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He also starts to change his relationship with his older brother PJ, who’s struggling to improve on guitar. Only a year and a half apart, they fight all the time at home. PJ considers Phil his “annoying little brother” until they trade musical instruments. This “Van Halen swap” produces amazing results. When Phil joins PJ at Rodgers Middle School, they enter its 2011 Idol Talent Show with Phil on guitar and PJ on drums. The crowd, which includes some of the bullies, screams and cheers at their performance of “Crazy Train” and awards them first prize. Since then, 13-year-old Phil has become somewhat of a guitar legend in his community. On stage, the music takes over, and he’s not a shy little nerd. As part of the band Hovermode, the Cruz brothers recently perform a sensational cover of “Little Wing” at Johnny G’s in Lakeland, Florida. And in an all-important teen metric, Phil now has more Facebook friends than PJ.
While the Cruz brothers are winning new fans in middle school, Aaliyah develops as a singer and songwriter in high school. In May 2012, she visits John’s class with Ignazio, a high school sophomore whom she met through LKR. Ignazio is adding chords to Aaliyah’s first song, “Daddy’s Little Girl.” “Mr. Flora!” he says, excitedly. “You gotta hear this!”
In classic LKR fashion, John helps the kids develop the song. He gives an eighth grader, Angela, a jam card for keyboards. He asks a seventh grader, Ellesia, to step in with percussions. In ten minutes, they’re ready to do a first take.
On a lark, he decides to video record the song for Mr. Flora’s Faves, his YouTube channel. He also shares it on The Hang, a site for LKR teachers that David set up to promote community and synergy.
“Aside from just being a beautiful song, the subject matter is really intense. I choked up the first time heard it,” says David. “How could I not? I am a father, too.”
For its 10th anniversary gala a few months later, LKR chooses Aaliyah to sing her song before an audience of a thousand supporters at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. John is in a car on his way to the venue when he receives a call from David. He asks John to introduce Aaliyah on stage. For the rest of the ride into the city, John thinks about how to summarize Aaliyah’s remarkable journey.
In the green room, as they’re reviewing the song, John sees that Aaliyah has improved tremendously since that first impromptu take. As he watches her sing from backstage, he marvels at her confidence performing before a live audience for the first time – an audience that includes rock legends Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Darlene Love among others. "It was surreal," he says. When she finishes, nearly everyone is crying, especially her mom who watches proudly from the wings.
“I teared up again,” says David. “I know her Dad would have been so impressed.”
That benefit raised $800,000 for Little Kids Rock. Each year, more and more supporters discover the cause. For instance, David remembers getting a call out of the blue from Jerry Kohl, founder of Brighton Collectibles. “He told me all about how much he believed in the power of bringing music to kids in need. The funny thing is that Jerry became a donor first, but Brighton got involved separately when one of the stores discovered our program and reached out to support us through some company activities.” Brighton is supporting LKR through its Kids Across America program that runs through July 31.
In the next three years, David hopes to start other initiatives to double the program’s size and make “modern band” a certified part of music education. As he has done for the past 11 years, he’ll simply “keep at it.” It may take passion and perseverance, but rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.