When Jerry Kohl was growing up in Pasadena, nothing made him feel more complete than playing his guitar when he found himself on his own. His parents worked long hours, and Kohl spent hours toiling away at the instrument until he was good enough to start his own band in middle school.
His love for music was matched early on by his high school sweetheart and future wife, Terri, and together they have embarked on a mission to ensure that music — and guitars — are readily available to Pasadena schoolchildren. Through the national nonprofit Little Kids Rock, the Kohls have provided vital financial support that has brought music curriculum and more than 2,000 guitars to elementary-age children across the city.
Most know the Kohls as the powerhouse couple that founded the jewelry and accessories boutique line Brighton Collectibles, and while they’re also known as generous philanthropists by local institutions including Huntington Hospital, the two also have worked quietly behind the scenes to become benevolent arts patrons in Pasadena.
Jerry Kohl first had the idea to fund Little Kids Rock locally when he saw a video from the nonprofit. At the time, one could donate $50 to help buy a guitar for a child, and the organization would post a video of that same child playing the instrument.
“It struck me as a really simple idea and very specific way to give back and see the fruits of your donation and to make a child happy,” Kohl said. “A guitar is something you can always have, it’s simple to carry with you and you can play it when you’re not feeling well.
“And it’s nice to do good things for people, isn’t it?”
On a recent afternoon, the Kohls stopped by to deliver 500 new guitars to Altadena Elementary School and watch as Little Kids Rock program director Tony Sauza expertly led boisterous 3rd-graders in an interactive musical hour. Using the “call and response” method, Sauza dived in to make music with rounds of stomping, clapping or beatbox noises, filling in with guitar riffs.
The children replied in kind, with lots of laughs along the way as they lost inhibitions to copy the beatbox noises and stomp with purpose.
“Our approach with this age group is really just about making music immediately. I don’t really need to explain anything, I just jump in and start playing and they go with it,” Sauza said. “Our pedagogy is based on that and really putting the students in an environment where they can really start making music from the get-go. We can jump in after and explain the methodology and theory behind it, but after they already gain that prior knowledge of how to play.”
Nearby, Pasadena Unified School District arts and enrichment coordinator Karen Anderson helped facilitate the delivery of the guitars, still wrapped in their packaging, to which the kids responded as if it were Christmas morning. They quickly propped up the guitars to begin strumming them, no guidance needed.
Anderson noted how important the development of music in early education, and 3rd grade in particular, has been to PUSD. With the knowledge earlier this year that the Kohls would be leading the charge for Little Kids Rock and the guitar donation, the district was able to use a state-funded academic enrichment grant to help develop an integrated arts curriculum for the 3rd grade, including a new unit on guitar music. It’s considered a gateway method to get children ready for 4th- and 5th-grade band or orchestra. Those grades feed into a summer honors music program for graduating 5th-graders, who then go on to play in middle school and high school.
“All of this early music education has been foundational for us, because without that we would have no middle school or high school band or orchestra,” Anderson said. “The resurgence of our elementary instrumental programs has made it to the place where we’re able to have 180 kids in our high school marching band. You can absolutely see the strides made over 10 years, and they sound, musically, really good, because they started in 3rd grade.”
Little Kids Rock has trained about 40 PUSD teachers, all of whom are given sets of guitars for the classroom after participating in professional development workshops, where they learn how to integrate guitar music into regular classroom practices. Rock bands are also being formed throughout participating elementary schools, taking the lead from Elliot Middle School, whose rock band the Fusion has become so sophisticated it’s traveled to New York City to play with Elvis Costello.
“The way the curriculum works is that anyone can follow it. All you need is to have a passion for music, and even if you’ve never learned to read music or play an instrument before, you can go through the curriculum and essentially figure it out, there are so many resources at their fingertips,” said Anderson, who noted that she ends up doing a lot of guitar tuning to keep all the instruments ready. While the kids are a quick study at it, even able to tune off each other, she laughed that “teaching the teachers to tune is a little more challenging.”
Meanwhile, as the Kohls helped to pass out the guitars, Jerry Kohl instinctively picked one up to strum, and noted how happy it makes them to see the wide smiles as the kids do the same.
“Apart from being fun, the discipline of playing music is good for kids. If you’re in a band you’ve got to learn your part, study, be prepared, do the work,” Jerry Kohl said. “The arts in general help people become well-rounded individuals. When I was young, the schools had good programs — choir, glee club, marching band, individual instrument instruction — but today, you’re lucky if you get anything.”
The Kohls also are active philanthropists elsewhere: They donated $7 million earlier this year to Huntington Hospital, and have long supported the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well as helping fund scholarships for budding musicians at the Colburn School, to which they’ve also donated violins and other instruments.
Their love of all things music — rock ’n’ roll as well as chamber music — has become a soulful hobby over the years, noted Terri Kohl, adding the couple just got tickets to see Slash from Guns N’ Roses play, and recently saw Brian Wilson and the Zombies perform. Then, earlier last month, there was Earth, Wind & Fire, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, and they were about to travel to Las Vegas to see the Eagles.
“We love music, all of it! We see lots of rock ’n’ roll but we also go to Disney Hall every Sunday when it’s in season,” Terri Kohl added.
Their hope, and their goal, is to help spread that love of music to kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity. And it all begins by picking up an instrument.
“We focus on areas and schools where the majority qualify for free and reduced lunch,” added Jerry Kohl. “If kids can’t afford to buy a lunch, they can’t afford to buy a music lesson.”
Sauza acknowledged what the Kohls have done for PUSD and its music programming by supporting Little Kids Rock: “[Jerry Kohl] is a total sweetheart in terms of wanting to provide music for all students in PUSD — he’s really, really passionate about that. He wants to focus on kids here in the city and within the public school district, and wants every single kid to play an instrument. That’s his biggest goal.”