Corey Ferrugia had every reason to give up on music.
The 29-year-old who lives in Los Angeles had to fight to get accepted to the competitive University of Arizona School of Music and said he struggled while enrolled. What’s more, he was laid off from his job teaching music at an elementary school in 2009. But he told The Huffington Post these setbacks spurred him to empower kids through music in other ways.
Ferrugia said that becoming a casualty of budget cuts at a public school in Arizona -- the state that at the time spent the third least amount on education nationwide -- made him more determined than ever to help kids discover a love for music. As a result, Ferrugia founded his own Arizona-based music education company, MyTown Music, in February of 2010. Launched originally as a summer music camp for kids, MyTown expanded into after-school programs and held community music events and competitions. Through his company, Ferrugia aims to one day help supplement music programs in struggling schools that can no longer support or adequately fund their own curriculum.
He started from scratch with MyTown about a year and a half ago, after moving to California to jump start his business. He began with a simple ad on Craigslist looking for potential students to provide lessons to. The ad landed him just one: 11-year-old Rylee Gibson.
"[Ferrugia] helps me write the music and the words, and we just brainstorm together," Rylee told HuffPost. "It’s a real connection."
Now, Rylee is one of four students between 11 and 16 years old participating in a music education series produced by Ferrugia's company. The program, called the MySong Series, provides students with songwriting lessons, lyric development, performance training and studio time to create their own personalized EPs or extended plays.
While each student in the MySong Series has completed at least one recording with Ferrugia, the music teacher has bigger plans for the initiative. Through an IndieGoGo campaign, Ferrugia is hoping to raise $80,000 toward recording and mixing costs for the students to each complete their own EP and create videos (like the one above) capturing the experience. Funds raised will be distributed evenly for each student's work, as well as for Ferrugia to produce his own three-song EP.
He said mentoring his students for more than a year has only enhanced the work on his own project.
"To make [my own] record alongside these four special kids feels right to me," Ferrugia told HuffPost. "Each of them are so unique and have so much greatness to share with the world as well, so it's truly an honor and a joy to have them part of my journey."
The MySong series is small in scale, but Ferrugia said he hopes the idea will play a vital role in the future of music education in American schools. Currently in talks with schools in Los Angeles, Ferrugia is hoping to find ways to make music education affordable to districts whose finances can no longer fund these programs.
Inspired by mentor Dr. Carroll Rinehart, Ferrugia designed MyTown with a belief that creating and performing music benefits young people far beyond the classroom -- and science backs up his approach.
According to a recent study by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, kids with at least two years of private music lessons showed higher levels of cognitive control, which aids in information retention and behavior regulation, when compared to students with no musical training, AFP Relaxnews reported. What's more, MRIs revealed that children with musical training had enhanced activity levels in the prefrontal cortex -- a sign they might be better at multi-tasking.
"Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications," Nadine Gaab, Ph.D., of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's Hospital told AFP. "While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."
Ferrugia said he recognizes that schools have federal and state-level mandates they must meet and wants to help find solutions to the toll that budget issues takes on the arts.
"No one is doing anything wrong," Ferrugia said, explaining schools' financial shortfalls stem from a systematic issue, not from the incompetencies of educators who are forced to prioritize standardized testing. "[Teachers] are overworked and underpaid, and have a lot of pressure from the top coming all the way down ... Let’s alleviate that, and make it easier for them."
Ferrugia may have big plans for changing music education in America. But for now, he's focused on four students -- Rylee, Kate, Ryan and Spencer -- who just want to express themselves behind a microphone.
Ferrugia (right) alongside MySong Series student Ryan Ramirez (left).
"They’re the sweetest, most humble, but passionate [kids] and they want to make a difference in the world," Ferrugia said. "I don’t see them as these child stars. They just want to make music and they want to make music for a purpose."
To support the MySong Series, visit its fundraising page.