NEW YORK — 'I played piano as a kid. Wish I'd stuck with it." Strike a chord? The instrument might have been different - perhaps clarinet, violin, or flute instead - but many people express a similar regret.
"I hear this all the time, and the punch line is always the same," says David Wish, founder of "Little Kids Rock," an after-school music program based in New York. "Why do so many people who have a natural desire to play music get turned off so young?"
Mr. Wish blames the dry, didactic nature of those early music lessons and the music's lack of relevance to their everyday lives.
His determination to reverse this trend - and to make instrument lessons accessible to all children - inspired Wish to create a public school music program that is relevant, interactive, engaging - and free.
His third-grade students at PS 176, a bilingual school in New York City, don't sit and listen to him lecture about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Instead, these kids jam on their own guitars, following their teacher's lead as they play a simple riff, improvise a solo, or turn their guitars into "drums" by pounding on the instrument's backside. And Beethoven doesn't even enter into the conversation.
"We've got the Jimi Hendrix thing going now," he tells the little rockers as they raptly play E chords in unison while he bangs out a lively funk tune.
Rock, funk, blues, and hip-hop are the only musical genres heard in Wish's classroom.
"It's what these kids know, what they listen to at home, and what's going to keep them interested," he says. "You have to look at student's cultural tastes. It does a massive disservice to dictate what music they should listen to."
Wish founded his program in 1996 - years before Hollywood box office hit "School of Rock" starring Jack Black - out of his frustration over budget cuts to music education. The program proved such a big draw that Wish had to quickly recruit new teachers and train them almost overnight.
But it wasn't until the past couple of years that the program's reach began to mushroom, thanks to donations from such organizations as NAMM - the National Association of Music Merchants - and Sonor, a drum company.
"This funding has radically impacted our program," says Wish. Now, with 150 teachers in 130 public schools in New York, New Jersey, and California, Little Kids Rock reaches about 2,000 low-income students and has caught the attention of such musical luminaries as Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, and Carlos Santana. Wish's own wish, that he could provide free music lessons and instruments to disadvantaged kids, is now becoming reality.
He groans about comparisons now being made between Little Kids Rock and "School of Rock," in which a rock musician poses as a substitute teacher and turns his classroom into a rollicking jam session.
"That movie takes place in an exclusive private school, and Jack Black is a musician, not an educator," Wish explains. "It's hardly the same."
Wish used to be what he calls a "gigging musician," but there's no longer time for that. In addition to running the day-to-day business of his nonprofit, he continues to recruit and train new teachers, who, like him, are educators with a passion for playing music and making it come alive for others. Wish also insists on keeping up with his own teaching schedule of two classes per week.
For Wish and the other teachers, Little Kids Rock is a labor of love.
"The majority of teachers are volunteers," he says. "Those who are paid only get a small stipend." Then he adds with a laugh: "This year, for the first time, I have actually [earned] a salary. But still, I'm not even making equal to what I was making as one of the most grossly underpaid teacher in the nation."
But that's OK, Wish insists.
"Like any start-up, it takes time. Besides," he adds, "I care so deeply about this program. So often the only kids who can take instrument lessons are those who have the means. Little Kids Rock is changing that."
Wish isn't trying to cultivate a new generation of rock stars. Indeed, an informal poll taken after class doesn't turn up any Christina Aguillera wannabes. But several say they want to play guitar "forever."
"For music lessons to stick," Wish explains, "students have to like at least one of these three: the instrument, teacher, or canon."
Smiling, he adds: "At least these kids can say they liked the canon."
But beyond that, he says, the skills they are learning will translate into other areas of their lives.
"The common perception is that music is fun, and therefore frivolous. So it gets axed. This is a grave mistake. By participating in music, kids make gains in math, they become more creative, better problem-solvers, and more socially adept.
For disadvantaged kids, Wish adds, learning to play music can be especially important. It could be their ticket out of tough circumstances, a refuge from the difficulties of everyday life, or a protection from negative influences.
"Once you put someone in touch with their creativity," he says, "the cheap thrill of destructive behavior becomes less appealing. There's no competition between reaching new heights of creative expression versus breaking a window with a baseball or spraying graffiti."
• 'Little Kids Rock' has created three CDs. The next recording project is 'Little Kids, Big Fans,' a CD featuring the children's compositions performed by celebrity musicians. It is slated to be released in late 2004. For more information, visit www.littlekidsrock.org.