WILMINGTON — “Music was just so important — my whole life — and has developed exactly who I am today,” Charlie Smith said. “I want to be able to give that back to someone.”
Windshield wipers swept to their own rhythm in the background, as Smith talked about Play It Forward — a project he officially launched last year that gifts instruments to families in need. He was driving to his band studio — where he practices with one of his five rock outfits, including Monkey Knife Fight and A Bottle Volcanic — to meet with another family retrieving a drum kit Smith had refurbished to give away.
The family was one of 46 Smith has helped this holiday season.
Play It Forward has been raising money over the last few months so Smith can purchase, clean and restore used drums and gift the sets to children aspiring to play music. The idea for the project originated five years ago, after Smith came across a few drum kits on Facebook Marketplace that needed TLC. On a whim, he purchased them with his own money and changed out the cymbals, snare wires, drum heads and pedals.
“I gave them to my friends who had children who wanted to learn to play,” Smith said. “It was just for fun, but during the pandemic Play It Forward started really taking shape.”
In 2020 he learned about a student from DREAMS Center for Arts Education — a tuition-free program that teaches youth ages 8-17 high-quality visual, performing and digital arts classes — who wanted a set of drums. So Smith got to work again.
“This was a real game-changer for this young man and propelled him toward a deeper immersion into music, self-expression and confidence,” DREAMS interim executive director Amy Jeffrey said.
That same year, Smith ended up helping 10 more kids, including a few at the Boys and Girls Club as well.
When the 2020 holiday season arrived, Smith, who normally hosted a charity concert, had to pivot plans for his annual Rock for Light show due to shutdowns. Rather than resort to a livestream event, he decided to put all his energy into procuring instruments for five additional families.
“Last year, I spent 1,500 bucks during Christmastime,” he said, “but the money went quickly because it was all brand new stuff.”
Once he decided to revisit Play It Forward for the 2021 tinsel season, Smith went back on the hunt for pre-owned instruments to stretch his funds. In August, he began scouring Facebook Marketplace again, as well as worked with local music shops Guitar Pickers, Otto’s Drum Shop and Bass Pluckers.
“I could go a lot further with just replacing drum heads and cymbals that are 20 to 30 bucks here and there,” Smith said. “And the music shops worked with me to give me the best price.”
Smith also evolved the gifts beyond drums. He added guitars — electric, bass and acoustic — keyboards and amps into the mix.
“I was able to provide 46 kids instruments for Christmas — the most yet,” he said.
Some of the drum kits — Pearl Roadshow or Percussion Plus — cost upward of $600 or more in mint condition. Smith also had Les Paul, Fender and Squire guitars, each rehabilitated. While Smith worked on the drums, he leaned on the expertise of local music-shop employees to help restring and retrofit the guitars.
The drummer said he understands first-hand the overwhelming expense involved in purchasing a new instrument; he had to borrow a set to learn to play drums in his teens.
“It wasn’t until I was in my 20s I saved enough money to buy my own,” Smith said. “But it’s always fun, a good hobby, and most of my friendships and relationships came out of playing — and, now, this program came out of it.”
Play It Forward beneficiaries learn about the program via word-of-mouth, according to Smith, who only depends on social media and friends to help spread its mission. He said at Thanksgiving he had more instruments than families — around six — signed up for the holiday. Yet, when people started sharing the campaign on socials, the tides changed; soon enough, he had more families than instruments. By Dec. 21, he was able to fulfill every wish list and deplete his inventory.
Through donations — a GoFundMe was set up earlier in the season and Venmo accepts donations year-round — the drummer raised $2,207 and spent $2,145, he said. The remaining $62 will go to the next instrument he refinishes.
And there will be another.
“DREAMS and Play It Forward have plans for future partnerships that will ensure no musical instruments go unused or unappreciated and, even more importantly, that no young musicians go without instruments for making their dreams come true,” Jeffrey said.
Smith’s goal is to make Play It Forward an official 501(c)(3) in the new year and continue providing instruments year-round.
“Playing drums is so therapeutic for me — and it clicked that this is what it could be for somebody else,” he said.
Anyone who has instruments to donate can contact Smith through his socials. He will ask a few questions to assess the shape they’re in and make sure they can be refinished without steep costs.
“I was working on two more drum kits to give out this season, but they needed so much more work than time allowed,” he said. “I just couldn’t pull it off in time, but after the first of the year, I’ll be able to get those ready for someone.”
Smith estimates 40 hours a week throughout the fall were spent readying eight keyboards, eight guitars, six bass guitars and 12 or so drum kits. But he said he never felt overwhelmed or stressed.
“A lot of great conversations with people came out of it,” Smith said.
Stored at his band’s studio, the instruments are stowed away in a box truck until the beneficiary comes face-to-face with Smith to pick up the gifts. Careful to protect their privacy, the drummer said some of the stories he has heard are heavy: illnesses, financial strife, job loss.
“There’s a lot of problems out there. People have had a hard time through the pandemic,” he said. “I’m just happy to help.”
Play It Forward can be followed on Facebook and Instagram. Monetary donations can be made here (write “Play It Forward” on the note), and Smith can be contacted at email@example.com for instrument donations.
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