A Conversation with David Wish

| 10/16/2012 2:22:53 PM

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David Wish is the founder and executive director of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides music education for students in disadvantaged public schools. Since 2002, Little Kids Rock has provided meaningful music education to more than 200,000 students nationwide thanks to the support of teachers, volunteers, and music icons such as B.B. King and Paul Simon. David Wish is a 2012 Utne Visionary; below is our email interview with Wish from September 2012.   

Christian Williams: Where were you teaching when you decided to start the after-school lessons and develop the program?
David Wish: I was a first-grade teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area and was very upset that my students were not receiving music education. So I took matters into my own hands and started giving free classes after school for my class. More and more kids wanted to get in on the fun so I kept offering more and more classes. It got to the point where I had to start turning kids away which broke my heart. So that's when I started reaching out to other teachers I knew to enlist their help. Not only did I no longer need to turn kids away, I found their were tons of teachers who wanted to help.

CW: Little Kids Rock has been around for 10 years now. Did you expect this kind of longevity and success when you started?
DW: Time flies when you are having fun! I really can't believe that ten years have passed. I have never pursued success; I have pursued fulfillment. It brings me such joy and satisfaction to watch a young person's life transformed by music. That's where I still keep my focus: reaching kids and making a difference in their lives. That's something we can all do every day of our lives: do something for other people. I don't expect success, I expect impact.

CW: What were your initial goals or measures for success in the beginning?
DW: When I first started, I just wanted to bring music into the lives of thirty first graders. That seemed a big enough goal. Then my goal became reaching another group of thirty, then another. I could see the impact immediately in the way the kids carried themselves, the ways that they expressed themselves and the ways that they connected to school. That's what motivated me. Today, in year 10, over 1,300 public school teachers have decided that they feel the same way and have brought Little Kids Rock programming to over 200,000 kids.

CW: What has surprised you most about the program and how it’s been received by kids and teachers alike?
DW: What has surprised me the most is watching the impact that our teaching methodology and training has on the teachers. I have seen teachers weeping during our trainings because they themselves had internalized negative messages about their own creativity. Our pedagogy validates and elevates them. They say things like, "This has changed me entire view of myself as a creative person," or "I learned more from two days of training here than I did in all my years at the conservatory." That's powerful stuff

CW: Your approach to teaching music differs from the traditional approach in that you emphasize performance and composition over reading notes. When did you realize that kids might be more attracted to learning music this way?
DW: To people who do not make music themselves, this may seem mysterious. However, music is a language and like all languages, we learn to speak them before we learn to read them. We all learned to speak before we went to school. And what did we speak about? Things that interested us. We teach kids to play the music that interests them and we approach it non-notationally, at least at first. When you teach people to play by reading music, it is a mathematical approach. In math, there is usually one right answer and an infinite number of wrong answers. However, when you teach music as a language, there are many, many right answers and making music becomes easier and less intimidating. That was the way that got me hooked. Like so many other people from my generation, I did have music as a kid but the classes I took did not speak to me and yet I loved music. I learned music from my friends, from records and from the street. It became a passion and an obsession but one that developed outside of the academy. Little Kids Rock is my attempt to reconcile this approach with the academy and, in so doing, rock the lives of a lot of kids.

CW: How were you originally able to get celebrity sponsors like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker involved?
DW: Our appeal to celebrities has always been very grassroots and organic. In the early days I would send tapes of our students' original compositions to artists and ask if they'd like to get involved. Upon hearing our kids, people wanted to get involved. I know that sounds so simple but it's true. Once artists come out to see our kids, once they got to see the joy in their faces first hand, once they got to play with them and make music, they tell their other musician friends and our artist outreach is all word of mouth.

CW: Anything else you like to add?
DW: Yes. If you love music then you are innately musical and a music maker. Anyone who ever told you otherwise was lying. 

"Beyond Baby Mozart, Students Who Rock," New York Times, September 8, 2011

Main site: LittleKidsRock.org


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