By Daria Pennington
English, Literature, and Essay Specialist
“We need someone on cowbell,” says teaching artist David Cutler as he reviews the drum part for Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with his combined middle/high school jazz ensemble at the Urban Assembly Bronx Studio School for Artists and Writers. This is how I made my cowbell debut and first appearance in a school band since playing the Lowell High School fight song back in 1984. Although my own music career had reached its zenith in the advanced band in middle school (I was second clarinet), I can attest to the powerful impact that it had on me and realize the value that hard work and dedication have upon a performance. While I moved on to express myself in different artistic ways in high school, that middle school band experience was a formative one.
The arguments have long been heard that when students learn and play a musical instrument or are engaged in studying another art form, the benefits are far-reaching and lifelong. Playing in a school band is an experience that many students miss out on due to lack of resources, and many public schools in New York now look to local organizations for instruction in both the visual and performing arts. One such program, the Afro Latin Jazz Academy of Music (ALJAM), is an in-school music residency program dedicated to providing musical instruction for underserved middle and high school students at select schools in New York City. ALJAM is a music education program of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, an organization founded by composer and Latin jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill in 2002. It is offered to schools where students would otherwise not have access to music education because there is no music teacher on faculty. Students elect to take part in this special program and receive both an instrument and instruction from a core team of five musicians twice a week. One day is devoted to direct instruction in a musical genre (classical, Latin, jazz, pop) and the other day includes ensemble instruction, during which students learn their individual parts for a piece to be performed. O’Farrill serves as the Education Director of the program and participates as an instructor, offering these young musicians advice and guidance on how the commitment and practice it takes to be a dedicated musician will help them in life.
I had the opportunity to visit one of the participating schools, Urban Assembly Bronx Studio School for Artists and Writers, on two occasions. On the first visit, one rare sunny February day, students “shared out,” playing a section of a piece they had been working on individually, ranging from the Herbie Hancock standard “Watermelon Man” on the piano to Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine on the saxophone. O’Farrill was visiting that day and had praise for these students who demonstrated the confidence to take a risk by playing something new in front of their classmates, teachers, and a visitor.
O’Farrill and the teaching team strive to mentor these students in developing good habits and discipline; O’Farrill also takes the time to meet with them individually when they need encouragement to stick with the program. After the share out, students then dispersed into individual practice rooms and lessons with their respective teachers, each one dispensing valuable advice on how to get a better sound out of their horns from Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra trumpeter Jim Seeley and saxophonist Livio Almeida and how to keep rhythm on the drums using the flam tap from teacher Reed Stewart. Piano player Adam Kromelow also worked side by side with students on the keyboards.
At this site, most of the students are in middle school, with a few high school students mixed in as well (their school has a combined middle/high school). In addition, its South Bronx neighborhood is where many Latin jazz heroes hail from. The students volunteer to take part in this unique opportunity, committing their entire academic year to learning and playing an instrument together. They are required to keep a practice log and are responsible for the care of their instrument. None of the approximately 20 students had played an instrument prior to signing up for this class. When the group expressed an interest in learning familiar songs, such as Katy Perry’s “Firework” and the theme song from the cartoon “The Rugrats,” the teachers taught them the parts. The students expressed such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction upon learning to play such popular tunes themselves (well, one student expressed the desire never to hear “Firework” again after so much repetition!).
On my second visit, ensemble day, I was invited to take part in the collaborative music making. Thankfully no one knew I had played the clarinet in junior high band, and I was asked to sub on the cowbell for “Crazy.” I have always harbored a deep desire to be either a back up singer or tambourine player in a rock and roll band, and this opportunity allowed me to hone my rhythm keeping skills. I have since learned that the cowbell is an essential component of Latin jazz, and, as the 2000 Saturday Night Live Christopher Walken skit (“More Cowbell”) has demonstrated, the backbone of the band. It felt great to take part in making music again, instead of just sitting back and listening. And I imagine this is what draws the students to this class each week and drives them to practice every day. It does not matter if they will go on to become professional musicians, but this experience instills in them a sense of confidence, responsibility, teamwork, and pride.