At A New Orleans High School, Marching Band Is A Lifeline For Kids

May 15, 2014
Originally published on August 14, 2015 2:11 pm

Editor's Note: This is a story about a high school band. It is a story that demands to be heard, even more so than read. Please click on the audio player, above, to listen. Audio will be available around 6:30 p.m. EDT.

Next week, in New Orleans, 240 students will graduate from Edna Karr High School, including 16 members of the marching band. The band is considered a rising star in a city that treasures music. To play in Edna Karr High School's band is to be somebody, at least within the hallways of the school. But being in the band doesn't just make you popular; it offers a pathway to college — high stakes for poor kids.

On an afternoon this school year, the buses were late, the horns broken. Like most days, the Edna Karr marching band would play on instruments held together with duct tape.

Before heading to the pep rally to perform, Christopher Herrero, the band's director, led the group in a moment of silent reflection. He bowed his head, standing atop a chair in the band room before the kids — 80 in all. He was 27 years old when school started last August, so young that at times he's mistaken for a student. Still, he's transformed the band, doubling its size since taking over four years ago and making it relevant once again, like it was when he marched for Karr.

Herrero attracts new kids to the program just about every time he leads the band into the community.

"In other parts of the country, people call band lovers band geeks. There's no such thing as a band geek in New Orleans. We have band heads, where band is life, you know," Herrero says. "It's a way for people to express themselves in ways that they can't in other avenues."

Music isn't just a part of the local culture; it's a lifeline for kids trying to survive poverty, crime and urban neglect. Across New Orleans, every afternoon, marching bands save lives. They keep kids off the street, give them a reason to come to school, and even get them into college — if they nail their auditions come winter and spring.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Next week in New Orleans, 240 kids will graduate from Edna Karr High School, including 16 members of the marching band. The band is considered a rising star in a city that treasures its music. To play for Edna Karr is to be somebody, at least in the halls of the high school. And being in the band isn't just about popularity. It offers a pathway to college, high stakes for poor kids.

To understand the power of music in the lives of young people in New Orleans, Keith O'Brien spent the last year with the Edna Karr marching band.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: The buses were late. The horns broken. Today, like most days, the Edna Karr marching band would play on instruments held together with duct tape but the pep rally would have to go on.

CHRISTOPHER HERRERO: It is time. Stand up. Pause for a moment of silence and reflection, and if you'll (unintelligible) permit, prayer.

O'BRIEN: Christopher Herrero bowed his head, standing on atop a chair in the band room before the kids, 80 in all. He's Edna Karr's band director, 27 years old when school started last August. So young that at times he's mistaken for a student.

HERRERO: Amen. Go to the buses. Do not make noise going down to the bus.

O'BRIEN: Herrero has transformed the band, doubling its size since taking over four years ago and making it relevant once again, like it was when he marched for Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND)

O'BRIEN: Just about every time he leads the band into the community Herrero was attracting new kids to the program.

HERRERO: In other parts of the country, you know, people call band lovers band geeks. There's no such thing as a band geek in New Orleans. You know, we have band heads, you know, where band is life. It's a way for people to express themselves in ways that they can't in other avenues.

O'BRIEN: Music isn't just a part of the culture. It's a lifeline for kids trying to survive poverty, crime and urban neglect. Across New Orleans, every afternoon, marching bands save lives. They keep kids off the street, give them a reason to come to school, and even get them into college, if they nail their auditions come winter and spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND)

O'BRIEN: There's no sign on the band room door at Edna Karr, no room number either. But every afternoon room 222 at the high school is bouncing with sound starting with the first practice last August.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND PRACTICE)

O'BRIEN: Herrero hovered over the beginners, but soon found himself working with one of his most promising pupils.

NICHOLAS NOOKS: My name is Nicholas Nooks and I play tuba in the band. Most people call me Big Nick.

O'BRIEN: Big Nick is 6'3" and almost 300 pounds with an easy smile and a love for his horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA)

O'BRIEN: It's a 30-year-old sousaphone with dents, leaks and other problems.

NOOKS: Last year it broke in half and Mr. Herrero had to get it welded right here so I could play the rest of the season.

