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FIRE STARTER: Student showcase gives local kids a chance to rock

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Members of local rock band Open Wire onstage with performers at a School of Rock showcase in 2019. Below: Instructor Phillip Milligan with students Josh and Ashlee Cook. Courtesy photo


Whether having played five or 5,000 shows, all performers remember the first time they got onstage: the rush of anticipation, the sudden shock of excitement when facing an audience, the surge of adrenaline that makes a good performance great. It’s exciting but can be a challenge to overcome. Some performers stop after the first show; for others, it becomes a lifetime passion.

Local musician and instructor Phillip Milligan is making sure Wilmington musicians are given ample opportunity to discover their passions. An instructor at downtown instrument retailer Finkelstein’s for a decade, Milligan teaches students ages 5 – 75 the fundamentals of how rhythm and notes combine to make magic. A drummer since age 4, Milligan tries to get beyond a “complete the exercise”-style of teaching by employing novel strategies. He tailors lessons to each individual student. He took that concept even further when he started having his students fill in for him while playing with local rock band Open Wire.

“I realized what it did for the students,” Milligan says, leaning on an amplifier in the space above Finkelstein’s where he teaches. “It gave the kids an awesome goal—not a grade [but] an opportunity to jump onstage with lights and fog machines and feel it. I’ve never had a student only do it once.”

By giving the kids something to look forward to, Milligan says it ignited the fire and really made them want to play. That experience also inspired him to found the annual School of Rock Student Showcase, now in its fourth year. From the beginning, he made sure the performances were something kids could take ownership of. Students pick their own songs, “within reason,” Milligan laughs. “I had one student ask if she could play Lamb of God. I had to tell her that these are youth events, but I love where your head is at!” They also play their own instruments, and form their own bands. It gives them a chance to flex different muscles. As they play together, Milligan watches their confidence grow—something he knows will bleed over into other areas of their lives.   

“They all stand out in their own ways,” Milligan says. “There’s no sense of competition, either, just support . . . It’s such a positive environment. They’re all giving each other high-fives, and everyone sticks around to see everyone play.”

Those who come out this weekend can expect to hear music from bands as diverse as Metallica and the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and the Pixies, Rage Against the Machine and Breaking Benjamin, and Killswitch Engage and Weezer. They can also expect to see members of local groups Open Wire and The Hatch Brothers onstage with the young students, a collaboration Milligan calls pivotal. “[Open Wire members] Eric, Dan, and Matt, [and Hatch Brothers] Paul and Sean help make this happen as much as I do.”

Ultimately, the events are for the kids he teaches. It’s the final showdown of all they have learned. “I want this to keep the band room alive for kids,” Milligan adds. “These events are out to instill the idea that you want to perform, that you want to express something. I don’t care what it is, in arts or a sport or in music. It’s that ‘get out and do it, go for it’ kind of thing—just to keep kids interested, keep it alive. Because if youth isn’t into music, where does it go from there? This is to keep music alive in youth.”

The torch will be passed on to the next generation of local musicians at Mad Katz Bar & Lounge in Monkey Junction on Saturday. It’s free to attend and doors open early at 6 p.m.; show starts at 7 p.m. and wraps around 9 p.m.

School of Rock student showcase
Mad Katz Bar & Lounge, 5216 Carolina Beach Rd.
Saturday, February 29, 7 p.m.
Doors open at 6 p.m.
Free for all ages

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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