The Roots of Music is about more than teaching New Orleans children to play musical instruments and perform in a marching band. It’s about giving them a future.
“I modeled the program after Mr. Donald Richardson, my band director at Andrew J. Bell Junior High School,” Derrick Tabb says. “I think he saved my life.”
Tabb, the drummer for Rebirth Brass Band, was not a model student when he was growing up in Treme.
“I was in school because of music, and you had to keep a certain grade level to stay in the band,” he says. “When I got in trouble, I’d get sent to Mr. Richardson. I think I would have liked suspension a lot better.”
His band director was tough and disciplined, and he demanded the best from his students. But he also remembered what is was like to be 13.
“When I was in seventh grade, my grandmother died, and I got a little rebellious,” Tabb, 33, says. “Mr. Richardson took a lot of time with me. I guess he saw something special in me.”
After Hurricane Katrina washed away the middle-school band programs, and many of the playgrounds were turned into FEMA trailer villages, Tabb knew he needed to do something to help the kids in his broken city the way his favorite teacher had helped him.
“Katrina really messed over a lot of these kids,” he says.
When he told his friend Allison Reinhardt about his dream of starting a citywide marching band, things began to happen.
THE ROOTS OF MUSIC MARCHING CRUSADERS
Info: To learn more or donate, go to www.therootsofmusic.com.
“As soon as Derrick started talking about it, I told him, ‘That’s it. My son is signed up,'” Reinhardt says.
She asked a million questions and started writing down ideas, making plans, talking to other musicians, getting financial backing, finding out how to form a nonprofit group.
“If Allison wouldn’t have pushed me toward it, The Roots of Music never would have happened,” Tabb says. “She’s the brains behind it. I just bring my heart.”
From the seed of an idea, The Roots of Music has blossomed into a free after-school program that is changing the lives of 9- to 14-year-olds.
Monday through Thursday and on Saturday mornings, students are bused from around the city to Grace Episcopal Church in Mid-City. They spend 1¤1/2 hours there getting tutoring help with their homework before they pick up their donated instruments and are taught by a group of seasoned instructors with marching band experience.
“We call our staff ‘the dream team,’¤” Reinhardt says. “They’re more than music teachers. They’re father figures and mentors. They really have a passion for the kids.”
After an hour of blowing their horns and beating their drums, the students run a lap around the block. Then, they eat a hot meal and get back on the buses to go home.
The 6-foot-4 drummer calls the program he directs “the no-excuse plan.”
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune
The Roots of Music program drum section practices their cadences Tuesday, February 17, 2009 in the front yard of a house behind Grace Episcopal Church.
“We feed the kids, we have tutors for them, we have buses to pick them up, and we supply their instruments. So they have no excuse for not coming,” he says.
There are 98 students in the program so far, and their attendance rate is around 95 percent.
“When they miss, it’s usually because they have a problem,” Tabb says. “They might have a detention and they don’t want to tell me. They’ll call and say, ‘I had to do some extra work. Can you come and pick me up?’¤”
None of the students had any kind of musical training before entering the program.
“Some of them didn’t even know what a trumpet was,” Tabbs says. “They’d say, ‘I want to play that thing right there.’¤”
And yet, after a few months of hard work, they’re already performing. They marched in four Carnival parades, and you can see them Thursday afternoon, marching around the Fair Grounds at Jazz Fest.
“Performing gives them so much confidence and the drive to want to be the best,” Reinhardt says. “It’s just an amazing group of kids.”
Chris Granger / The Times-Picayune
Wearing a new band uniform, Kyle Pierce, 9, gathers on the steps of Colton School before his bands show on Thursday, April 24, 2009.
Reinhardt, 32, who came to New Orleans from New Jersey to attend Loyola University and decided to stay, calls The Roots of Music an “anti-crime program.”
“There’s so much out there that’s not creative or positive, and it’s not fair to our children,” she says. “We just want to help them make the right choices and have a bright future.”
For Tabb, being executive director of the program and drumming with Rebirth means two full-time jobs and little time to relax at home. Luckily, his wife, Keisha, is understanding.
“She knows I’m doing it for the kids,” he says. “All they need is for us to give them something positive to do and believe in them.”
And the children of New Orleans are clamoring for something positive to do. He has 350 kids on a waiting list and a 7-year-old boy who calls him on his cell phone every day and says, “Are you the man with the band? I want to get in that band.”
Tabb’s plan is to keep working and raising money until there’s a place for every child on that long waiting list.
“I’d really like to get it where I could save a lot more kids,” he says. “I want to make the city’s biggest marching band. I want to have the biggest marching band in the world.”
Columnist Sheila Stroup can be reached at email@example.com or 985.898.4831.