Play It Forward gives students the tools to make music
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - It's the first weekend in December, and a cold front has descended upon St. Louis, bringing with it below freezing temperatures and grey skies as the remnants of the sun disappear on the late afternoon horizon.
But inside the Old Rock House on the south side of downtown is a very different, more energetic vibe - one fueled by the youthful energy and enthusiasm of 15 kids banging on percussion instruments and singing their hearts out on stage at the music club.
There's a reason these youngsters from the Imagine Academy of Careers Middle School on North Kingshighway are the opening act for the Dec. 5 "Jingle Jam" benefit produced by the nonprofit group, Play It Forward. Proceeds from this concert - featuring performances by everyone from Javier Mendoza, Steve Davis and Kim Massie to Steve Ewing, Melissa Neels and Well Hungarians - will go to purchase instruments that will allow Imagine Academy to create a drum line for these kids.
Samantha Fisher, one of the co-founders of Play It Forward and the current director of the group, looks on from the audience with a huge smile - and a slight touch of sadness in her eyes.
"One school at a time," she says as she keeps her eyes focused on the kids performing on stage. "One school at a time."
The Play It Forward concept has been around since the ancient Greek dramatists. It has reappeared in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, more recently, sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein. Essentially, it's a concept that proposes paying back a favor not to the one who provided it, but to another person in need ... paying the debt forward and hoping that person repeats the process.
According to Fisher, Play It Forward applies that concept to music - especially musical instruments and musical knowledge.
"The whole idea in terms of music is to find musical instruments that are not being used, and try to get them to kids in schools who need instruments to play," she says during a recent early afternoon conversation at the Broadway Oyster Bar. "And in terms of musicians, it's about asking them to help that process by playing benefits that can raise awareness - and funds - to get instruments into those school programs."
Play It Forward got its start when Fisher and Rebecca Brogan - publishers of the magazine StL Sound - decided to produce a concert at the Oyster Bar back in 2006 with the goal of raising money to buy instruments for Normandy High School. According to Fisher, the concert raised about $1,200, which was enough to get 17 of the 22 instruments on the school's wish list into the hands of students there.
"It was something we felt good about doing," recalls Fisher. "But our main focus at the time was keeping the magazine up and running. When the magazine went under in 2009, we decided to focus our energy on getting Play It Forward started."
As Fisher and Brogan investigated the need for musical instruments in St. Louis area schools, they soon discovered that the problem was much bigger than they imagined. St. Louis city schools basically had - and still have - no budget to buy new instruments for school programs. Available funds are focused on repairing and maintaining instruments already in the system. Other school districts in St. Louis County also had funding issues with their music programs.
"We started putting on our website the wish lists that schools provided us for instruments they needed," recalls Fisher. "The lists were so huge and daunting that we decided we really couldn't put them all up. It just made the issue so overwhelming. But we decided to work at the issue - one school at a time."
Over the past year-and-a-half, Play It Forward has sponsored several fundraising concerts, and also been involved in getting the word out at local events and festivals. And according to Fisher, the program has developed a strategy that focuses on making sure any funds raised are focused solely on getting instruments to school programs.
"It's better to take any money raised and buy the instruments a school needs ourselves, then get them to the school" explains Fisher. "That way, we make sure the instruments are there for the kids. There are so many areas of need at schools; it's easy for money to get diverted to other priorities. So we make sure the instruments get directly to the music teachers."
Fisher also emphasizes that -- although raising money for instruments to donate to schools is a primary a goal of Play It Forward -- encouraging donations of used instruments is also a major focus.
"I think there are more instruments sitting around unused in homes than there are being played in schools," Fisher says. "I run across people all the time who tell me they have a trumpet or guitar or clarinet that's been sitting in a closet for 10 or 20 years. People tend to forget those instruments are there - and that a youngster could be learning to play music with that instrument."
According to Fisher, the Jingle Jam concert at Old Rock House raised $1,875 that will go to Imagine Careers Academy's drum line instrument goal. She hopes to raise even more funds to make the drum line project a reality this Saturday, Dec. 11 with another Play It Forward fundraiser at Game Day Sports Grill featuring Savage Amusement.
Jeff Meyer, one of the musicians in Savage Amusement, approached me about getting involved with Play It Forward and helping us get instruments to students," Fisher says. "That's become a constant for us - musicians wanting to help us get kids into music because music made such a difference for those musicians when they were young."
Meyer underscored Fisher's observation in a recent phone conversation, stating that his own benefits from playing music are something he feels the need to pass along to young students.
"I found myself through music when I was in school," says Meyer. "And later, I got involved with the Boys and Girl's Club in St. Charles through my mother's work there, and I saw the value of music for kids. As a band, we wanted to find an organization to get involved in and support. Play It Forward's mission just hit home with us. And that's why we're playing this benefit Saturday."
Fisher is grateful for the support of area musicians, and is already planning Jingle Jam II for December 2011 - as well as another major concert in the summer.
"We can't fix all the issues and needs of school music programs, but we can certainly do our part," she concludes. "If we can help in any way to keep those music programs in place, we've achieved a major goal. And we know the only way to do it is one school at a time."
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who includes music among the areas he follows.