They’ve taken the stage at events like Fishtown’s Shadfest, the Rittenhouse Square Tree Lighting ceremony, and even World Café Live and a Philadelphia 76ers game.
They’re proficient enough at their instruments to teach others, and they write their own original songs and music.
While they’re busy with all that, they manage to keep ‘A’ averages in school—elementary school, that is.
The young musicians of the Rock to the Future after-school music education program are between the ages of 9 and 14, and they are talented enough to perform all over the city, thanks to the time and instruction of the program, now going into its third year in the fall.
Jessica McKay, 27, started Rock to the Future after ditching her “boring” investment firm job downtown in search of something filled with more passion.
“Music has always been important to me,” said McKay, who has been playing drums since eighth grade. “I just had this idea.”
Students at Rock to the Future learn guitar, bass guitar, drums, or keyboard, form bands, write original music, and perform throughout the year at various community events and venues.
Students also receive daily homework help to improve their grades.
They attend the program, at 2139 E. Cumberland Ave., directly after school until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
This year, in the fall, the program will be able to accept 33 students, and thanks to funding from Delaware Investments, will be able to provide free Saturday workshops for families.
“Music is a great way to bring the family together,” McKay said.
Though open to all Philadelphia students, McKay said because of the location and time commitment, most students are from the Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond areas. She said the program represents students from eight schools.
McKay got started with the program by applying for funds through the Women for Social Innovation program, which helps young entrepreneurs. After she was selected as a recipient, she said she had only about four months to find instructors and organize the program.
Along with Josh Craft, 27, now the assistant director, McKay began Rock to the Future in the basement of a church with 13 students.
Among them were Cheyenne Oxendine, 13, and Josh Tirado, 17, who both play guitar.
Oxendine, who attends Adaire Elementary, said she used to take guitar lessons but they were very expensive.
“I had three guitars just sitting there doing nothing but being decorations,” she said. “I didn’t have the patience to self-teach.”
Once she applied for the program and was accepted, she said the cost was much more affordable—Rock to the Future students only pay a $50 returnable deposit for the entire school year.
Oxendine is a member of the “all star” band—students in the program form bands that write original music and perform at venues around the city.
“Now I’m kind of used to being on stage,” she said, after admitting that she used to have stage fright. “It’s entertaining that when I’m up there playing, people are watching and supporting me.”
Tirado, who attends the Franklin Learning Center, was originally too old to apply for Rock to the Future, though his younger sister was a member. As he would visit the program to pick her up, he said he saw how much fun the other students were having.
“I wanted to learn guitar really bad, and when my sister was in the program I really wanted to do it,” he said. “Josh [Craft] said he would teach me guitar if I would teach the kids math.”
That peer-to-peer tutor mentality is one McKay said she wants to encourage. Academics, in fact, are a large part of the program. Along with the 20-minute private lesson, hour-long music theory class and hour-long band practice they take every week, students have to come in and do their homework every day as part of the program. Students also work with academic tutors.
McKay said the program has seen a 30 percent increase in student that hold ‘A’ averages, and all the students are now reading at or above their grade level. This year, she wants to bring in an academic coordinator to do SAT prep.
The instructors are local musicians McKay and Craft said they have met through their own musical involvement—both are members of the bands The Best Westerns and Conversations with Enemies.
“They are friends of ours, but they are quality instructors,” she said. “They have to be able to read music and have formal training.”
A music instructor for some 10 years, Craft said it’s great to see the students work together to challenge themselves to make original music.
“It’s rewarding, just seeing them be amazing musicians,” he said. “I wish I could go back in time and be a student.”
As for the future, will Oxindine and Tirado continue to rock?
When asked if they would continue to play music in high school or college, both nodded emphatically.
“I’ll want to keep going with music,” Oxindine said. “I’ll always carry it.”
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at email@example.com.