Steven Van Zandt Calls Rock & Roll High School Into Session

E Street guitarist and Grammy Museum pair for new music education curriculum

April 24, 2013 3:20 PM ET
Steven Van Zandt speaks at New York University in New York City.
Steven Van Zandt speaks at New York University in New York City.
Debra Weinstein/NYU Steinhardt

Music education is paramount to Steven Van Zandt, and he continues to prove it. Today, the famed guitarist of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band announced that his Rock & Roll Forever Foundation will partner with the Grammy Museum to launch "Rock & Roll: An American Story (RRAAS)," a music education curriculum that will enable middle and high school students to learn about the societal influence of rock music. The lesson plans run the gamut of rock & roll, from its roots in blues, country, R&B and gospel to its present-day iterations.

"Our point is the opposite of the approach taken in the past, which is, 'Take that iPod out of your ear and pay attention,'" Van Zandt told Rolling Stone at his presentation in New York. "Rather, we ask, 'What are you listening to? Let's trace it back and talk about it.' What that forms is an immediate common ground and immediate engagement. I never had that."

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Van Zandt – clad in a suit with his signature bandana wrapped around his head – unveiled the news at New York University, where he led a panel of representatives from the Grammy Museum, the Rock & Roll Forever Foundation and the school. He cited a school librarian who piqued his interest by connecting Bob Dylan to the literary greats, then moved on to Beat poets, who he said were "exotic" to a kid in New Jersey. "Through this simple gesture, the classroom came alive for me," Van Zandt explained. "I was engaged. Songs became portals; look through them and you'll see the connection."

He also introduced a short film that illustrated the format of RRAAS. It showed a pilot class in the Bronx in which the students were surprised that their lesson included music that they were currently enjoying. Additionally, students listened to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and related it to the Civil Rights Movement, then watched live footage of the Temptations performing before an all-white audience.

Through various forms of multimedia, the program parallels the story of rock music with other movements in society, including those in politics, race, religion and social progress. The secret weapon revealed in the film was Van Zandt's access to his peers and their perspectives; Bono, Bonnie Raitt and Metallica singer James Hetfield made cameos to discuss how music affected them and their educations.

RRAAS will launch in the fall; within three years' time, organizers hope it will reach major target cities. New York University will also host a teacher training program through their Steinhardt School of Education to prepare educators. Stratocasters, so far, are not included.

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