Buffalo Grove musician helping kids choose guitars over guns

 
Updated 1/8/2016 6:01 AM
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While pursuing his dream of a career in music, Phil Jacobson and some college friends are planting similar aspirations in children growing up in a far more vulnerable environment than the Buffalo Grove community that nurtured him.

Jacobson and friends are teaching music to inner-city kids through a program called Guitars Over Guns. Launched in North Miami, Florida, in 2008 and recently exported to Chicago, the after-school program pairs professional musicians with at-risk kids and offers music as a substitute for less positive influences they might otherwise encounter.

"We do like to think that Guitars Over Guns is a healthy alternative to some of the other things that the kids could be getting involved in outside of school, especially between the hours of 3 and 6 (p.m.) when the parents are maybe working," Jacobson said.

Guitars Over Guns now operates in five schools in both Chicago and Miami. The program's founder, Wilmette native Chad Bernstein, has been profiled as a CNN Hero, and the work of volunteers like Jacobson has won national praise.

Jono De Leon, the chief operating officer of Guitars Over Guns, said research supports their view that the hours after school are when kids are most vulnerable to negative influences in their neighborhoods, including gangs and drugs.

"What it's about for us is to create a positive alternative," he said.

Buffalo Grove native Phil Jacobson talks with students at Evergreen Academy in Chicago through his work with the program Guitars Over Guns. The after-school program teaches kids music as an alternative to less positive influences they might encounter.
  Buffalo Grove native Phil Jacobson talks with students at Evergreen Academy in Chicago through his work with the program Guitars Over Guns. The after-school program teaches kids music as an alternative to less positive influences they might encounter. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Sarah Robinson, who attended the University of Miami (Florida) like Jacobson and Bernstein, introduced the program in October at Evergreen Academy, a public middle school on Chicago's Southwest Side where she teaches music. She's been joined there by Jacobson and Andrew DeMuro, another former Miami student. Jacobson and DeMuro are members of the band The Shades.

Robinson said gangs are a problem in the area, but "it's not something that's affecting all of our children here at the school.

"Fortunately, I feel that here at Evergreen, we have a lot of really great families and great parents who are really supportive and really behind us with programs like this," she said. "They (the children) are so engaged with what they are doing now. They are going home and practicing their music at night and doing their homework. Maybe that wouldn't be the case if they weren't so engaged in this program."

One of the program's benefits is providing a safe space where students can take risks creatively in the classroom rather than on the street in ways that may be destructive.

Alejandra Llorente, 11, a sixth-grader at Evergreen Academy in Chicago, sings "Counting Stars" as Phil Jacobson plays guitar.
  Alejandra Llorente, 11, a sixth-grader at Evergreen Academy in Chicago, sings "Counting Stars" as Phil Jacobson plays guitar. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Students participating in Guitars Over Guns say it's given them an opportunity to explore their musical talents while avoiding bad influences around them.

"(Playing guitar) kind of helps me get away from all the negative things," said Andrea Benitez, 12, a seventh-grade student at Evergreen.

Yailin "Jordan" Rojas, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, said she's been interested in playing musical instruments since she was 3 years old. She hopes to learn how to play drums through Guitars Over Guns.

"I thought this was my chance to follow my dream," she said.

Robinson said a professional musician like Jacobson can reach students in a different way than she can as a teacher.

"They play with the kids, they play for the kids, and (the students) just respect what they do," Robinson said. "They can recognize the opportunity, I think. So they respond to it in a really cool way."

Musician Phil Jacobson, formerly of Buffalo Grove, plays guitar as part of his work with students in Chicago through the Guitars Over Guns program.
  Musician Phil Jacobson, formerly of Buffalo Grove, plays guitar as part of his work with students in Chicago through the Guitars Over Guns program. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Jacobson, a Stevenson High School graduate, said he can identify with the youngsters. He cultivated his musical dreams as a boy by, among other things, winning the first "Buffalo Grove Idol" competition in 2003 at Buffalo Grove Days. He still performs regularly at the village's annual festival.

"We're just trying to teach them good habits and mindsets, not only for when they're performing music, but throughout their lives, too," he said. "Working with a band and rehearsing is a lot of team building and learning how to work with other people positively."

For a full-time musician, Jacobson said the time spent in the classroom has been eye-opening.

"We rehearse. We work really hard. We talk a lot about what makes good musicians. What are things that good musicians will say and do and believe," he said. "And we try to apply those things not only to our music but to other aspects of their lives."

The fall's work culminated with a performance by the program's students during a school assembly Dec. 16. The children jammed on holiday standards like "Jingle Bell Rock," while Jacobson joined them on guitar and Robinson chimed in on keyboards.

Andrew DeMuro of Chicago, left, and Stevenson High School graduate Phil Jacobson sing at Evergreen Academy in Chicago as part of the Guitars Over Guns program.
  Andrew DeMuro of Chicago, left, and Stevenson High School graduate Phil Jacobson sing at Evergreen Academy in Chicago as part of the Guitars Over Guns program. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Though not especially polished, they sang and played with enthusiasm, and spectators couldn't help but feel charmed.

Later that afternoon, Jacobson, DeMuro and Robinson met with the students for a final session before winter break.

DeMuro noted how the audience responded when a microphone briefly malfunctioned during a singer's performance.

"Who helped you out? The crowd. They sang with you," he said. "The crowd doesn't sing with bands they don't like."

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