Music tour rocks at MLK High School

Donald Patterson, an 11th grader at Martin Luther King High School, plays guitar at the High School Nation tour stop on October 4, 2013. (Colin Kerrigan /

Wearing bright blue headphones and a wide smile, Jordan Staldings-Smith beat the drum set, swaying in his seat. A classmate jammed on an electric guitar. A third student joined the pair at a keyboard.

"There you go, you got it," instructor Robert Ochoa encouraged the group. A few steps away, groups of teenagers huddled around DJ control boards and the latest speaker models, mixing their own sets.

The setting wasn't a professional music studio -- it was a high school field.

The High School Nation tour and John Lennon Educational Tour Bus made a stop today at Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown. At the event, high schoolers got try all kinds of musical activities. They wrote songs, mixed tracks, played instruments and danced to their classmates' sounds.

The tour is stopping 20 East Coast cities; three stops in New Jersey are scheduled for next week. The events aim to give kids exposure to music and other culture, especially as states and school districts struggle to fund arts programs.

There are plenty of music festivals around, High School Nation founder Jimmy Cantillon said, but "there's nothing that's just for teens."

Staldings-Smith took a break from the drums only to motion to another to teen to join the group on the keyboard. The 10th-grader played drums before, but said he liked playing with others.

"Everyone is playing at once," he said. "Everyone's on one track."

Ochoa, who was running the music center at MLK this morning, tries to encourage that collaborative atmosphere. He helped groups of students jam together on keyboards, guitars and drum sets. He said he tries to break sets into simple notes and chords, so anyone can participate.

"I lay the foundation for them to play together," he said.

Donald Patterson emerged from a guitar session at the music tent with a huge grin.

"It's pretty fantastic," the 11th-grade student said. "We all come together, making beautiful music."

Cantillon said he hopes the tour gets excited about music, and gives students exposure to instruments and equipment they might not have tried before.

For students taking a break from playing their own instruments, audio engineer Graham Ginsburg showed teens how to put together tracks, set up playlists and add effects on DJ soundboards.

"All the kids have been really inquisitive," he said. "It's really cool to see. They just forget where they are."

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

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