By Jeremy Thomas
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
LIVERMORE -- Growing up in Livermore, ABC Music store manager Chris Fleckner didn't have much interest in high school. He struggled with grades, and, feeling disconnected from his peers, regularly skipped classes at Granada High.
But Fleckner enjoyed playing guitar and happened to fall in with a band of students his age. They entered Battle of the Bands competitions together, and, through music, Fleckner learned all about community involvement and the value of hard work.
"Things fell into place from there," Fleckner said. "It made me connect with everything at school."
Fleckner not only graduated but went on to earn a bachelor's at Cal State East Bay and is working on his master's degree. At the same time, he's imparting his own love of music -- and the positive impact it can make on a young person's life -- as co-founder of Music Pathways, a new nonprofit providing free music education to at-risk and economically disadvantaged teens in Livermore.
"We're trying to teach (the students) that hard work and discipline lead to success," Fleckner said. "Sometimes you just have to find that outlet."
Fleckner, along with friend Kevin Lewis, a Livermore city employee who overcame his own life struggles through music, reached out to community activists David Jonas and Aaron Ortiz, the executive director of East Bay Community Services. Together, they founded Music Pathways to provide help and encouragement for Livermore teens who don't fit into the traditional classroom environment. Jonas said he was inspired by a similar music program in inner-city Oakland, where his son worked as a tutor.
"It was just a magical program," Jonas explained. "I was so moved by the joy that these kids obviously felt, and the potential to reach kids who might otherwise be difficult to reach."
Organizers began the selection process in April, picking seven teens -- five boys and two girls -- from Livermore High, Junction Avenue K-8, and the Del Valle and Phoenix continuation schools. The students voted on five songs to play, picking tunes from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the classic "I Love Rock and Roll." One-on-one lessons started at ABC Music in April; with classes in guitar, bass, drums, vocals, keyboards and even the ukulele. The students will practice as a group in the summer, culminating with a live performance at the Bothwell Arts Center in the fall.
Junction Avenue seventh-grader Juan Fernandez, 13, said while he's had experience singing in plays, operas and in choirs, he's looking forward to learning a different style of music as the group's vocalist and part-time piano player.
"I think it's really cool because my family can't afford to pay for expensive instruments or lessons, so it's a great opportunity for someone like me to learn," Fernandez said. "I can already sing higher than I used to."
Not only is ABC Music providing the lessons and instruments for free, but the students can also keep their instruments upon completing the program. Music Pathways is sponsored by the Children's Music Arts Foundation and East Bay Community Services and recently received a $500 grant from the Livermore Rotary Club. The instructors are all volunteers, most of them from ABC, who are going beyond simply teaching chords and scales.
"We refer to them not as teachers but mentors," Jonas said.
Fleckner, who is also taking on an instructor role, said he makes no bones about his past truancy troubles with his students, who are responding well to the program.
"Their personalities are starting to come out," Fleckner said. "It's exciting to see that spark."
Music Pathways' founders have designs on the program becoming an ongoing Livermore tradition, and Fleckner said follow-ups will take place with school counselors and instructors to see if the education produces any long-term lifestyle changes in the students.
"We're starting from scratch," Fleckner said. "The hope is that other schools hear about it and jump on board."