Earlier this month, in Los Angeles, Music Will, which bills itself as the “largest nonprofit music program for schools in the United States,” honored the trio of Tom Morello, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Idina Menzel for their contributions to music education.
It might seem like an odd combination — the guitarist for Rage Against The Machine, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer and the Broadway star/singer. But having spoken to everyone from Barry Manilow to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea about their love of music education, it does not surprise me.
Every musician understands the importance of music education, having gotten their start somewhere. And that somewhere is often times with a teacher in school sharing their love for music. I spoke with Morello, Edmonds and Menzel about the event, the song they would all do together and much more.
Steve Baltin: How is it for you to be in this very interesting trio.
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds: It’s quite a wide spread. Not a typical group of guys to be together. It makes it fun, that’s for sure. And makes me honored to be included for sure.
Idina Menzel: To be mentioned in the same sentence among such iconic musicians and artists is quite an honor. I’ve looked up to Babyface for many, many years. To be sharing this evening together celebrating this wonderful organization that we’re all so passionate about, coming from different kinds of music, is a true testament to what Music Will is all about introducing kids to all kinds of music.
Baltin: Talk about getting to be around the different artists and how it inspires you.
Edmonds: Well, I think that’s the cool thing about this program. It’s so diverse and it’s diverse in terms of what they what they teach. ’cause it’ll be hip-hop, R&B, Latin, country, jazz. I even hear they even do mariachi, or was it mariachi genres? So it’s like so many styles of music. So no one gets left out. And that’s the coolest thing. And I don’t remember that being offered at any point when I was going to school.
Baltin: You talk with artists of all kinds. The most unifying thing is the love of music education.
Tom Morello: I knew it when it was Little Kids Rock and I knew about it through Little Steven who’s been involved in it for some time. When Little Steven received an award from them, I played “Sun City” at that award show in New York. So I’m familiar with the organization and it does such incredible work in allowing kids and young people who would not otherwise have access to the musical tools to unlock their creativity. It brings them into the fold. And music is such a important tool for personal liberation and self-worth and connection and community and figuring out who you are and then feeling good about yourself because you are able to play an instrument or be in a band or whatever.And that is denied to so many people in this day and age because of the shutting down of music programs and because a lot of music programs that do exist don’t speak to the kind of music that young people currently gravitate towards. And this organization deals with that head on. My favorite part about this is not just the work that they do, but as someone who is a recipient of one of the awards, you get to pick 20 places where there are going to be new schools. And so I’ve chosen between my first home in Harlem, my family’s ancestral home in Marseilles, Illinois where I grew up in Libertyville, Chicago and LA. Twenty different spots where there would not have been the ability for young people to have sort of free music instruction. Now they will have access to it.
Menzel: Music Will is an incredible organization centered around music education, which is something I’m incredibly passionate about. Arts education is vital for our world and to have 20 music programs in my name is so special.
Edmonds: Yes. I think that we all just know how important it is, and how important it was, whether, when you were going to school, that was part of it. For me it was. I was always in choir, I was in the stage band as a matter of fact. And then, because of that, ended up joining a lot of different bands and had a lot of musicians to grab because they were being taught music in school so we could get our horn players and find those guys, which nobody usually would pick those instruments up anymore. So today to have that as a possibility is what makes it so cool.
Baltin: So how’d you get involved with Music Will?
Edmonds: I just got a call from them and they said they wanted to honor me and I wasn’t exactly sure what the program was. I get calls to get honored a lot. And it’s not my ego that wants to jump on all these things to get honored, but when I heard what this was then I thought this was very special. And what makes it extra special is that we’re gonna work together and we’re gonna launch 20 music programs. We’re gonna launch the same music program in about 20 schools in Indianapolis. And that’s, that’s very cool. That’s my hometown. That’s where I came from.
Morello: Yeah. I’m just sort of learning about the administrative side of how these things work but they basically said, “You can be as involved as you want to.” And I want to be involved. And I think it’s good, as someone who took two lessons when I was 13 and vowed to never play guitar again. I was so turned off by it. Later I was self-taught. And then later on I was a guitar instructor in Hollywood learning those lessons and trying to figure out ways to inspire people by teaching them it’s called playing guitar. Helping them to unlock their creativity and whether they want to learn a Metallica song or whether they want to write a punk rock song without knowing how to play a single chord, sort of unlocking whoever it is that they are as a musician. And so helping to bring that personal ethos and the way that I’ve grown as a musician, I’ve seen other people grow as a musician and try to bring some of that DNA to the 20 new music schools.
Baltin: If there was one artist that you could have studied with as a kid, who would it have been?
Edmonds: Probably Stevie Wonder. I feel like I studied with him anyway, [laughter] as much as I listen to his music. I had groups that I was into, the R&B groups from the Jackson 5 to The Temptations. But Stevie Wonder as a musician, he’s the one that touched me. And the fact that he could play the instruments that he could play and he was just so good. I started off playing guitar, then I figured I’d better learn how to play keyboards as well because he was doing it. So he would’ve been my guy for sure. The other person too would’ve been James Taylor ’cause of the way he played guitar and just the way he picked the guitar and the whole bit, the songs that he wrote, he just kind of spoke to me. And so I went from one range to another, one side of town to the other side of town. His music touched me in a way that made me also want to pick up the guitar and start learning how to play better.
