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School music programs, marching bands staging post-Katrina comeback

Marching bands are just part of the resurgent public school music program. Here, O. Perry Walker Senior High parades with Bacchus. photo: Courtesy of Jeremy Fredericksen, all rights reserved

Sitting still doesn’t come naturally to a lot of kids. Getting students to sit still long enough to learn is often the teachers’ hardest job. But weeks before school officially began at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, eager students sat for hours at a time, practicing their horns under the direction of band director Charles Brooks.

In the back of the room, another line of students stood at attention, drum straps around their necks, silently waiting for their turn to play. There was no cutting up, no speaking out of turn. Whether the motive is getting to march in Mardi Gras parades, winning a music scholarship to a college otherwise out of reach, or simply because all their friends do it, New Orleans students respond to few pursuits as seriously as they do band class.

With so much change in New Orleans schools since Katrina, it’s difficult to get a bead on the state of music education in the city. To that end, The Lens called every public school in New Orleans and interviewed school leaders, band directors, nonprofits and students to figure out whether marching bands and other music programs have fully revived since the hurricane.

The deeper question: How will a changing music landscape affect the city’s kids—and in turn, New Orleans’ rich artistic culture?

According to a sampling of 80 New Orleans schools (down from just under 130 before Katrina), 46 currently employ full-time music teachers, and another 11 employ part-time instructors. With many public schools reorganized as charters or subjected to wholesale administrative shake-ups, few of the schools we reached could answer questions about their pre-Katrina music curriculums.

A standard reply—“Every school had a band before Katrina”—turns out to be a myth.

  • At least 22 of the schools polled provided no music education before the flood, whereas 15 of those schools now offer at least some type of basic music literacy and appreciation class.
  • Only two schools reported losing their programs—John Dibert Community School and Success Preparatory Academy.
  • Only four high schools that provide general music education now lack a marching band.
  • Twenty-eight schools have marching bands.
  • Twenty-four have choirs.
  • Twenty-nine have concert bands.
  • Nine have orchestras or smaller string ensembles.

Sustaining a tradition

Opinions on the post-Katrina state of music education vary greatly. The good news for the five non-chartered schools still run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board is Jonathan Bloom, the board’s post-Katrina Arts in Education specialist. Bloom presides over programs at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, Eleanor McMain Secondary School, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology and Architectural Design, as well as Engineering Preparatory High, which recently merged with McDonogh 35 High School.

George Washington Carver’s band struts its stuff during a daytime parade. photo: Courtesy of Glenn Austerfield, all rights reserved.

Bloom is ambivalent about New Orleans’ music education since the flood. “The culture by definition is always in danger,” he said, “because it constantly changes, with every generation bringing something new to the table, whether that’s more music, less music, or different.”

Bloom estimates that before Katrina, 90 percent of all middle and high schools offered band. “We are back where we were before Katrina with OPSB schools,” he said, “but in my personal opinion it’s only maybe 60 to 70 percent citywide.”

Bloom compliments the work of new charters, but regrets the loss of community now that most schools are open to students citywide, many of whom ride buses for considerable distances. “When I was a kid you walked to your school. Which made after-school music and art programs more practical. Reconfiguring schools, and staff, and staffing formulas, and population adjustment— all of that affects what happens. How it was before wasn’t all bad, but when you try to get something new, you often throw out everything.”

Brooks, the MLK band director, taught band at Thurgood Marshall Middle School from 1999 to 2005, then spent 2006 to 2009 at Warren Easton Charter High School, which was rebuilding its band with financial help from movie star Sandra Bullock. Brooks has just begun his fourth year as band director at MLK, a former elementary school now expanded to include a high school.

MLK’s symphony band currently features 60 young musicians, while its marching unit fields up to 110 members. All of MLK’s students start basic music classes in fourth and fifth grades so that they enter middle school eligible to march in the band, with two years of music theory.

“MLK doesn’t have a celebrity to drop a couple million on it,” said Brooks, who works in tandem with a part-time music teacher. “Our administration is behind us 100 percent, but in the last three years we’ve had more and more kids wanting to participate, and when you have 100 kids, that’s a lot of instrument maintenance.”

