Community Rocks Hits All the Right Notes
With messages like "being weird is cool," a local nonprofit combines music and literacy to help children be themselves, on stage and off.
Stories rely on two common devices to help the hero succeed—the aha! moment when the protagonist has sudden clarity about how to proceed and the “I’m living my dream” moment when all that hard work finally pays off.
Fortunately, sometimes real-life heroes get the same moments. Just ask Sara O’Brien.
O’Brien is the founder of Community Rocks, an inclusive nonprofit that helps kids of all abilities, backgrounds and musical talents get involved in the arts and sharpen their literacy through songwriting.
“Music is my vehicle teach through because it’s so universal,” O’Brien says. “Most people speak and can therefore sing. But if they can’t speak, they can usually feel vibration and rhythm. Music becomes a language we can all use.”
It all started years ago when O’Brien was teaching in a Cleveland school as part of City Year volunteerism. One of her notorious problem students finally had a breakthrough when O’Brien put a history lesson to music.
Aha! Fast forward to today and O’Brien leads Community Rocks, a group that employs songs written “by kids, for kids” on everything from why being weird is cool to embracing dreams. The kids write the lyrics, while O’Brien strums along on her guitar.
O’Brien and the kids take to the stage most weekends in the spring and summer to perform and even have recorded albums. O’Brien also leads school assemblies throughout South Jersey, performing songs with the same positive messages.
Corralling rambunctious kids several times a week and getting them to focus on songwriting is enough to try anyone’s patience, and every song is certainly a lengthy process to complete.
“There are times when I think, am I making a difference? Is this working?” O’Brien says. Then she experiences a moment like working with kids with Camden and finding the group short of a verse just before a recording session.
“Several of the older kids sat down and wrote a rap on the spot. They were writing it out, helping each other spell words. Then they taught it to the younger kids, helping them write it out,” O’Brien recalls. “And that’s when I saw those two things—music and literacy—just come together in the way I always pictured.
“So, yes. I’m living the dream.”
Rocking, and stretching, out in Oaklyn
O’Brien’s Studio LuLoo in Oaklyn acts as a base for Community Rocks. Decked out in comfy furniture, sparkly homemade décor and, of course, a stage, the studio is home to several classes a week where students brainstorm lyrics and polish their singing and choreography.
But these are no ordinary music classes. The session might start with a bit of free play. “I get these kids right after school, so I try to keep things loose,” O’Brien notes.
Then the group takes to the stage to practice their performances before switching to a quick yoga session that calms the students down a bit.
“Wellness and the arts go hand in hand,” O’Brien, who is certified in Pilates and yoga instruction, notes after class. “If you feel like crap, you can’t create.”
Only then is it time to get down to songwriting. In this particular class, the students—ranging from 4 to 10 years old—brainstorm lyrics for a song of Z words. They spend time writing down every Z word and rhyme they can think of and stringing together possible lyrics. It’s a team effort that sees the older students helping the younger ones.
Lessons on and off the stage
The students in O’Brien’s classes know these aren’t ordinary music lessons—that’s what makes Community Rocks special.
“If you want to sing, you have to express how you’re feeling and sometimes that’s hard,” says Riley Jakubowski, 9. “But when you write songs, you feel good about yourself. You can sing how you’re feeling.”
Students’ parents are also seeing positive changes as their children get involved in Community Rocks. Shannon Noon says her daughter Ella, 6, loves to sing, but gets nervous about performing.
“She’ll listen to the (Community Rocks) CDs and sing along now. She even wrote a song that she just performed for her cousins,” Noon says. “This is giving her the self-confidence to challenge herself, and I think that bleeds over into other areas of life.”
The same goes for Lucy Falco, 4. Dad John said Lucy loves to sing to herself, but, until recently, wouldn’t even sing in front of him. A few sessions at Studio LuLoo and Lucy is beginning to come out of her shell.
“Everyone is so gung ho about music here and it gets her really excited about it,” he says as Lucy twirls around the studio with other students.
Reaching kids like this, building their self-confidence, giving them an outlet, was O’Brien’s dream all those years ago in Cleveland.
“If I can say we’ve built a space that’s judgment-free and where kids can be themselves and create, then I’m doing what I set out to,” she says.
This month, Studio LuLoo is spreading the love throughout the area. Read more the studio’s Where Is the Love campaign. Check out Community Rocks to learn more about Studio LuLoo, listen to songs from the album Please Stop Complaining and more.