Before Rage Against the Machine is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 3, the iconic guitarist uses his fame to inspire students to learn music on their own terms.
Tom Morello is no stranger to awards. Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave have netted him two Grammys — one for each band — while the former is on the cusp of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month. But this week, he celebrated another, which he considers one of the “best” so far: The Humanitarian Award from Music Will, the largest non-profit music education program for schools across the country.
The recognition at the nonprofit’s 15th Annual Benefit last May came with the opportunity to hand-pick 20 schools to implement innovative music programs.
“That’s the best award you could ever give someone like me,” he tells Los Angeles Magazine. “It’s not just like a trophy that you put on a shelf. It’s a living, breathing link in the chain, uplifting one another; and music being a vehicle for the betterment of the world.”
The first on Morello’s list was Van Nuys High School, where the longtime L.A. resident appeared on Tuesday to perform for and speak to about 200 kids while revealing a set of new instruments the organization donated to the school. According to Morello, the school “has never had a music program there before.”
Through funding, staff training, and instrument donation, Music Will gives kids the opportunity to learn by playing the modern hits they enjoy or writing their own songs, rather than starting with the usual scales and theory — an approach to music education that totally turned off Morello when he first picked up a guitar as a 13-year-old kid. So much so, in fact, that he didn’t touch that guitar for four years after taking two formal lessons.
“I wanted to learn ‘Black Dog‘ by Led Zeppelin or ‘Detroit Rock City‘ by KISS, and the second lesson, they made me learn the C major scale. I’m like, I’m out,” he recalls with a laugh.
Years later, while teaching guitar lessons in Hollywood before achieving rock star status, he took a more informal approach. “In the first lesson, when a neophyte would come in with a brand new bass or guitar or whatever, before they left in that first hour, they had written a song,” he explains. “They would leave and I’d say like, ‘You are a songwriter.'”
It’s a similar approach former California public school teacher and Music Will founder Dave Will took decades ago to start giving students guitar lessons after school. “There was no music program at my school. Bummed me out,” he tells Los Angeles on the same call with Morello. “I started giving free guitar lessons to all my kids after school [and] I started teaching kids from day one just to play the music they loved and they started writing their own songs.”
Those lessons led to Will’s development of the “Music as a Second Language” curriculum — now used in dozens of colleges and universities across the United States — with a methodology that focuses heavily on teaching students to play the music that they already know and love, bringing greater equity and inclusivity into music classrooms.
“It’s just an honor to be able to invoke the power of your organization,” Morello tells Will on the call. “To continue to help young people express themselves, find themselves, heal themselves, and change themselves and the world via music.”
It was actually a young person who helped Morello learn to first express himself as a singer-songwriter, leading to his political folk alter ego The Nightwatchman in the early years of the new millennium. The musician was hosting a Thanksgiving event at the Covenant House on Hollywood Blvd. when he was mesmerized by a troubled teenager singing his heart out.
“He was maybe 16-17 years old, and his story was a real bad one,” Morello remembers. “And he got up there with a guitar that was super out of tune and sang with a voice that shook. But the intent… felt like everyone’s soul in the room was at stake. And I was like, holy shit. I’m over here whittling some guitar solos [but] I’ve got ideas; I’ve got stuff in me that that I’ve got to see if I can share it like that. So, that kid taught me, and I started writing songs and I made a bunch of [solo] records since then.”
It’s that kind of life-changing inspiration that Morello and Will hope to spread to more kids across the country through the Music Will programs.
Next up, Morello will appear at an elementary school in Harlem — the New York City neighborhood where he was born — the day before Rage Against the Machine is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Brooklyn on Nov. 3.
“To be able to kind of go back to that neighborhood and leave the blossoming seed of a music school there is incredible,” says the grateful rock star.
After that, they’ll bring the beneficial program to a middle school in Marseilles, Illinois, where Morello grew up. “They play the songs they want to play and they learn the kind of music they want to learn,” Morello says of the program. “And if they want to be DJs or rappers or heavy metal drummers, it’s all available to them.”
Will adds, “All humans are musical by their very nature, and it’s our job to draw that music out of young people and not drum it into them.”
One thing Morello does want to drum into young minds, however, is a new definition of “success.”
“The question I am often asked by young and aspiring musicians is, ‘How can I be a success?’ And to me, there’s only one answer to that,” Morello tells Los Angeles. “And that is to play music that you love and sincerely care about. The end.”