- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Ten-year-old Ricky Miller stands on a stage dwarfed by the candy-apple red Gibson electric guitar slung over his shoulder.

He must fully extend his left arm to reach the bottom of the instrument’s neck, where its tuning keys reside. Biting his lips in concentration, he checks the tuning one last time. It’s good.

This little mop-topped redhead and his band mates all rehearsed and ready to go are cheek-pinching cute. But they are about to rock your face off.

With a rollicking measure from his drummer’s snare and high-hat, Ricky glides like a boss into the main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock-And-Roll” without a single muffled note.

The crowd cheers. Family, friends and strangers dance and applaud as Ricky and the Fondren Student Rock Band fill the morning air of the recent Zippity-Do-Dah kid’s carnival with a four-song set list of classic rock and modern pop songs.

The Fondren Guitars Student Rock Band is a series of ensembles comprised of music students from as young as 6 to as old as 17. The ensembles play regularly at local festivals, such as Zippity-Do-Dah, Fondren’s First Thursday and the upcoming Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival.

The kids gather at different times Monday through Friday at Fondren Guitars, a small mom-and-pop-style guitar shop in Jackson. Among rows of guitars, old amplifiers and keyboards for sale, bands of kids weekly polish their sound, rehearse and learn songs just as any professional band would do.

Shop owner Patrick Harkins, 33, leads some of the practice sessions and takes the rehearsals seriously.

Shortly after opening his boutique guitar shop, Fondren Guitars, in 2006, Harkins started offering music lessons in addition to the repair work and sales the shop offered.

As the number of children taking lessons in voice and instruments grew he got an idea: How about taking these kids and forming a band? Or, even better, several different bands? And, why not show off their talent and skills at local festivals?

For five years he’s been doing just that. Harkins said the program is a success and growing.

“The festivalgoer will hear us before they see us,” he said. “I can see people walking up and they think it’s a regular band, and they look up and see it’s a bunch of kids up on stage.”

The number has grown to about 20 kids comprising six ensemble groups. He has numerous assistants that help with the teaching.

“We’ve spent the better part of today trying to clear out a new lesson room because we have so many people who want to learn,” Harkins said recently from his office that also doubles as rehearsal space.

Harkins, who grew up in Jackson, got the idea for Fondren Guitars Student Rock Band from his time gigging as a teen. When he started playing, the guys in his groups were always much older. Harkins thought it would be cool to give his young students a chance to play among their peers.

There’s an emphasis on fun during the practices and performances, but it’s no goof-off session. Training is rigorous. Students in the ensembles must also participate in additional one-on-one sessions, practice at home and commit to performing during their specific time slots at festivals.

And, of course, they have to fit all these into busy school schedules. It takes dedication. If you don’t practice, sound good or show up by stage time, you don’t play.

Angela Haydel said the hard work is worth it. Her 12-year-old daughter, Amelia Haydel, has participated for two years in voice lessons and the rock band and made dramatic improvements in her skills.

“Every time she gets on the stage she gets better and better,” Haydel said. “I hope she decides to major in music.”

Amelia especially likes singing with her music companions, mostly boys.

“My favorite is probably ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ especially the way we did it today. It was really fun,” she said after her ensemble’s time on stage at Zippity-Do-Dah.

Harkins said he’s noticed his students picking up more than musical ability. The performance aspect of the ensemble is a confidence builder.

“I’ve seen kids who you’d say hello to and they’d be scared to say hello back. And you put them in a band, you put them on stage, and they open up. If you’re playing a Guns and Roses solo and you’re 8 or 9 years old, it’s pretty cool,” he said.

Giving lessons has become the life blood of the shop.

“I may only sell a guitar a week,” Harkins said, “but lessons are ongoing.”

Lessons cost $100 a month per individual and participation in the ensembles costs an additional $70. That money is not what drives the shop, though.

“Right now, you can hear a drum in this room and a piano over there in that room. Bands are practicing Monday through Friday,” he said. “It’s alive!”

Harkins said that some of his early students have moved on to form bands of their own and now play professionally.

Ricky hopes to be among them one day. When asked what advice he would give someone his age looking to start guitar lessons he replies, “Follow your dreams And, practice. Practice makes perfect.”

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide