Bringing Music Back to Schools With the Traveling Guitar Foundation

I’ll never forget my first encounter with a musical instrument. I was 11 years old and attending a small middle school in rural Brooklyn, CT. Like most kids, I was highly influenced by my peers. So when my small clique of friends started showing an interest in school band, of course I had to see what the big deal was all about. Eventually, I settled on playing the baritone horn and my musical journey was born. All of this because of a small little school music program.

[caption id="attachment_915" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="Guitarist and teacher Vince Genella having a blast."]Guitarist and teacher Vince Genella having a blast.[/caption]

Unfortunately, music programs within our schools and the funding needed to maintain them are among the most cut back every year. Several nonprofit organizations have sprung up in the last decade to help bring music back to our schools and on April 8th, 2011, I was fortunate enough to travel to an inner-city public school right here in Los Angeles and witness one of these programs in action first hand.

The Traveling Guitar Foundation (TGF) was formed in 2009 by recording artist/guitarist Damon Marks (Brett Michaels, Alicia Keys). The mission of TGF is to “shape the future of the music industry through children’s education.” TGF provides funding and equipment for challenged musical education programs in our public schools. The group relies on corporate sponsorship and performance sponsors to keep its mission alive. Costs to donate these kinds of instruments to schools can run high and like so many other nonprofit organizations, TGF faces the constant struggle to secure these donations.  New sponsorships and funding are always welcome. Line 6 is very proud to be a sponsor of TGF and on this day, Damon and his volunteer performers Vince Genella, Derek McKeith, and 16-year-old pop singer/guitarist Tiffany Araya performed for the 3rd and 4th graders of Frank Del Olmo Elementary School in Los Angeles.

[caption id="attachment_916" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Recording artist Derek McKeith performing an original song."]Recording artist Derek McKeith performing an original song.[/caption]

Damon, Vince, Derek, and Tiffany awed the children by playing their guitars through Line 6 Spider® IV 15 modeling amplifiers. Between performances, Damon talked to the kids about the importance of music, listening to your parents and teachers, and staying in school. The kids beamed and gladly sang the alphabet song with Derek as he explained that music is so important that we even learn our ABC’s through it!

Tiffany performed covers of Katy Perry’s “Firework” and invited the kids up on stage to join her in a sing along. Special guest Ariana Grande, known for her role as “Cat” in the popular Nickelodeon show “Victorious” also performed a wonderful rendition of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” to the star-struck children.

[caption id="attachment_944" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Pop singer Tiffany Araya performs for the students."]Pop singer Tiffany Araya performs for the students.[/caption]

At the end of the day, the school kept both Line 6 Spider IV 15 amplifiers and committed to offering a weekly music program for any kids interested in learning how to play guitar. These programs provide lessons on basic guitar theory like scales, modes, chord structures and melodies. This is the payoff. The whole reason why Damon and his band of merry music educators do this and it was wonderful to see.

I caught up with Damon via email shortly after the event and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background in music? When did you discover music as your calling in life? Who have you performed with?

A: I was a product of the 80s, grew up on hard rock and metal and started playing the guitar at 10. School played a huge role in my theory and practice and I realized at that point that music is what I wanted to do for a living. At the age of 16, I performed with artists that were older than me in the local club scene in NY.

[caption id="attachment_893" align="alignright" width="266" caption="Damon Marks plays for the kids."]Damon Marks plays for the kids.[/caption]

After years of performing and networking I was then able to start working with some tremendous artists. I've worked/performed alongside 80s greats like George Lynch, Tommy Aldridge, Marco Mendoza, Bruce Kulick, Ratt, Extreme and Night Ranger to name a few. Last year, in 2010, I worked with Bret Michaels and performed on Alicia Keys’ "Freedom Tour."

Q: Tell us a little about the Traveling Guitar Foundation charity and what inspired you personally to pursue it.

A: Since being formed in 2009, the main focus of the Traveling Guitar Foundation has been to shape the future of the music industry through children’s education. TGF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides equipment and funding for music education programs in challenged US public school systems.

Today’s economic crises and public education cutbacks jeopardize these essential programs. TGF’s mission is to provide assistance and support to instrumental music programs helping to ensure that elementary, middle school, high school and college students have access to music education and musical instrument instruction throughout their educational journey.

Staying in tune with current affairs I realized that what helped me the most with my music career started at the school level. Watching all of these programs get removed really bothered me. The night after I played at Madison Square Garden, NY, on Alicia's tour my father Tony Marks who worked with greats like Frankie Valli sat down with me and spoke with me further on helping the kids. I spent a few days really trying to think outside the box, hence the TGF concept was born
Q: What other musicians have been involved in the charity?

A: Daryl "DMC" McDaniels (RUN-DMC), Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys, Miranda Cosgrove (iCarly), Ariana Grande (Victorious), Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), Michael Sweet and Oz Fox (Stryper) and David Bryan (Bon Jovi).

Q: How many schools have you visited to date since organizing the Traveling Guitar Foundation? How has the reception been?

A: The foundation can visit anywhere from one to four schools a month, depending on funding, of course. We also visit summer camps for the American Camp Association when school is out on summer break. To date we have visited roughly 50+ school systems and thousands of students.
Our event visits grades K-12 and the reception is always amazing. The kids come up on stage and perform with our artists. After-school and regular day school music/guitar courses are formed after the event. We then go back and check on how the students are progressing or set up clinics or in-school residencies to help them learn.

Q: What does 2011 hold for the Traveling Guitar Foundation?

A: Concentrate on bringing in as much funding as possible to continue to visit as many schools systems as possible. Our ultimate goal is to find some amazing companies to sponsor a tour so that the foundation can visit schools in each state from one side of the country to the other.

Q: For folks interested, how can they donate to the foundation, become sponsors, etc?

A: Simply by visiting our website at you can donate, see our list of upcoming events, view all the schools and camps we have already visited, and even read our blog.

[caption id="attachment_906" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The TGF logo projected against the wall at Frank Del Olmo Elementary school."]The TGF logo projected against the wall at Frank Del Olmo Elementary school.[/caption]