O'BRIEN: But Nick never complains. And neither does snare drummer Charles Williams. They live a few blocks from each other in a neighborhood called Algiers Point. It's across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. From their porches the boys look up at the picturesque bridge straddling the water. And both are products of single mothers with little money at home. Nick's dad died six years ago. Charles rarely sees his.

CHARLES WILLIAMS: I see him every now and then but, like, I'm basically teaching myself how to be a man.

O'BRIEN: Charles is quiet, hard to read, at least when he's not drumming.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

O'BRIEN: With drumsticks in his hands he's not the boy living in the house near the bridge but someone else, strong and confident. Yet he can only escape for so long. His mother Kimberly Dean is a baker at a downtown casino. She makes $11.75 an hour and lost everything in Hurricane Katrina nine years ago.

KIMBERLY DEAN: We used to stay in an apartment and the water just came straight down in. And it wasn't so much of my things I was not worried about. It was just the kids. The kids' stuff what got to me, that's all. All their stuff was destroyed, their toys, I mean, everything. You know, it was gone.

O'BRIEN: Charles was just ten at the time but he remembers. Everyone in New Orleans remembers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE)

O'BRIEN: Edna Karr is filled with kids like Big Nick and Charles. The school is 98 percent African American. The students are often poor and most have no idea how to get to college. Margaret Leaf is an assistant principal.

MARGARET LEAF: The way I look at it is Karr's job is to open doors for kids, doors of opportunity. And our other big job is to show our kids doors that they didn't know existed for them and to build their skills so that when they get to that door, they can open it, walk through and compete with anybody.

O'BRIEN: It's a struggle at times. The average ACT score at Edna Karr is just an 18 but the scores are rising. Almost every student graduates. More than half attend a four-year college and enrollment is up, at least in part, due to the visibility of Mr. Herrero's band.

HERALD CLAY: I say seriously they don't just sound good. They are really good students.

O'BRIEN: Assistant Principal Herald Clay.

CLAY: And I'll say this, I watch the knuckleheads come in and I watch them transform. He's setting a higher bar for them and that's what we really want for kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

O'BRIEN: Christopher Herrero unlocks the band room door around 9:00 every morning, ready for another long day teaching music.

HERRERO: You always got to sell yourself, even if it's just, like I said, you got to sell the sadness. You got to sell that -- you got to sell that sorrow. You got to make them want to cry. Make them cry.

O'BRIEN: He earns a typical teacher's salary while often working 70-hour weeks. And despite the success of his band, he has no budget to buy new instruments or even make repairs, so he sacrifices.

HERRERO: I bought a bass with my own money. I bought a snare drum with my own money. I've bought three megaphones with my own money. I'll do what I have to just to get an instrument into these kids' hands.

O'BRIEN: But there are problems Herrero can't solve.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A man is dead and another man and a teenager girl wounded by gunshots after someone in a car opened fire on them in Algiers.

O'BRIEN: This murder in October was only blocks from Big Nick's house, yet another reminder of the dangers in the city. In the last two years, 91 percent of homicide victims in New Orleans have been African American. Charles began to think in earnest about getting out.

WILLIAMS: I just want to live somewhere else. I mean, just move out of New Orleans. I don't like how some violence around the city -- I mean, I know it can happen anywhere but in New Orleans it's just real hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND)

O'BRIEN: In the band room, a goal began to crystallize. The boys set their minds on attending Jackson State University in Mississippi and playing for the Sonic Boom of the South, Mr. Herrero's college band. Getting there would take work.

AMANDA LEW: You have to stop accepting less for yourself. It seems like you're just accepting less.

O'BRIEN: Amanda Lew is Edna Karr's college advisor. In December, Charles went to her for help. To get into Jackson State he needed to bring up his grades and his ACT score and he was running out of time.

LEW: Okay. So you are literally flirting with the line right now, okay.

O'BRIEN: Lew is unlike anyone Charles has ever met. She graduated from Harvard University three years ago, came to Edna Karr with the Teach for America Program, finished her contract and then stayed with the school hoping to get kids to college.

LEW: I want that so badly for all of them, especially the deserving ones. Like I want that so badly.

O'BRIEN: But she also recognizes the obstacles. Even paying to take the ACT, a cost of almost $60, if a student registers late makes it almost impossible for some kids.

