School music program led by Grammy-nominated instructor offers job training, college credit

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- This is school choice week and some high school students are choosing music.

Arcadia High School's unique CMAS program attracts children from inside and outside the district. It prepares them for a job, lets them earn college credit, and has even led the instructor to a Grammy nomination.

The large room, covered with posters of bands past and present, is a laboratory of sorts where students find a chemistry of strings, drums and voice. The mad scientist behind it all is Richard Maxwell.

“If this one was really awful, if I've done my job right, they're going to go back and write another one,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell developed the Contemporary Music and Sound program to be a place where students don't just learn an instrument; they take an idea and make it real.
 
“My job is to say, you have an interest in creating something,” Maxwell explained. “I'm going to open every possible door to every conceivable opportunity I can come up with to help you create what you're hearing in your head.”
 
Maxwell said musical knowledge is not a requirement. He gets students who can't play. Others sang in a middle school choir. They all want to be part of a program that's not just playing other people's music.
 
“The minute CMAS went up and did their big performance, I was like, that's what I want to do; I want to perform,” said Arcadia sophomore Stormie Burcky. “Then I came into the program and discovered producing.”
 
“Perform on stage, produce my own music, be a part of a band, and be a part of assemblies," said senior Jasmine Kingston. "I thought, hey, I want to try that.”
 
"When I got here and saw everything we did -- like playing lunch shows and they would play Black Cat and they played at Hard Rock Cafe -- I decided that's what I wanted to do,” Jonathan Hudson explained.
 
Students in the various CMAS classes form anywhere from 20 to 40 acts at one time. And they've performed about 50 times this school year, even creating and performing originals for the school musical.
 
“This is the third year in a row we've produced a full-scale musical,” Maxwell said. “We partnered with the theater department, and we constructed a band for that show.”
 
Maxwell said the mixture of boys and girls, older students mentoring newcomers, and different musical preferences just works.
 
“The kids don't seem to notice the stylistic differences,” he said. “They are constantly sort of feeding on each other.”
 
Maxwell is proud of his students. He calls the program a student-run record label.

If that is worthy of a Grammy, he is happy to accept and share it with them.
 
“It's weird to even think of the potential to be at ceremony and receive an award that's also honoring George Harrison, the Bee Gees and ... literally these major icons,” he said with a smile and a shy wave at the camera. 
 
Other schools in the Valley are copying this program, and Maxwell said they can start it for perhaps $20,000.
 
The most important thing to note: students will earn as many as 27 college credits. Or they take the skills and they are ready for a job in the music industry.