Teaching Our Children Their Roots

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

We live in a country filled with diverse cultural traditions that often go unnoticed. Last weekend, I experienced what impact music can have on the youth, when the youth is engaged. I attended a fundraising event, in support of Los Cenzontles, which mean the mockingbirds in Spanish.

Los Cenzontles is an artist driven, nonprofit school in San Pablo, California. The school has been teaching kids in the community, music in the Mexican tradition for over 20 years. Thousands of students have attending classes after school. They are taught to play contemporary and indigenous instruments, including brass, wind, percussion and string. They might learn to play the requinto jarocho, a guitar like instrument made from a single piece of wood. Or the quijada, made from the jawbone of a horse or a donkey.

Many dance styles of Mexico are also taught, giving the students a sense of time, place and tradition. The school strongly believes that culture should not simply be a display, but more importantly, a vehicle for deeper modes of expression.

Watching the alumni perform on stage, I wondered if this kind of focused cultural education were available for others, how would it impact communities?

After all, music is the language that defines history. So I started looking schools and programs that focused on specific genres of American music.

In Chicago, the Old Town School of Folk Music offers an amazing curriculum of studies. With over 6,000 students a week -- and a third of them are children, the Old Town School has classes that teach proficiency in all kinds of instruments and genres of roots music. From mandolin to dobro, harmonica to accordion, the school centers on American roots music like Appalachian folk and bluegrass, but also covers Pacific Island, punk and rock.

The school believes that music is a birthright and educates beyond their classroom walls, branching out into elementary and middle schools as well as several community outreach programs throughout the city.

African Americans brought blues music into American culture, and there are a number of schools around the country that focus on it. In addition, organizations like the Blue Shoe Project and Blues in the Schools have developed lesson plans for elementary, middle school and high schools, so access to specialized schools is not a requirement.

And perhaps one of the most interesting stories about music education comes from New Orleans, where the murder rate underscores just how vulnerable the young can be.

Roots of Music is offering a free education program geared for youth, age 9 to 14. The program starts with five Recovery School District elementary schools. The district takes underperforming schools and transforms them into successful places for kids to learn.

Roots of Music has already received instruments from Tipitina's Foundation and a building from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation.

Kids get into trouble when they become disassociated from society. Each of these programs helps to ground them in their community. Help your local music school. You're investing in strong roots to support generations to come.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.