Jacob, Billy, Sam and Ashton, students in the rock band program. Photo: Patrick Harkins

Student musicians are getting the chance to shine thanks to Fondren’s only music store. The Rock Band program at Fondren Guitars kicked off just two weeks ago and, this time, store owner Patrick Harkins is leading the bands. “I’ve always been the one putting things together,” he says. “We’ve always had teachers who helped lead the practices, but I wanted to jump in and do it myself this time around. It’s fun for me.”

And it’s fun for the students, too. Here’s the setup: age-grouped kids who take lessons from one of Fondren Guitars’ instructors form bands, help choose songs and band names and rehearse for weeks ahead of some major event. This go around, it’s March 21’s Arts, Eats & Beats. The first incarnation in the fall of 2010 played for Fondren Unwrapped. Since then, four or five seasons have come from the program. The bands have also played for Broadmeadow’s Blocktoberfeast, St. Richard’s Fun Fest, St. Andrews’ Battle of the Bands and Mississippi Museum of Art’s Town Creek Arts Festival. Students have even enjoyed the live morning television spotlight. Harkins mentions upcoming opportunities that have implications statewide.

Rock Band has three incarnations this time around. And Harkins says they’re all self sufficient. “Before, (an instructor) had to sing or play one of the instruments,” he explains. “Now, each band is full on. We’re the tour manager and they’re the band.”

Harkins says the purpose of the program is multifaceted. Rock Band can jump start a musical passion for life, he believes, if given the right opportunities. “When I was their age — middle school, high school…if I had been in the same situation where I had people around me to play with, I would have started even younger than I did,” Harkins says. “I’ve made it a life time, and a lot of my friends who are musicians have been doing this as a lifetime, too.” He notes students who have come out of the program who are already playing with bands that tour and play venues all over the state.

But, there’s another, maybe stronger plus that comes from this camaraderie: “I can think of a couple of kids who were so shy and introverted who are now more outgoing,” Harkins tells us. “They’ll sing songs or play solos that they never would have before. They have come out of their shell.” That’s to say Rock Band is a self esteem booster? “Absolutely, it makes them feel good about themselves and their talent.”

Harkins notes, too, the program is a friendship builder. “We take someone who might not necessarily be on the football team but wants that same team spirit and we give them a team,” he says. “They’re in this together.” Harkins says many of the high school aged students who go to different schools and didn’t know each other before now hang out outside of rock band rehearsals and have become friends.

“It’s really cool to give kids that are great musicians that don’t have anyone else to play with a chance to play,” he tells us. Harkins believes the “ipod in a bedroom jam session only” practice can be detrimental to growth. “Students are being held back because they don’t know where to go with that (talent). They don’t know that if they get together with a drummer or a bass player, they can take it to the next level and play in front of people.”