If You Give a Kid a Drum Set . . .
The Power of Music in Students’ Lives
Early in my teaching career, I was a band director in a public high school on the “less economically advantaged” side of a major Midwestern city. It was here, among some students from middle socioeconomic status (SES) homes and some students from lower SES backgrounds who called the housing project next to the high school home, that I experienced one of the most profound examples of the power of music in the lives of people.
Our high school had a basketball team that several times during my time at the school were state champions, and we liked to think that our pep band was of like caliber! The pep band, led by a high school student director, played a steady diet of the latest pop and rock tunes; and of course, the school’s fight song. I let the students choose the music and rehearse the music. I was simply there to open the band room door every morning at 7:00 am for their practices. This left me time to observe the group and see students passing by in the halls.
Of course, there weren’t many students passing by at 7:00 am; but after the first week or two of practices, I noticed a young African American boy (we’ll call him Kenny) consistently outside listening to the pep band. One morning, I wandered out into the hall and asked his name—“Kenny,” he replied confidently. “Boy, I sure would like to play in that band,” he said, “but I can’t read music.” He wanted to play the drum set.
“Boy, I sure would like to play in that band,” he said, “but I can’t read music.”
To make a long story short, I invited him in and asked the student leader if Kenny could take a turn in the rhythm section. He was a natural. He, of course, had heard a lot of these pop/rock tunes our band was playing; and he had no trouble playing along. He stayed every evening after school to practice on the set when no one was around. Eventually, I asked him to sign up for our jazz band during the school day and that I would teach him to read music.
Kenny began in the jazz band as a sophomore. I came to know him quite well. I found out that he lived in the housing project with his aunt. His success in jazz band transferred to a “can do” attitude in his academic classes. During his junior year, he made the honor roll for the first time; I encouraged him to go on to college. He did just that, not as a music major, but as a theater major. (He was quite outgoing and active in the school theater program as well.)
During our final jazz band concert of Kenny’s senior year, just as the jazz band concluded their final number, Kenny stood up and informed the audience that there was one more selection to be heard—a tune he had written for the jazz band, which was dedicated to my wife and me, whom he affectionately called his “Mom & Pop.” I don’t think I was ever more proud of any student I have taught at any level than I was of Kenny that night.
Music does make a difference in the lives of people!
Dr. Glenn E. Nierman is a Give a Note Board Member and Immediate Past President of the National Association for Music Education.
Glenn E. Nierman (BM, Washburn; MM, Cincinnati; DME, Cincinnati), NAfME Immediate Past President for 2016-2018, is currently Glenn Korff Professor of Music Education at the Glenn Korff School of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His public school teaching experience includes work with middle school general music and choir, as well as high school band and orchestra. He recently completed a term on the ISME Executive Board and currently chairs NAfME’s Teacher Evaluation Task Force.