On April 30, 1803, James Madison and Robert R. Livingston representing the United States and Francois Barbe-Marbois, a finance minister from France, convened upon the Spanish-built Cabildo. Their mission: to sign a document that would double the size of the United States. So it was there at the Cabildo overlooking Jackson Square that the Louisiana Purchase was signed more than 200 years ago.
Today, in that same building, a kid named Cookie Monster is practicing the trumpet. Right up the stairs Shoan Ruffin is clapping his hands so a few dozen elementary and middle school kids toting drums and clanging cymbals can maintain his rhythm and cadence. Further down the hall, Allen Dejan is teaching “music theory” to more kids so they can learn notes before moving on to the next level. At the very top floor, Jeffrey Hills is helping his brass band navigate a particularly tricky musical transition for a performance in a few days.
And just outside of the Cabildo, a Chevy Impala occupied by three teenagers drives by blaring Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot, 7 Foot” with the line “real G’s move in silence like lasagna.” Back inside the Cabildo, band director Lawrence Rollins is also talking about G’s. G Flats. One student on the trumpet is having difficulty hitting the right G note and Rollins explains the sequence in high-level musical terms—progressions, beat counts, reading the notes on the page. When the music picks up, the band nails it.
All of these things are happening at the same time on a normal Wednesday afternoon at the Roots of Music.
The Roots of Music is an after school program that provides music education for students ages nine to 14. The kids learn theory, music history and how to play instruments. And, of course, most eventually become a part of the program’s nationally recognized marching band. Simply put, the Roots of Music is something remarkable. And here’s how it works:
Four buses scour the city to pick up 140 students from their various schools to bring them to the Cabildo. The students—widely considered “at risk” by any discernible definition—get tutored by Tulane and Xavier students for an hour before splitting into classes. For the rest of the night, the students hone their skills and work to keep the ROM as one of the most requested marching bands in New Orleans.
The Roots of Music started as the brainchild of Derrick Tabb—snare drummer for Rebirth Brass Band—and Allison Reinhardt—New York/New Jersey native and Loyola graduate who stayed in the city marketing music for acts in the city. The two would gather at a friend’s house after Katrina because it was one of the only places with Internet access. It was there that Tabb stumbled upon an article about the state of the post-Katrina school system in New Orleans.
“He looked at me and said, let’s start a school,” Reinhardt recalls. “And we just sat there and planned.”
“Allison just started asking me a million questions about what we wanted and how to do it,” Tabb adds. “And by the time we left we had a good plan going.”
Tabb insists that his time as part of the band at Andrew J. Bell high school saved his life. His band director gave him focus and took him out of the volatile life he was living by providing him a creative outlet. That’s the sort of effect Tabb wanted on his students, with a few changes.
“I think it’s stupid for kids to have to do homework after band practice,” Tabb explains. “If kids get to work on their homework right after school and before practice they can stay fresh on their grades.” Thus, the Roots of Music implements an hour-long tutoring session for every student before he or she touches an instrument that afternoon.
Tabb also wanted his students to be able to eat every night at the program; he remembers coming home from band practice starving at 8:00 p.m. because he hadn’t eaten since lunch. Finally, Tabb believed that students should be provided transportation because the frustration of waiting for rides home would drive him crazy in middle school. Achieving these three goals for his upstart program would be a major task, but they had to start somewhere.
So in May 2008, in the then-donated Tipitina’s space, the Roots of Music had its first class and already things were bigger than the two founders—now joined by Rollins, Dejan, Ruffin and Hillis—could imagine.
“We spend some time bugging friends and friends of friends to show up to our first class,” Reinhardt starts. “We gave Derek a list of 19 people because that’s how many we thought would show up. When we opened the doors, we had 42 kids show up. We didn’t know what to do!”
And that’s the essence of the Roots of Music, which exceeded expectations from the start. But it’s more than a story of two visionaries, four teachers and hundreds of inspirational students. The ROM is the culmination of what happens when an entire community—from the lieutenant governor all the way to the bus driver – unites for the cause of inspiring and motivating a group of kids who would otherwise be ignored by a society increasingly unconcerned with their well-being. Making the Roots of Music work is a national and local team effort.
Let’s start at the top. Upon hearing about the school and coming to visit, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne allowed the school to relocate to the Cabildo for more space.
Thanks to Second Harvest—which donates a healthy meal for each student every day—Tabb can realize his dream of having warm meals for his kids.
Every day, dozens of students from Tulane and Xavier come to the Cabildo to tutor the kids there. Zildjian—the ROM’s first instrument endorsement—donates every cymbal the school uses, even though they cost anywhere between $500 and $800 a pair, while the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation donates all of the jazz ensemble instruments.
Then there’s StubHub: The online ticket seller became the ROM’s first public sponsor, donating $100,000 to the organization and creating a viral web video to gain recognition and support. For Christmas, the company gave personalized headphones to every student.
