Rock to the Future: Bringing Music Education back to the Students

By Michael Whalen

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Think, for a minute, about a typical day for you in high school. You went from class to class, memorizing, learning, and test taking your way through the day. There must have been one period that acted as a decompression chamber; a short time where you could forget about the stress of the day. Maybe it was lunchtime. Maybe it was art class, gym class, or choir practice. Whatever it was, that time to think freely, be creative, and express yourself was critical. For the students of Philadelphia, these extra-curricular periods are being phased out in many of the schools that need them the most, due to budget cuts and unequal funding in many states. When a school district faces hard times, the first subjects to go are the arts. Creativity is difficult to quantify and test, making subjects like art and music of little value to a system that distributes funding based on test scores.

Underfunded and overcrowded schools are often unable to offer creative outlets to students. For all children, music and art education can provide students with a skill and an activity to practice at home that will keep them out of trouble and build their self-confidence. In 2013, the Philadelphia School District passed a “doomsday budget,” which forced schools, “to open in the fall without funding for things such as paper, new books, athletics, arts, music, counselors, and more.” (Washington Post)

Many Philadelphians have decided it’s time to give back to the students. Two of these people, husband and wife Jessica and Josh Craft, have made it their mission to provide “music education for Philadelphia’s underserved youth at no cost to them or their families.” (rocktothefuturephilly.org)

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In 2010, Jessica left her job in the financial industry to create Rock to the Future, an afterschool and summer camp program that teaches music to inner city kids.  Jessica is an active member of the Philadelphia music community.  She still plays drums with Conversations, a band she formed with Josh that opened up for The Beach Boys two years ago. She is also a Temple University graduate, where she studied business and economics. At Upper Darby High School, Jessica was the only female percussionist that played in the marching band. Here, she experienced first hand the value that studying music can hold for a young person. Jessica explains that she “got into less trouble than my friends who weren’t involved in marching band or something like that. When we had a break from performance season, I would often find myself in worse situations because I just didn’t have anything to do.”

Josh also began playing music at an early age, joining barbershop choir groups and even performing on Broadway for two weeks in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dream Coat.”  He began teaching guitar during his freshman year of high school. After high school, he continued to teach at places like The School of Rock and Farrigtons Music, while enrolled in the music industry program at Drexel University. Post college, Josh did freelance work booking shows in the Philadelphia area. He described the experience as a labor of love where he would, “put on a show where I would promote the show, put together flyers for the event, bring the PA system to some DIY club.” During a show at The Khyber, Jessica and Josh were introduced through mutual friends and hit it off. After swapping guitar lessons for cooking lessons, the two began dating and eventually were married.

Living in Philadelphia during and after college, both of them saw the dangerous state that many of the public schools operated. The majority of, “neighborhood schools,” or schools filled kids who did not place highly on entrance exams attend, were drastically underfunded and offered little extra-curricular activities, especially those involving the arts. In 2010, Jessica received The Turning Point Prize of $15,000 from Women for Social Innovation. With the grant, Jessica and Josh both poured in hours to get Rock to the Future off the ground, while also keeping their odd jobs around the city. Josh describes how they “volunteered doing this because we really believed in it. We didn’t realize the impact it would have when we first started…we were both working like four other jobs. We were burning the candle on both ends.” After all of that work, Rock to the Future has become a model of what an after-school music program should be. I stopped by to find out what it is that makes this place so special.

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Racks of instruments

When I walk into Rock to the Future, I hear one of their students hammering away at a drum set upstairs. They share space with a couple other businesses in a Fishtown church. The space is split into three areas: a homework room, an individual instruction and practice room, and a performance room. In the instruction room, there are makeshift cubicles and practice areas, along with racks of guitars and basses lining the walls. The performance room is complete with a full stage (drums, amps, keyboards, lights, etc.) and even more racks of instruments.  Through donations, Rock to the Future provides kids with both instruments in the building, and instruments to take home for practice.  As a musician, this place looks is heaven.  It takes every bit of discipline I have not to run around and try all of the different guitars.  Instead, I head downstairs to begin my interview with Jessica.