For lack of instruments, Brooks has to turn down would-be band members: “We turn away 25 to 30 kids sometimes, because when a child cannot afford an instrument you lose that child.”

One of Brooks’ star musicians, a baritone sax-playing senior named Devon Jasper, began band at MLK in sixth grade. Such was his love of music, he would show up voluntarily during the summer to prepare for the school year ahead.

Jasper started on trumpet. “Then I tried out the tuba and found I was really good at tuba, so I stuck with that a year. Then I played the baritone and I liked the baritone.” Though he considers music a professional option, Jasper’s favorite subject is English, and he plans to major in sports training in college. “I just really like to play music,” he said. “It keeps me off the streets. And I’ve made a lot of friends that way.”

If anything positive came of the flood, it was that New Orleans, a city often averse to change, had no choice but to reinvent itself. The charter school movement that began before the flood and exploded in its wake continues to create scores of new music education opportunities.

Renewal follows disaster

The name Batiste is synonymous with music in New Orleans. Damon Batiste (son of David Batiste, who started a precursor to the Batiste Brothers Band) is a musician, educator and former co-producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as the Essence Music Festival.

Having run many community music workshops in New Orleans’ parks and playgrounds before the flood, in the hurricane’s wake Batiste began working to start a proper school with a strong music education component. “We had talked to [U.S. Sen.] Mary Landrieu in 2003 about wanting to implement a NOCCA-type school that wasn’t for the most talented kids,” recalled Batiste, “but for kids that had a need and want, but didn’t have the means. Then after Katrina everything was dismal. The morale was just not there, and it was time to try something.”

McMain’s band marches through the streets of the city during Carnival 2010. photo: Courtesy of Kim Welsh, all rights reserved

With support from the 21st Century Foundation and in partnership with the ReNEW charter schools group, Batiste took over the failing Live Oak Elementary, in the Irish Channel, and reopened it in 2009 as the Batiste Cultural Arts Academy. Batiste does not teach at the now three-year-old academy, but the school’s staff includes many kin, including a cousin, assistant music director Christian Batiste, and a nephew, assistant band director Jamal Batiste.

At the school’s inception, in addition to a regular academic course load, students were offered an after-school curriculum of music enrichment classes: African drumming, jazz band, choir and marching band. Having achieved early academic goals, the academy this year will add an hour and a half to its school day in order to integrate the music and academic curricula.

“ReNEW wanted to put a community face to their new charter,” Damon Batiste said of the school’s affiliation with the charter management organization. “Since we grew up in the Irish Channel, the kids and the families feel they can talk to us differently, if they have problems and whatnot.”

According to Batiste Academy’s chief academic officer, Dwight Rhodes, only 14 percent of Live Oak’s students were reading at a basic level before the takeover, compared to 73 percent now.

This year Batiste Academy was one of eight schools in the nation to win the President’s Turnaround Arts Initiative Award, a public-private partnership that provides the school with art supplies, musical instruments and in-school professional development. The program’s overarching goal is to narrow the achievement gap and improve student engagement through the arts.

The Capital One-New Beginnings Charter School Network is another source of post-flood music education. Begun before Katrina in 2005 under the guidance of UNO, the New Beginnings group now includes Gentilly Terrace, Medard Nelson and Pierre Capdau charter schools, plus Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

New Beginnings’ after-school and special programs coordinator Kanitra Caston-Hill says all four of the network’s band directors teach music history as well as music literacy, along with a K-8 jazz curriculum that began last spring. The band program at Gentilly Terrace is new this year, bolstered by support from Young Audiences Arts for Learning Louisiana, a nonprofit that provides supplemental after-school arts programming across the U.S. Capdau and Lake Area were awarded instruments by the Tipitina’s and the Jazz and Heritage foundations.

Despite these expansions, challenges persist. Juaquana Stewart, assistant principal at Lake Area, said some of the instruments her students use have been around for decades. “And they need uniforms if they want to march,” Stewart said. “Right now they’re relying on donations, or else they sacrifice something else they need. Last year, Medard Nelson Charter School bought used uniforms from an out-of-town band. Luckily we’ve found out that parents as well as students will do whatever they need to do to make sure the schools have bands.”

