Bono once said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” The teachers and students at Evergreen Academy in McKinley Park and Beethoven Elementary in Bronzeville have experienced the effect firsthand. Every week for a few hours after school, aspiring guitarists, drummers, vocalists, keyboardists and songwriters are invited to partake in a program that provides instruments and instruction from professional local musicians, free of cost. The idea: to give children from some of Chicago’s most vulnerable communities the chance to express themselves in positive ways and better connect with peers in a band ensemble setting.

GUITARS OVER GUNS
When: 6 p.m. June 8
Where: Ribfest Chicago, Lincoln Avenue from Irving Park to Berteau
Tickets: $10 suggested donation
Information: ribfest-chicago.com

Called Guitars Over Guns, the nonprofit program provides a combination of music education, mentorship and performance opportunities to inspire students to overcome hardship and realize their potential as leaders. “After-school hours are a vulnerable time where students can be at risk, but this program helps encourage them to make positive decisions,” says founder Chad Bernstein.

The musician (and Winnetka native) started the program in 2006 after he had relocated to Miami for college and experienced a series of profound events. “I was invited to play in a band that used music to bring together cultures and people from all over the world,” he recalls. “We were invited to talk to a juvenile detention center and had this incredible experience using music to unlock doors that people told us would never unlock with these kids. As soon as we started playing, all bets were off and we were able to communicate with them in a powerful way, and that served as foundation for this organization.”

In 2014, after having enjoyed success in Miami and receiving substantial grants, Bernstein expanded the program to Chicago, helped by partnerships with Ingenuity (a private foundation that supports arts in the schools), Little Kids Rock (which provides instruments) and of course Chicago Public Schools administrators that support the collaboration.

“Through Guitars Over Guns, kids have learned that they have alternatives and the opportunity to go places they might not be able to go to otherwise,” says Evergreen Academy Principal Marian Strok, pointing to recent showcases at Reggies Rock Club, the United Center, Guaranteed Rate Field and an upcoming performance at Chicago’s Ribfest on June 8. “What affected me right away about this program was the option for kids to choose their songs and really drive the sessions,” adds Strok.

Unlike other technical or classical music programs, Guitars Over Guns believes in meeting kids where they are at. “One of the ways we reach kids from the beginning is that we focus on culturally relevant music they like,” says one of the after-school mentors, Andrew DeMuro, a former CPS teacher. He, along with fellow instructor Phil Jacobson, have both been a part of Guitars Over Guns for the past three years as well as moonlighting in the local rock-R&B fusion act The Shades. DeMuro is also notable for having advanced to the Top 32 on Season 11 of “The Voice.”

“We’ve got some old souls in this group who love ‘80s music from The Outfield and Bon Jovi, as well as Backstreet Boys and Bruno Mars. We’re also working on ‘Waterfalls’ by TLC, ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth and [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Billie Jean,’” says Jacobson, giving a hint of what to expect at the upcoming appearance. “But they also write original material, including a song that will debut at their graduation ceremony.” After school lets out for the summer, students have the chance to continue their musical education at Haven Studio housed in the Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church across the street from Beethoven Elementary, which acts as a fully-fledged recording studio.

DeMuro estimates the Chicago chapter of Guitars Over Guns will reach more than 375 students this year through the help of 13 mentors, a growth from seven mentors serving 30 kids when the program started four years ago. The group has also initiated an alumni option for those students that have graduated so they still can participate and ideally become future mentors.

Bernstein says Guitars Over Guns also helps encourage students in other meaningful ways. “More than 96 percent of our students have improved academically [they must be in attendance at school to participate] and 92 percent say they feel more confident with taking healthy risks and have a healthier self-image.” In one instance at Haven Studio he remembers two students from rival gangs that confronted each other, but through mediation with studio director Andre Daniels, were able to mend the situation and now continue to record together.

“I think those social-emotional growth areas are starting to stand out to me more and more,” says Sarah Robinson, the music teacher at Evergreen Academy who was instrumental in bringing Guitars Over Guns to the school. “I see students having the ability to empathize with each other and start to speak the same language.”

Eighth-grade participant Yailin Rojas (drums) says, “I like how interactive everyone is and how excited they are to play music together.” Bandmate Ricardo Flores agrees, “The best part is we all get to hang out with each other and help each other out. We’ve learned so much in the program.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.