In 2009, numerous arts programs were eliminated from Arizona public schools due to budget cuts—and Corey Ferrugia lost his job as a music teacher.
Inspired to fill the music vacancy, the UA graduate collaborated with Eric Castillo, a former student, to establish MyTown Music, an organization that helps kids create and compose their own music.
"Once I got cut, that's when everything started happening," Ferrugia said. "I had a vision to create a sustainable way to bring back music to any community."
With the help of the University of Arizona Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, a nonprofit that helps students succeed professionally, Ferrugia's idea became a reality. The concept first took shape as a summer day camp where children ages 8 to 18 attend group classes to learn an instrument of their choice, and then compose music with a band. At the end of camp, participants go home with studio recordings of their music.
The program was successful enough that the summer camp transformed into K-12 afterschool "group sessions." The two entrepreneurs were able to add more employees, volunteers and interns to their music-driven coalition.
Jenny McCauley, a music-education junior at the UA, gives private lessons to MyTown Music students and is a co-facilitator for group sessions at Marana's Estes Elementary School and the La Paloma Academy's central campus. She said that in a typical group session, the kids are divided into bands, where they select instruments that usually include the piano, acoustic or electric guitar, and bass; they can also choose vocals. Over the course of eight weeks, the members of the group pick popular songs from their favorite artists and also write their own music, which they ultimately record and perform for an audience. Private lessons are offered to students who want one-on-one instruction.
"The kids are great. It's cool to see how much they grow and learn, and how much they enjoy it. They love it; they have a blast," McCauley said.
After just two years, MyTown Music has spread across the state and offers group sessions and private lessons on 17 different school campuses in Marana, Tucson, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Vail. Ferrugia says the organization soon will spread to larger cities, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"This is an economic problem, but it's a good one in the sense that there is a huge demand for music and arts education—and there's a huge supply of people to do that," Ferrugia said.
MyTown is continuing to evolve into a multifaceted music-empowerment organization. Progress is being made to include aspects beyond the afterschool sessions, and eventually create self-sustaining MyTown Music clubs on each campus. Plans also call for live music gigs, studio recording, multimedia projects, community service, a magazine and retail merchandise. With the cooperation of students and music professionals, the aim is to create a music label that will produce and promote its own artists while also impacting the community in a positive way.
Most important, though, is the goal to "empower students through music commerce and leadership," Ferrugia said, to "use music to be a part of something bigger than themselves, be socially responsible and give to the community."
MyTown Music recently has been hosting the Ironwood Ridge High School Idol, a student competition to raise money for the school's music program. The show was extremely successful, with more than 40 entries narrowed to four finalists. The contest has featured bands, groups, singers and solo artists competing for first place.
The competition continues this weekend at Club Congress, with MyTown Music's latest community concert. The four finalists will each perform three-song sets.
Sunday's show will be unlike MyTown community concerts in the past, which showcased the progress of students. The winners will get to record a fully produced three-song EP and will receive a social-media campaign, a website launched specifically for them, and a music video of the night. Ferrugia describes it as "completely producing them as an artist."
McCauley said it's exciting to see so many kids investing their time in music.
"I just wish that I could have been put in a band and taught how to write songs when I was 12," McCauley said.