Nonprofits step up

Katrina also set the stage for local nonprofits to prove their worth. “There seem to be more band programs in the city than when I was in school at Edna Karr,” said Jon Cosper, director of afterschool and summer programs at Young Audiences Arts for Learning Louisiana. 

Like similar programs offered by KIDSmart, Artist Core and New Orleans Outreach, Young Audiences provides an array of after-school arts and tutoring. Young Audiences currently enables bands at four West Bank schools: O. Perry Walker High School, Martin Behrman Elementary, McDonogh 32 Elementary and William J. Fischer Elementary. The nonprofit helped organize the band at Eisenhower Elementary and assisted Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center in setting up a drum line. This past summer, Young Audiences helped start three band classes and a marching band at Gentilly Terrace, an elementary school.

The Jazz and Heritage Foundation was set up in 1970 to bolster and benefit the musical culture of New Orleans—“which everyone always says is on the verge of extinction,” said Scott Aiges, the foundation’s director of programs, marketing and communications.

“I don’t buy that,” he added with a chuckle. “Though I am a huge fan of Preservation Hall, the name itself denotes that this is a museum-piece culture. But I believe we’re always going to have trad musicians … because this culture is perpetually renewing itself. That’s its nature. After Katrina, the culture bearers were the first to come back. The music brought them back. Then they were the reason everybody else came back. Culture has played a leading role in the renewal, resettlement and revival of New Orleans.”

The Jazz and Heritage Foundation provides grants for statewide music programs that need new instruments, instrument repair, sheet music, choir robes or teachers. The foundation also runs a Heritage School of Music, which has provided weekly after-school classes at New Orleans’ schools since 1990.

“The Heritage school went through a radical expansion after the flood,” Aiges said. The foundation’s classes are currently taught at Dillard University on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. But recently the foundation purchased the building next door to its Rampart Street offices and plans to build a whole new school and a community auditorium. Construction of the school will begin in November, aiming for a fall 2014 opening. The school will at first provide just one class per day, with more classes added as money is raised.

Emphasis on brass

The Jazz and Heritage Foundation places special emphasis on brass-band culture. “This is the only place in the country where 14-year-old kids lose their minds to brass-band music,” Aiges said. “But few if any of the schools had brass band programs,”

In response, the foundation created financial and educational incentives for schools to start brass-band programs and launched a citywide high school brass-band competition, Class Got Brass.

Entrants had to observe precise guidelines. “Our rule was that it had to be just 10 or 12 kids: one tuba, one bass drum, one snare, frontline trumpet, trombone and woodwind, playing an approved repertoire of songs,” Aiges said.

KIPP McDonogh 15, first-place winner in 2011, received a $10,000 certificate for instruments and repairs; O. Perry Walker, in second place, got $6,000, and third-place McDonogh 35 got $4,000.

“We then decided to give all remaining participants $750,” Aiges said. “We thought it was tiny consolation prize, but the band directors were so grateful. They told me, ‘You know how much valve oil this will buy? How many drum heads?’”

The foundation’s board recently approved an allocation of $50,000 for this year’s competition. Applications became available in September.

Class Got Brass has served as an impetus for many new high-school brass bands. But some local music teachers are uneasy about the focus on New Orleans’ culture via marching bands at the expense of more general music education.

Because a school’s band can earn several thousand dollars per Mardi Gras parade, some teachers believe some kids are being pushed prematurely into parading. “A kid marching in elementary was not even considered before,” OPSB’s Jonathan Bloom said, “because when you’re young and you’re learning how to play, and you’re trying to set an embouchure, you need to sit down. There are things you have to develop before you pursue marching.”

The harm can be lasting, Bloom said. “It’s why you see professional musicians with scarred embouchures, playing out of the side of their mouths.”