Many other organizations and individuals in the city have donated time, effort and money to help the Roots of Music function. While the task of pulling in these donations largely falls on Reinhardt’s shoulders, all anyone has to do is lay eyes on these remarkable kids before the donations start flying in.
“[The ROM] is the ultimate example of the village raising the child,” explains Laney Chouest, owner of NOLA Motorsports who has donated upwards of $50,000 to the organization. “You just see those kids playing those instruments and it just does something to you chemically. It makes you feel good. You can’t help but be dedicated to their dedication and work.”
“We absolutely fell in love with them when we saw the kids,” adds Emma Leggat, StubHub’s Head of Global Social Responsibility. “It’s incredible to see the pride on the kid’s faces when they perform. And you can tell in an instant how valuable this is to their lives. And just as importantly, they’re good.”
Yes, the Roots of Music band is good. Not just in the “A for effort, you guys are great for an upstart band” sense. No, they can stand toe-to-toe with a school like St. Augustine as one of the city’s best marching bands. The drum line is near flawless in its precision. The horns are crisp and the newly formed brass band is top-notch. Not too shabby considering none of the students have any musical training when they enter the program.
Tabb credits the students’ progress to his staff of teachers. “All I did was come up with a really good idea, but the staff really makes everything happen. They deserve all the credit. Rollins instills all the confidence in the world in these kids and he’s one of the best band directors around,” he says.
“Ruffin puts together an incredible drum line from scratch. Dejan teaches these kids all the theory they could ever learn. I’m amazed at what he does with them. And Hills is the best tuba player in the world…and he also builds them up from scratch. These teachers don’t get enough credit.”
The teachers also double up as father figures. As Ruffin explained, when students are having trouble in school (they need a 2.5 GPA to stay in the ROM), teachers call the Roots of Music instructors because that’s where they know the kids will get the metaphorical kick in the butt to get their schoolwork back in gear.
The students are definitely appreciative; recognizing the way the ROM has changed their lives. Deontre’, a sixth-grader, puts the program’s benefits in perspective. “When we go to the parades, it’s nice to know we won’t be out in the streets getting shot at. We’re on the street performing, so we’re being protected by security. “
JyRick, known by his classmates as J-Money, was a self-proclaimed troublemaker when he first joined the ROM. In January, he stood next to Mitch Landrieu as he unveiled the brand new NFL Experience for the Super Bowl.
But if you talk to any kid from the Roots of Music about his or her favorite experience, the discussion will turn to the Tournament of Roses parade.
In November 2011, Reinhardt received a call that changed her life: The Roots of Music had been accepted to perform at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, making them the first out-of-state middle school-aged band ever invited to perform and the first New Orleans band to perform since before Katrina. And Toota, Tabb’s six-year-old son who is also the band’s drum major, became the youngest person to march in the Rose Parade. “I just had tears in my eyes and I was yelling that we’d made it. It was surreal.”
That excitement soon gave way to panic: The Roots of Music then had less than a year to raise roughly $300,000 to get to Pasadena, CA. In what seems like a script from an upcoming Disney movie, the ROM hustled non-stop to meet the September payment deadline to reserve the parade spot.
“Preparing for that trip was the single most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life,” Tabb remembers. “It is difficult to raise that kind of money in a city that doesn’t have that kind of money to begin with. It all came together with the help of a lot of people.”
This was put up or shut up time for donors and they stepped up accordingly. Lieutenant Governor Dardenne donated $50,000 for new uniforms. Chouest paid for lunch bags to send the kids. The ROM put on numerous shows through 2012—Mardi Gras in June, performances at the Howlin’ Wolf, a show at John George’s apartment on Royal—ultimately raising the funds necessary to get all 140 kids to Pasadena, CA by bus.
“I did not want to go on that trip,” admits Ruffin. “But as the trip went on and I saw their faces I knew it was worth it.” Ruffin credits the discipline taught during the week as the reason the days-long drive didn’t turn out to be a disaster.
For three days, New Orleans kids—most of whom had not even been outside of the metro area—rode in busses from New Orleans to California, seeing sights they never thought they’d see. And the band killed in Pasadena, for a crowd unaccustomed to seeing such young performers break it down NOLA style. But for the kids, the most memorable moments came from just seeing the country in a way they never had before.
If you ask them their favorite parts of the trip, you won’t hear anything about the parades themselves. Instead, the kids discuss the hotels, the trip to In-N-Out Burger, the snow in Arizona, seeing a real-life cactus for the first time or seeing their first ocean.
“At one point we had to get out because these kids hadn’t seen the ocean before,” Reinhardt recalls. “But the best moment was when one trombone player looked at me and said ‘I’m never going to stop playing music. This is the best trip of my life. Now, I know I’m going to travel the world.’”
The Roots of Music is one of those rare instances when positivity reigns supreme. Through the power of music, remarkable people and inspiring stories, everyone from politicians to multimillion-dollar businesses to food banks and good-hearted donors are uniting to bring out the best in these children. This is how you help children live out their dreams.
Even if those dreams are as simple as having an In-N-Out Burger and throwing snowballs in the Arizona desert.