I step into Jessica’s office and she is busy talking with a former student. Sarah* had attended the program for years, but when her family fell on hard times, she needed to find work. It’s surreal to see how much a young person can know about their family’s situation. She’s aware of exactly how much income comes into the house, as well as how many food stamps they’ll receive a month. Sarah is a high school sophomore, who spends more time worrying and thinking about how she can help to get food on the table than anything else. She doesn’t believe she has any time for school, let alone an after school music program. Jessica begs her to come back, but she shyly says that she doesn’t think she can.   After another short chat about community college and other post high school options, Sarah leaves and Jessica and I begin our conversation. Wiping some tears from her eyes, she tells me, “That’s the hardest thing to see. To see a high schooler have to bear responsibility like that. It speaks to the state of the communities that we are dealing with.”

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The main social/practice area

Jessica is someone who cares. Every time she interacts with a student, you can hear the compassion in her voice. For her, the biggest thing to gain from Rock to the Future is the success of her students. Putting these kids on the path towards success is extremely rewarding. Sacrifice is key to making a difference, so Josh and Jessica have both set their music careers on the back burner to start this program, as they live modestly in Fishtown.

Combining their hard work with generous donations from ordinary people and local and national organizations like Fender Music and The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Rock to the Future has grown from just 15 kids in 2010, to 40 in 2016. Due to demand, they have also implemented summer camp programs where they are able to reach more than 500 students a summer through week-long sessions.

The afterschool program runs five days a week, with students traveling directly from school using public transportation or rides from parents and guardians.  Every day, students arrive between 3 and 4 pm and have a meal provided by the Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese.  At 4:15, after eating and socializing, they begin their activities.  A typical week of activities for an after school student could go something like this

Monday:

  • Music Theory
  • Music Appreciation
  • Homework Block

Tuesday

  • Instrumental Lesson
  • Homework Block
  • Choral Ensemble

Wednesday

  • Band Practice
  • Homework Block
  • Free Block: group games, individual practice, working on band material

The kids will keep this up all week.  Activities of this nature are exactly what many children need after school. As Josh puts it, “It’s a very impressionable period in their lives, three to six [pm]. A lot of parents aren’t home. Their teenagers aren’t monitored.” Even though offering 40 students music lessons and homework help isn’t going solve all of the problems facing Philadelphia. Rock to the Future sets an example through structure and practice that it is possible to build better lives.

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Practice cubbies for individual lessons.  Two students working with a teacher on a new song.

Jessica and Josh take a collaborative approach to music education.   During their time, the students are grouped into bands and are tasked with writing a certain number of songs per marking period. A band dynamic requires the students to cooperate with others and learn to see things from another perspective. Jessica calls it, “sneaking in the good stuff because they’re having to focus, memorize, collaborate, problem solve, and think critically.” Building on a newfound sense of discipline and creativity, many students also develop key social skills that their everyday school setting may not provide. Josh explains that, “Some kids aren’t comfortable in school settings with the kids they are in school with, but here they thrive because they’re all musicians and we teach them to respect each other. You know, when other bands are performing, respect that other band. Don’t ever laugh at them.” Josh sees what they are doing as, “making better people.” He wants to see his students be kinder and more open to new ideas and thought processes. For anyone who has never tried to write music with someone else, an open mind is a must.

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Two house band members, going over melodies and lyrics

While music functions as a great creative outlet and learning tool for the kids, Jessica and Josh know that success outside of high school is only achieved through diligence in the classroom. Most of their students will not end up being rock stars so they teach them to take this positivity and transfer it back into their lives outside of the program. With that in mind, Rock to the Future monitors all of their students’ grades.  Jessica and Josh are looking for consistency and improvement within reason. Not everyone can be rock stars, and not everyone can be straight-A students. Jessica recognizes that students have different capabilities when it comes to traditional schooling, so they tailor each student’s program to fit their specific needs. If the student receives mostly A’s, Jessica makes sure that they are keeping that up. If they have a D average, they may have to attend more tutoring sessions instead of having free time. Every day, all of the students must complete their homework before starting their music classes or band practice. They also receive tutoring from volunteers that goes beyond traditional school subjects. The tutors “work with kids and show them how to accomplish certain things, academically. [They help plan] specific goals, setting deadlines and accomplishing things like that.” Through this method, they have seen some truly awesome results. They aren’t afraid to boast that, “The biggest thing is 100% of the students who have graduated high school have gone to college afterword and have stayed in college.” Even though they only deal with around 40 students a semester, this is a truly impressive feat, as Jessica informs me that the graduation rate amongst neighborhood schools is typically below fifty percent.