Morello: I know a number of people that took lessons from Randy Rhoads. And one guy even has the tapes. He’s got the cassette tapes of him and Randy doing the lessons. So I would have to go with that. He was, as you well know, my favorite guitarist, the poster that was on my wall when I was practicing eight hours a day and the fact that he identified first as a musician and only secondarily, if at all, as a rock star, was very inspiring to me. And so that would be my guy. If there’s two, I would say that the second one would probably be not from any sort of technical standpoint, but more from a rock and roll spiritual orientation standpoint. And that would be Joe Strummer. What does it mean to be a socially active artist in a world that is often hostile to that point of view? I’ve had my own experience, but sort of comparing experiences with that and learning from the trials and tribulations of the clash would be something that I would value greatly.
Baltin: That range is so important. So, talk about how you bring that into the education, because I’m sure it influences everything you do.
Edmonds: The range is everything at this point, because there are kids that listen to all kinds of music, so many of them are into hip hop and pop as well and R&B. But what you don’t really see are people picking up instruments the same and that just isn’t as readily available. And that’s what I’m most excited about because we’ve been losing our musicians for a while now. And that’s because a lot of these music programs were stopped. So to get them started back up and make it so that a kid can have a choice to pick up that instrument. I was just at Coachella last weekend and it’s funny with all the DJs playing one of the bigger moments was when this one guy walks out and starts playing the saxophone. And it was still cool to see that even with the music going that it was the live instrument that kind of got the whole thing going. So it’s always important. So I think we have to keep that in mind.
Baltin: Do you remember that first time walking on stage with an instrument and seeing the audience go crazy?
Edmonds: Initially I was just walking on there singing and they weren’t losing it yet so maybe it took the instrument to make them lose their s**t. I can’t exactly remember that moment ’cause I started really young. I picked up the guitar when I was in sixth grade. I was in eighth grade and we had a little band. And we had played a couple little dates around the neighborhood and I remember feeling special being in a band and having an instrument and being able to play period. I was a very shy kid. I didn’t talk very much but music became my voice. And it actually allowed me to kind of open up and start to have conversations with people because I was a musician. It gave me a personality that actually didn’t even exist before [laughter]
Baltin: What would be the instruments that you would recommend to kids to start off with?
Edmonds: I think the first instruments would be guitar and piano keyboards. Especially keyboards because it allows you in this world with all the programs you can do on computer. And so whether it’s Logic or or Pro Tools those keyboards will allow you to be in that world and you can do it yourself. It’s great to accompany yourself. And I think the saxophone is usually a great instrument as well if you can conquer that. I tried the saxophone. I couldn’t even make it, I couldn’t get anything out of it. I had the desire to do it but my lips just they weren’t talking to it. So those would probably be the first instruments I would say lean towards. Because they give you versatility to be able to go into other things.
Baltin: What do you want people to take away from an event like this?
Menzel: I was fortune enough to go to a school with a wonderful music program. My elementary music teacher Mr. Roper heard something in me and asked me to audition for the solo in choir. There was something really special about having someone see you the way you want to be seen at an early age. There’s also something extraordinary about the togetherness and community of making music and finding your voice literally, and figuratively, through the arts.
Edmonds: The main reason why it is important to me is because it kind of goes back to my childhood. They’re reaching out to kids and giving them a chance to learn music, to give them a voice. Kids that probably might not have a voice right now, and I know that in a program like this they’ll find their voice and you never know what we might get out of that. We might find the next whoever. And giving them that shot, that’s amazing. And so for me to be in a position to help that happen and do that in partnership with Music Will then if they ask me, then I will do it.
Baltin: There are so many different aspects you can bring to working with kids. It’s not just the technical standpoint, but it’s also the integrity standpoint.
Morello: Absolutely, there are so many facets to what makes it great to be a musician, an artist or a band member and explore. It’s a lot more than just learning the pentatonic scale or learning how to tune the guitar, something that I was horrible at for the first five years that I played. [chuckle]. To this day I’m a little shaky with it, but it doesn’t hold me back. And there are a lot of different ways to unlock who you are as an artist and as a musician. And I’ve always thought that there’s two parallel routes. There are musicians, and that requires knowledge and technique. And there are artists, and that requires ideas. And we all have the ability to lean into either or both of those, but don’t leave either one behind would be my first class if I was teaching at one of these schools.
Baltin: What’s the song that you three all do together?
Morello: That is an excellent question. I believe that there is some plan for a collaborative effort at the end of the night, and I believe it’s Queen’s, “We Will Rock You.” So that was chosen outside of my purview, but I’m gonna do my best Brian May impression towards the end of that one.
Menzel: “Change The World.” But maybe a little edgier drums for Tom.
Edmonds: That’s a good question. I have no idea. I heard they were going to do “We Will Rock You” as the finale song. So who doesn’t love that? So I think they already picked the right one.
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