?

I teach music for kindergartners through fourth graders every day. I don't teach the modern band instruments everyday, but when I do, a typical day for kindergartners will focus on teaching them how to hold guitars and strum all the strings with various rhythms, just getting them used to the instrument and making sounds. We flip it over and play the back like a drum with various rhythms as well.

My first grade class focuses on playing the highest three strings--like an E minor chord--so no fingers are required which keeps it simple. We work a little bit on single string playing up and down the neck as well. We play songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You" and Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy." I have the keyboard players improvise on C, D and E while I play a chord progression --C, Am, F, G--that goes with those notes.

Second grade builds on what they learned in first grade - adding the simple one-finger chords like G, G7 and C, as well as changing chords. We play songs like War's "Low Rider" and Cold War Kids' "Hang Me Up To Dry," and focus more on playing the first string tablature to songs they already know like "Rain, Rain" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Third graders learn three-finger chords on guitar and keyboards and play songs like "I Gotta Feeling" and "Uptown Funk."

Fourth graders move on to power chords and play more difficult songs. In every grade, I always play a backing drum track and the students play a chord on beat one. Then I might change it to one and two until they are strumming to the rhythm. We do this before I introduce any songs.

What are some of the challenges you have found in trying to teach rock 'n' roll? On one hand, the kids are likely to be familiar with popular songs. But modern "pop" songs have a lot of production tricks which might make the song hard to replicate.

When teaching rock 'n' roll songs, I try to stick with well-known songs that the kids are already familiar with, like Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." Usually at this point in the school year, the students have hit a point of-- "Ah ha! I get it." We play along with these songs and it makes the kids feel like they are rock stars. When the students are sounding pretty good playing along, then we perform the song with just the instruments. That's when students realize that they "almost" sound like the real song. Approximation is the name of the game. The biggest challenge I have is that everybody wants to play the bass, play the drums, electric guitar and sing. Making sure that everyone shares these roles I believe will help him or her grow musically and become better musicians one day.

Rock 'n' Roll now goes back over 60 years. When you are teaching kids about rhythm and melody, is there a style or era of music that makes those lessons especially impactful?

The majority of the students like today's pop/rock music like Imagine Dragons, The White Stripes, Blink 182, Train, Coldplay, Chainsmokers, One Republic, etc. Most of the songs we play usually have a repeated chord progression, which is very important in muscle memory for these kids. They respond well to melody and there are quite a few who want to learn the familiar TAB to the songs.

Are there particular artists whose songs excel at teaching the kids about music as well as entertaining them?

I would say just about any of the artists whose songs we play are teaching the kids. Having the students pick out most of the songs is key to their learning process. Keeping this part of their day student-centered is very important. When they want to learn something, they will pay more attention and then want to go home, look it up on YouTube and practice it.

Tell me about working with Epiphone instruments. Have they been reliable and helpful tools for the kids?

The kids love the Epiphones. Especially the electric guitars and basses. The acoustics stay in tune really well. No buzzing like with other guitars.

How has teaching music changed the way you hear music?

Teaching music allows me the chance to give these kids something I didn't have growing up. Playing songs they enjoy while learning how to play real band instruments and not just rhythm sticks, triangles and maracas. Engaging the students in a fun learning environment promotes musical individuality - making music and not being worried about making it sound perfect. I want my students to have a love for music and a lifelong passion to be a music maker, not necessarily a musician. Playing music for their enjoyment.