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The main stage in the performance room

Beyond after school programs, Rock to the Future also offers in-school guitar and contemporary choral classes.  Although he now takes a supervisory role, Josh spent the first four years in the program traveling to schools around Philadelphia. He describes the many “challenges in schools, when they don’t have a huge music department or anything like that. When I was teaching the guitar class, it was ten kids and I had the hallway of the Principals office so there’s people walking by me constantly.” To keep the kids focused, they let the students pick the music they are going to learn, as long as it’s appropriate. This is an unorthodox approach, but teaching contemporary music has its merits. “In a lot of popular music, you can learn four chords and play a library of songs by just changing the key.” Teaching simple music that the kids can connect with is an awesome way to stimulate their musical appetite. If they can sing the songs with their friends, there’s a better chance they will practice at home and want to learn different and more challenging pieces. Learning classical music can feel like a chore because there is no emotional connection to the piece. What would motivate anyone to learn a Bach suite if it didn’t make them happy? Josh understands this, and instead chooses to mold his curriculum around songs that will make the students eager to practice and come back for more lessons.

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One of the practice stages.  (The phone belongs to a student practicing her scales behind the curtain)

So everything seems to be in place. Jessica and Josh, along with the other staff and volunteers, show kids how to be better people and students through music and help them gain the skills they need to succeed in college. However, there is one aspect that people may take for granted: many of these kids will be first generation college students and have no experience with applications, scholarship letters, and everything else that comes along with finding the right university. Fortunately, as of last year, Rock to the Future is helping to solve that problem. Through their “college outreach” program, they are showing kids the way to craft their ideal college experience. Tutors show the kids the differences between types of grants and scholarships. They also try to understand their career goals to figure out what kind of universities would fit them best. Josh even leads some of the older students on tours of colleges outside of the city. They took trips to places like West Chester, Cabrini, Rosemont, and a few others to open the students’ eyes about the different types of campuses and student bodies available to them. As Josh says, “When a kid is on a college campus, they can envision themselves there.   It drives them a little bit more to apply to get scholarships and do all of that kind of stuff. It was a beneficial trip for them.”

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West Chester University

Being stuck in an overcrowded classroom can make anyone feel unimportant an unmotivated. Without a creative outlet, many students fall victim to this mindset and express their frustrations with dangerous behaviors. Jessica and Joshua Craft want to break this cycle through music and positive reinforcement. Their innovative program, Rock to the Future, is helping to get kids off of the streets and onto the stage to build confidence, teach discipline, and develop respectful, healthy adults that can contribute to society.  Growing up, music was always a part of my life.  I was lucky enough to attend school in a district where music lessons were offered from elementary school on and participate after school programs, paid for by my parents.  Orchestra, guitar lessons, and band practices were what got me through the day and inspired me to be better in all aspects in life.  There are kids all over the country that are not blessed with the same opportunities that many of us were.  Luckily, there are people like Jessica and Josh, who will sacrifice personal goals for the betterment of others.  They are always looking for new ways to help more kids and are opening another location in the next year. To find out how you can donate and get involved with their organization, check out their website: http://www.rocktothefuturephilly.org

*Names have been changed

All interviews conducted and transcribed by Michael Whalen.  All photos taken by Michael Whalen at Rock to the Future, excluding photos of West Chester University and The School District of Philadelphia.  

Special thank you to Jessica and Josh Craft for taking the time out their days to sit down to talk with me.  Thank you to the entirety of the Rock to the Future staff for helping to make the world a better place.  

Strauss, Valerie. “Philadelphia Passes ‘doomsday’ School Budget.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 1 June 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

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