Central City’s New Orleans College Prep band director Ricardo Emilian echoed Bloom’s view.  “There have been a lot of new initiatives, and a lot of people are doing a really good job. But the primary focus is on marching bands and there is not enough focus on preparing kids to enter and excel in a university environment,” he said.

“With this education reform, music education is focused on how kids look and sound during Mardi Gras and football games. As far as quality music education , there’s not enough professional development.”

To put his money – or at least his time and effort —where his mouth is, Emilian began the Hope ’n’ Harmony music nonprofit. This past summer the organization provided nine musicians, ages 14 through 16, with a residency at Florida International University in Miami. There, lessons and master classes exposed the students not only to the importance of music literacy, but to diverse musical styles and to the array of music industry vocations outside of performance.

Staying on top

“We will never have a marching band,” declared Kyle Wedberg, the head of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) which, among its 11 arts disciplines, teaches musical theater, sound design and engineering and classical voice, as well as classical and jazz instrumental performance.

Our aim is to drop students into the highest levels of performance and college training, and do it with consistency,” Wedberg said. “We steadily send kids to schools like Brooklyn, Juilliard, Texas State.” NOCCA has grown even more focused on this goal as college gets more expensive.

“If you rank the top 20 programs in any arts discipline, most of them are outside of Louisiana,” Wedberg said. “To get into the Peabody Conservatory, you have to be performing at a competitive level, but for a lot of kids in Louisiana, it’s not just about getting in, it’s about getting a scholarship.”

A state-run program known for a roster of star alumni ranging from Harry Connick Jr. to Trombone Shorty, NOCCA has bloomed since Katrina from a half-day, arts-only supplemental program to a full-scale high school with academic courses as well as arts instruction. But NOCCA is also staring down the barrel of the budget gun.

State funding for arts students, the group that spends a half-day at NOCCA and comprises about 80 percent of the student body, has been cut in each of the past four years and now stands at three-quarters what it was before Katrina.

To avoid cutting core curriculum, NOCCA has had to cut programs that provide access points for beginning students, Wedberg said, noting that NOCCA’s summer program, now precariously self-funded, has shrunk from a month to a week.

We’ve cut our Saturday programs as well,” Wedberg said. “We’ve managed to retain all of our faculty, but no one’s gotten a raise in four years,” he said. “Training kids on an international level where they are generating $14 million in scholarships per year! The people who deliver that work deserve raises.”

“We’re at a breaking point in terms of what we can deliver,” he added. “We have been bent on not having to limit or cut students. We haven’t had to make any major changes, but the day is upon us if we have another year like these last four.”

Grounds for optimism

The 21st Century Foundation grant that has funded several after-school arts efforts since Katrina was renewed this September—good news that spares Young Audiences and other programs from having to make deep cuts.

Young Audience’s Cosper is optimistic about New Orleans’ musical future. Band is one of the only things in most of these schools that makes money,” he said. “Schools make it mandatory to get the kids ready for Mardi Gras, even if that means teachers have to stay after school to make sure it happens.”

Ironically, many charter schools—first lambasted as a threat to music and other extra-curricular activities because of their intense focus on academics—are turning out to be the salvation of these programs. With charters, Cosper said, “money’s not as much of an issue, and they have no school board telling them they can’t have two music instructors. So I know in my heart of hearts, these marching bands are never gonna go away. I am 100-percent sure of that.”

Clarification: This story originally stated that David Batiste started the Batiste Brothers Band. He actually started a band called King David and the Gladiators, a precursor to the Batiste Brothers Band.

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  • http://thewholegrittycity.com/ Richard Barber

    Thanks for the article. There’s another myth layered under one that you’ve uncovered. While it’s a myth that Hurricane Katrina destroyed a lot of school marching bands, the fact is after Katrina there were significantly fewer bands and music programs in public schools than there had been 10 or 15 years earlier. The reason? Budget cuts. Most elementary and middle school bands and music programs were dropped, as school budget priorities increasingly focused narrowly on bringing up test scores. After a few years the high school bands suffered. And thousands of kids missed out on an opportunity not only to learn music, but to find the refuge, guidance, family and pride the bands provide, not to mention the incentive to keep up their grades and stay in school.