LEW: And if you can't buy books and your mom's not hounding you to do an ACT practice test every weekend because she's busy, like, how are you supposed to get used to that test?

O'BRIEN: So with Charles, Ms. Lew made a plan. He'd start working harder in school and doing practice tests with her every week.

LEW: Let's make this happen. Do you think you can make it happen?

WILLIAMS: I know I can make it happen.

LEW: That's more confidence than I've heard from you in a long, long, long time.

O'BRIEN: Big Nick had a different problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA)

O'BRIEN: As winter set in, he began holding up at school inside a cluttered equipment room with his sousaphone and his sheet music preparing for his auditions before college band directors.

NOOKS: The band directors' going to ask me to play the swell scales and I'll play them. And then he's going to ask me to play out (unintelligible) piece, which I have. And he's going to give me a piece to play and then he'll determine how much money I will get for a scholarship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA)

O'BRIEN: Nick had been accepted to Jackson State. He had the scores. The problem for him was money. It can cost $20,000 a year to go there. Without a scholarship that just wasn't feasible for Nick's mother Cynthia Nooks. She's a school cafeteria worker.

CYNTHIA NOOKS: All I do is pray. I would love to see this child go where he wants to go because he will learn more, he will do more if he goes where he wants to go. And I hope he gets a scholarship. So that would help a lot.

O'BRIEN: To the kids it felt almost like a lottery ticket, and soon it was all they could think about, especially Charles. On Tuesdays after school he began meeting with Ms. Lew. Within weeks his grades came up and his ACT score did too. And then this month he passed the entrance exam at Jackson State. Charles Williams was in.

WILLIAMS: I just know I'm going to make it. I just had that (unintelligible) . I mean, I'm nervous a little bit but I think I'm going to do a good job.

O'BRIEN: Getting into school though doesn't mean you're in the band. To make that happen you have to impress a man who's heard and seen pretty much everything.

ONIELL SANFORD: I've had kids to cry. I've had kids to cry. Yeah, I've had some kids who've actually cried when I told them that they were not quite ready for Jackson State and I would just, I mean, it's a heavy thing.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Oniell Sanford is the principle recruiter at Jackson State. Over the years he's auditioned thousands of kids. This year alone he'll see about 300, hoping to make the Sonic Boom.

SANFORD: And probably 50 percent of the kids that are auditioning have the same predicament. If they don't get a band scholarship the chances of them going to school are very slim and none. So that's a big moment.

O'BRIEN: Big Nick could barely sleep the night before - just nervous. And it only got worse when Sanford walked in to Edna Karr's band room and began nixing kids one by one.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITION)

SANFORD: Got to go do some work now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, sir.

SANFORD: OK. I've got to go do some work. All right? I'm just going to write not prepared here.

O'BRIEN: Sanford was losing his patience. He was late for auditions at the next high school and that's when Big Nick walked through the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITION)

SANFORD: Can you play it like la ta ta ta ta ta ta ta? One, one, two, ready, go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA)

O'BRIEN: Let the record show Nicholas Nooks (ph) of New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Cynthia, a tuba player since sixth grade, nailed his audition that day. In the most important moment of his young life, he delivered.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITION)

SANFORD: You certainly can play and, boom, that's without a question. Good technique, articulation, range. You need to work on your sight reading. That's everybody's problem. But you were one of the best that's been in here so far.

O'BRIEN: With a flick of Sanford's pen, Big Nick earned thousands of dollars - about a half scholarship to Jackson State. And a few weeks later, Charles earned the same. In all, 11 members of the Edna Karr marching band got scholarships this spring. They had options. And Charles could feel the difference.

WILLIAMS: I'm walking out of here feeling like a big man. I mean I feel like a different person.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Herrero was proud. Ms. Lu too. The boys' mothers began planning for graduation. But there was at least one more gig to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

O'BRIEN: The band performed in late April at the school's spring concert. And by the end of the night, the kids had formed their own parade, marching down the empty halls of the school they'd soon be leaving. Could they make it in college? Would they seize the opportunities they had? Would music really save them? No one could say for sure.

But in that one moment, with Charles laying the backbeat on his drum and Big Nick swaying with his sousaphone on his shoulder, there was joy, there was hope. And they knew exactly who they were. They were a band. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

CORNISH: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.