Tragedies have a way of highlighting the heroes in our midst, and if ever there was a tragedy, Katrina was it.
Ever since the levees broke, people have been stepping up all over the Gulf Coast region to help rebuild and renew. Derrick Tabb, snare drummer for Rebirth Brass Band, is the latest local hero to be recognized on the national level for his commitment to our community. As the founder of the Roots of Music program, Tabb has been named by CNN’s panel of humanitarians as a top-10 candidate for the 3rd annual CNN Hero award. Roots of Music is a 3-hour, after-school program that provides more than 100 local students free music classes, in addition to academic tutoring before and dinner after. During Voodoo, the Roots of Music Marching Band will perform daily.
“I tell everyone I’m competing with the drug dealers,” Tabb told CNN. At the same time, he’s doing his part to ensure that the next generation of Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfields, and Andrews brothers is on their way.
Like many musicians in New Orleans, Tabb credits music as his saving grace. For him, it took one person taking an interest in his life to keep him on track—his junior-high music teacher Donald Richardson. After losing his grandmother who raised him, Tabb fell into a rough patch during 7th grade.
“I became really rebellious, I didn’t want to do anything, I stopped playing my drum,” Tabb says. “I just wanted to be by myself, and it seemed like nobody in the world understood that I just wanted to be by myself. I ended up getting in a lot of trouble.”
Richardson didn’t give up on Tabb and pushed him to be better. “[Mr. Richardson] saw something else in me. He said, ‘All that stuff is BS, you don’t need to be doing any of that. I’m going to put you in this band and you’re going to do right.’ That was really the changing point in my life.”
Following in Richardson’s footsteps, Tabb follows his students’ every academic and behavioral move. Progress reports are required to continue playing in the band, and students are temporarily suspended from the program if found not taking school seriously. “I do the same thing football coaches and basketball coaches do, which is getting on their players,” Tabb says. “And when they recruit, they check out the report cards and the teachers.”
The one thing he refuses to do, however, is permanently throw out any student. Tabb knows a punishment like that could lead down a worse path for young, impressionable kids.
“I am not going to kick them out on the street. I don’t want any kid on the street selling drugs or getting killed. I can’t handle that. So I give them all the support that they need.”
The storm has forced budget cuts in all of the school districts affected, but in none so much as Orleans Parish. Many music programs have been axed to curb the tide of debt that always threatens to overwhelm this cash-strapped school district. Without these music programs, many of the kids have lost their chance to pick up an instrument. This is where Tabb and his fellow volunteers have stepped in.
With donated and purchased instruments, each of the 106 students gets to pick an instrument and receive lessons on it from Lawrence Rawlins, Shoan Ruffin, Ed Lee, or Allen Dejan. The students also get a chance to play shows and perform in parades, experiencing what it’s like to be a part of a band, prepping them for involvement in high school bands. All 15 of last year’s graduates are in high school bands now, continuing their extra-curricular participation, a proven factor in encouraging academic performance.
For most of the new students, it’s the first time they’ve picked up an instrument, but after watching them play, you know it has become a life-long passion.
When I arrived at 4 p.m. to visit the classes, things seemed surprisingly quiet. Eight kids were working on homework. The noise began to swell as more and more kids spilled into the room. Most of the arriving students had to be herded away from the rooms with the instruments because the rules make clear that there’s no playing until after homework and tutoring.
It’s easy to see it’s one of the hardest rules to enforce. Most of the kids are chomping at the bit to get back at their chosen instrument, and program director Allison Reinhardt is ready with her own assignment if some of them come with no homework—an essay on who they are and what they want to be when they grow up.
The tutoring session still has some kinks to work out. It isn’t guaranteed that the same tutors can be there every day, and only education director Laura Taishoff is there the day I visit, but they make the best of it. She jumps between students while older kids assist the younger ones.
Reinhardt and Keisha Carmouche, director of student affairs, assist when they can, but they also have to guard the door against kids trying to slip out to the instrument rooms. Once homework is finished, the students separate into their different classes—percussion, beginners, and the performance class, where students work on material for upcoming shows.
After the noise of the tutoring session, I assume the kids will be just as rowdy and difficult to quiet down in the classes. But the opposite effect happens. Once they have instrument in hand, all of their attention is diverted to the teacher. Only the percussion class gets a little hectic, but that’s because the boys can’t decide which instrument and song they want to play.
These classes aren’t just about learning to play, though. The adults that work with the program act as part-time parents, doling out life lessons and enforcing structure. According to Reinhardt, 85 percent of the kids come from single-parent households, and the men of the program become father figures or big brothers for many of the students.
They pay attention to the details of the students’ behavior, teaching them to respect their authority as adults and to respect themselves. Dejan makes sure the kids pay attention to the placement of their instrument cases in the beginners class, while Rawlins spends time focusing on posture and correct seating positions in the performance class. The fundamentals of music and performance are never lost in the excitement of the program.
Throughout the classes, each teacher is pushing the students to be better—to hit more notes, to play louder or softer as the song dictates, to pay attention to the details. Music means more to them than money for gigs or fame—it’s a passion, and they want to make sure that any kid who might share that passion gets a chance to explore it.
For Tabb, the Roots of Music program has come with a price. He’s had to become more of a politician than he ever expected, trying to find funding to keep the program going. He’s also, of course, a member of a successful band, and that is time consuming. “My band is like my brothers and they are very understanding, even though they get a little frustrated with me not being there,” he says. Because of Roots of Music he’s missed “a thousand gigs, especially out of town. I missed the Quincy Jones audition, and I needed to be there.”
The storm might have hindered the usual routes to music for students in Orleans Parish, but with heroes like Tabb among us, new routes can be found.
Voting continues until Thursday, November 19, 2009 (6 a.m. ET). To vote for Derrick Tabb as CNN Hero of the year, visit www.cnn.com/ heroes. There is no limit on the number of times you may vote. The winner will be announced Thanksgiving night.