The Power of Music

Mar 13, 2024

Playa del Rey’s Markus Illko may be a new Grammy winner, but the thing he really wants to celebrate and focus on is inspiring the next generation of musicians–starting with his third period class.

Parents and students from WISH Academy High School agree that it is a special place that allows for opportunities beyond the proverbial three Rs. And for Playa del Rey resident, Markus Illko, one of the school’s talented music teachers—who is also a 2024 Grammy winner—providing a professional musical experience to his beloved students is a top goal.

Markus Illko poses in his classroom.

Originally from Austria, “Mr. Illko,” as his students call him, came to Los Angeles to create music for the film industry. He’s had great success working on such films as “A Madea Christmas,” “Deliver Us From Evil” and the sci-fi TV show “Dominion.” Seven years ago, when WISH Academy was first getting started, Illko was asked to come speak to the students. Inspired to share his passion for music, shortly thereafter he began teaching a few classes here and there and discovered how much he loved the enthusiasm and optimism the students brought to the classroom.

“Every year I just started to teach a little bit more. For me, it’s important to have two things: to play music professionally and give the knowledge to students who are interested in it,” says Mr. Illko.

While these days most people experience music through the digital realm, listening to music online or downloading songs onto their phones, last year Mr. Illko decided he wanted to give his students a more tactile experience: produce music on a vinyl record. And if that record could contain songs the students played themselves, it would make that 12-inch disc even more special.

Students perform an impromptu jam of “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.

“Since everything is online nowadays, it’s nice to have something to hold in your hand,” says Illko. “I think this experience of going into the studio to work with professional musicians is just something you need to experience. It’s such an important thing for every musician. And I thought, ‘Okay, let’s do that!’ And we worked together with Sonic Fuel Studios in El Segundo, as well as the LALA in the Box recording studio, which is my own studio, and we’ll just record it and then mix everything at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded in London.”

But do today’s teenagers buy and listen to vinyl records or understand the significance of Abbey Road Studios? Yes! Vinyl’s popularity is actually soaring, with nearly 50 million albums sold in the U.S. in 2023—a 14 percent jump from the year before. One only needs to head to Westchester’s Soundsations Records to see vinyl’s continued appeal and the dedicated music lovers digging through crates to find the next album to add to their collections.

Speaking to a group of Mr. Illko’s current and former music students via Zoom, I was surprised to discover most of them already had record players at home and were big fans of the Beatles. One student, Ian Murray, even visited the outside of Abbey Road Studios on a family trip to London.

“I was there last summer. It was really crazy because I didn’t know that getting your music produced by Abbey Road was something you could do,” says Murray who adds he thought it would be amazing to have a song mixed there.

The music class ended up having two songs on WISH Academy’s debut album, 2023, mixed at the iconic studio.

2023, which was released last month, features a wide range of genres including pop, rock, reggae and soul with covers of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit “Superstition,” TOTO’s “Africa” and “Is This Love?” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. While some of the students who performed on the album have graduated, many are still honing their musical skills in Mr. Illko’s Contemporary Band Ensemble Class.

Alexandra Wilson sings the lead vocals on “Superstition.” Given this was her first time in a recording studio, the experience was exciting, but there was also a big learning curve.

“I had to navigate sound levels because you can’t really be too close to the mic, so I learned things like that. The hardest part was doing multiple takes because it’s not an easy song for me. It was just very straining for my voice. But, in the end, we got it after two or three times,” says Wilson, whose voice is surprisingly mature and sophisticated, bringing a deep, soulful quality to the song.

 Another vocalist, Lailah Young, sings the Bruno Major tune, “Nothing.” She plans to pursue music as a career and says singing on this album has really helped build her confidence. She’s delighted to share the music with the world.

 “I just think it would be exciting for people to see how far I’ve come. I know I’m just 17 now so I have a long way to go, but I feel like the music and this whole class has really helped me. In ninth grade, I was kind of shy and very scared. I didn’t want to do anything. But it has taught me not to be afraid to show my voice, and now I want to pursue music in college because I’m more confident,” says Young, whose voice has quite a dynamic range and a gentle, lilting quality. Her singing is like an angel whispering in your ear.

For high school junior Ezra Yelchin, he thinks being part of this record might help create a pathway to college.

“To have your name on an album that’s going to be in stores is great. If you put that on a college application, or if you’re trying to get a job, people are going to look at it and say, ‘Well, maybe he’ll be good for this thing,’ you know? So, it’s definitely good,” says Yelchin.

But probably the best thing about the unique experience of being able to record and produce an album with your high school music class, according to all the students, is getting to work with Mr. Illko who won a Grammy last month for work with his band, The String Revolution. The award for “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella” was given to their rendition of the famous Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues,” where Illko had the rare opportunity to play one of Johnny Cash’s personal guitars, a 1930s Martin. Illko’s current and former students couldn’t contain their excitement when they saw him on TV at the award ceremony on February 4.

“I was watching the Grammys with my roommate Ian [Murray],” says Devan Makwana, a bassist who played on the WISH Academy album.

 Both WISH alumni are now engineering students at Cal Poly Pomona and share a dorm room. When it was announced that Illko won, Makwana says it created quite a commotion.

 “We started screaming! And we got a noise complaint because we were too loud. It was a lot of fun. We’re very proud of him!” he says.

 “I can confirm we did get a noise complaint, and the guy down the hall was in a room that was pretty far from us, but he could hear us clear as day, so we were a bit loud,” says a joyful Murray.

Getting to record an album with a Grammy winner is a huge deal for these teens. But Mr. Illko makes it clear he never set out to win awards.

“If you do music, you don’t do it for prizes, right? You just do it because you love it, so I was never interested in awards per se. I think it’s not the goal you should have. But it’s a huge honor because the Grammy voters are all professional musicians, and then to be in the same category as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and win against them–it’s just unbelievable,” says Illko.

For his students, Mr. Illko doesn’t just provide musical instruction. He sets an example of how to navigate the music industry while taking the time to give back to the community. Winning a Grammy is just icing on the cake.

“I think Mr. Illko really influences us to become better artists,” says Young. “There’s moments where we’re in our heads a lot and just don’t know what to do. And we’re like, ‘How do I sing this, how can I do better?’ And if this is something that we actually want to do, [Mr. Illko’s] going to push us to do it so that we’re able to. He helps us be better as people and not just as students,” she says.

To pay for the record and studio time, the WISH band did several concerts to raise money but also relied on donors. Mr. Illko called in numerous favors and even spent six months in between his busy schedule editing the music, to cut down on costs. It’s an experience he hopes to bring to his future students as well.

In the meantime, Illko says his actual Grammy statue won’t arrive for at least two more months.

“It might go next to my coffee machine, but I’m not sure yet,” he says.

More importantly, he hopes people reading this story will want to get their own physical copy of 2023–either buying the album at Soundsations in the Westchester Triangle or by emailing him at

“I have fantastic students, and they are so very talented! I’m very, very proud of them!” he says.

Story by Shanee Edwards. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.

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