Dr. Rock strides into his classroom at LEAD Southeast and a hush immediately comes over his assembled students.
“Alright!” he says. “Let’s get this ‘Radioactive’ thing going. Let’s see if we can tear it up.”
And tear it up they did.
“They” are the Little Kids Rock program students who comprise the school’s music class. On this Friday, nearly 30 kids are scattered across the room. One lead singer. Three backup singers. A couple of drummers. More on the keys. Several lining up in chairs with their acoustic guitars. “Dr. Rock” is second-year teacher Ryan Mullenix, a touring and session musician turned teacher who is aptly named because, well, he plays every instrument in the room.
The music program at the school has embarked on performances via local Nashville gigs, larger school or LEAD network opportunities and other shows across Davidson County since its inception. For instance, Dr. Rock and a portion of his class are fresh off performing at Carpe Cafe in Smyrna this past weekend.
LEAD Southeast’s Rock Band participated in the Little Kids Rock Band Summit back on April 30. (Check them out rocking Coldplay’s “Clocks” here). They also peformed at last year’s event. (Check out their performance of Pompeii’s “Bastille” here).
The students performed at LEAD Academy’s basketball program Pep Rally and Homecoming earlier this year, opened the LEAD Southeast Reward School celebration back in October and slayed, as the kids would say, back at the school’s Spring Carnival in mid-April.
On average, the kids in the music program perform outside of school between six and eight times a year.
On this Friday morning, the class began a little after 10 a.m. The band rehearsed Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” for a good 15 minutes. The amps were cranked. The voices, loud. And the kids were noticeably locked in for every second of it.
“I love it,” said Daniel Hernandez, a 7th-grader, one of the lead singers who spent the class hearing feedback, breathing from his diaphragm and getting more comfortable on the mic. “It’s really awesome.”
Dr. Rock said watching his students grow (“Daniel really came out of his shell”) is one of the best parts of the job, one that entails him working with nearly 200 students this semester (425 last semester) three times a week. Two of the longer classes serve as a traditional band practice. On Wednesday’s, the group covers music theory and other portions of the music industry during shorter classes. One lesson on royalties was a particular hit, he said.
The program began in earnest in the fall of 2014, when School Director Chris Elliott polled parents about extracurricular activities that he wanted to bring to the at-the-time fledgling school. LEAD Southeast began as a 5th grade class inside LEAD’s Cameron building in 2013. Since then, it moved to Southeast Nashville in the Metroplex plaza off Harding Place, grew to 7th-grade and was named a Reward School last fall.
The music program is a hidden gem, Elliott said. Plus, this is Music City.
“We’re in Nashville and we need to have a music program that reflects where we are in the country,” Elliott said. “There was a strong pull for the Little Kids Rock program,” he said recently. “The students loved it. Parents asked for it. The vision for this program is it is a modern day music program.”
Back in October, the network hosted a celebration for LEAD Southeast on the heels of its Reward School status recognition – two other schools, LEAD Academy High School and LEAD Academy Middle School, also received this honor this year. The rock band opened the proceedings and blew the audience away. Several parents immediately grabbed their phones and started taking video, a frequent occurrence at each performance.
It comes down to having fun while learning a craft, Dr. Rock said.
“Whether or not we actually get that much better at the F sharp minor 7th chord is not as important as having fun and wanting to continue music,” he said, remembering a moment last year when students approached him about signing out acoustic guitars in order to take them home and keep practicing.
In essence, the students asked for homework.
“They came to me, unprompted, and said, ‘Can we borrow guitars?’” he said. “Again, unprompted, ‘To work on this song?’ And that’s awesome.”
LEAD Southeast will add an eighth-grade class in August, fulfilling the first part of LEAD’s mission to provide a high-quality, equitable education for middle schoolers zoned in the Antioch cluster. By 2020, LEAD Southeast will run grades 5-12.
And the music program will continue to grow, much like the school.
“Essentially what this comes down to is how can we improve our students’ experiences?” Elliott said. “How can we improve the school? Dr. Rock knows the kids. He’s established positive relationships with everyone. And as he continues to get more comfortable as a teacher, the students keep getting better and better.”