Music makes you smarter
Grounded in Music: These kids can rock
The kids got off the bus and walked through the Stubbs Barbeque gates. It was early afternoon so the outdoor stage venue was nearly empty except for the roadies, sound and lighting engineers and My Morning Jacket which was sound-checking three songs, preparing for a concert that night.
The couple dozen kids, all with some interest in music, came from the local Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin. They watched the rock stars with awe. The world of My Morning Jacket and their world seemed an infinite distance apart — until Jim James, Tom Blankenship, Patrick Hallahan, Carl Broemel and Bo Koster came down off the stage and began talking to them. What they said meant far less than just being there talking — to them. The guys, rock stars just minutes ago, were now very cool but very ordinary nice guys; and the kids, just minutes ago wide-eyed and intimidated, were engaged and asking questions. The distance between rock star and what they could aspire to went from infinity to reality.
That's what Grounded in Music is about — not creating rock stars — building confidence in kids who too often are told of the things they cannot do, rather than what is available to them.
Launched in 2007, Grounded in Music partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin to bring music to those kids who have no access to instruments or instruction. "We [the founders] all agreed, we were all public school kids. I learned how to play saxophone in the fourth grade, the other guy, clarinet, and we were just like, 'how different would our lives be if music weren’t involved?'" explained founder Joe Stallone. "We got our first taste of music in public school and so at that point we said, we really ought to do something about that." Joe Stallone is an Austin attorney representing musicians and music companies. "We’re not trying to turn out the next best guitar player, we’re trying to leverage the power of music to change the lives of these kids. We want to create hope."
If I can learn a song and get up onstage and play in front of my family and my friends, then I can pass the damn TAKS test.
Music, and the arts in general have been the tip of the budget-cutting spear being thrown at public schools over the last decade. Particularly in Texas, public funding for arts education has dropped dramatically in favor of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) focus. No one would argue that STEM instruction is a bad idea in this globally competitive society. The problem is, arts are at least equally important for cognitive development and social confidence. In fact, recent studies indicate that music instruction increases spatial-temporal reasoning skills — that's math.
"Pulling the arts out of school — I understand the push and the pull that administrators face, you gotta get the kids to pass the standardized test, I get all that," says Stallone. "But I feel like you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Some of these kids might do better on the test if they had more arts. If nothing else, part of school is turning a kid from a child into an adult, I think music does that. For example, playing guitar alone in a lesson is one thing — playing with 3 other people in a band, it’s a whole other level. It’s transforming kids. Pulling arts out of public schools is a huge mistake."
Grounded in Music takes anyone who wants to attend, there is no previous experience required. They work exclusively with the Boys and Girls Clubs, drawing from public schools around the city. The classes are based around the school semester. The kids sign a contract agreeing to attend the sessions and behave. No participant has to learn an instrument, although most do, and there is no time commitment, although many continue taking individualized lessons. There is no cost, no instrument required. Grounded provides the instruments and the instruction.
"The kids that are in our program are staying in our program. They are being forced to make choices and they’re making the choice to stay in Grounded.
"We've really put a lot of effort into hand-picking who’s teaching these kids. These musicians are perfect role models for kids — unbelievable musicians — and they also have that rock star cool factor. They’re walking in with tattoos and chains and Mohawks, but they're the real-deal human beings that care very much about these kids."
Back to My Morning Jacket. Those kids left Stubbs with an understanding that a career in music was not just possible for some — it was possible for them. It was, as Stallone describes it, an 'oh shit' moment. "If they can have an 'oh shit' moment, its our belief that will translate into other aspects of their lives.
"The kids see these guys sound check 2 or 3 songs and they say, man, these guys are rock stars, I’ll never be like that. And then the band jumps down and starts talking to the kids, and after about 30 minuets you can see a leveling out, like, 'hey, you’re no different from me. You just dedicated your life to music and this is where you got.' And then we tell the kids, 'hey, look around, there’s only 5 guys on the stage playing and singing but everyone you see working here is in the music business.' It doesn’t matter where they are or where they start, they realize they can do it too."
At the end of each semester Grounded in Music puts on recital. Not the piano or violin recitals you might be familiar with, no, this is a rock show with parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and friends in attendance.
"We’re using music as a tool to give them inspiration, hope, change their lives. If I can learn a song and get up onstage and play in front of my family and my friends, then I can pass the damn TAKS test, I can handle the SAT, I can make it in this job. I believe it translates into everything."