Detroit's high school band directors marching kids to brighter futures

They have graduated professional musicians over the years, but Detroit's high school marching band leaders say what they do is not about creating career musicians. Band is more about creating disciplined students with an appreciation for music. It's about giving them skills they can use in their careers.

"Band promotes success, discipline, and principles that allow you to achieve success as an individual," says Willie McAllister, band director at Detroit's Renaissance High School. "You take (the success) and group it together, allowing that union to be successful by meeting goals and objectives that are the same. The number one business principal today is being able to network, being a team player."

McAllister and Martin Luther King Jr. High School's Victoria Miller continue the legacy of acclaimed music educators in Detroit  --  at a time when the number of school band leaders is shrinking and the school system is facing a dire budget situation.

Teaching them to believe

Both instructors are Detroit-born and products of the school district. Miller as a pianist and later picked up the flute. McAllister started on tuba and developed into a guitarist. Both have over 30 years of creating award-winning Detroit Public School bands that have earned the right to tour, representing the city's musical legacy in Europe and Asia, and are often heard marching down Woodward Avenue in the annual America's Thanksgiving Parade.

McAllister's band recently went on a European tour this spring, performing in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Miller, known for developing the renowned music program at Spain Middle School, took the King marching band to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Miller also was honored with the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation Award at New York's Carnegie Hall in April. He is one of five music teachers selected nationwide for the award.

But beyond the accolades and world travel, for many kids band is where they gain self confidence as much as music skills.

Band saves lives, she says. And she means that literally. "One boy wrote that he would probably be in jail if it wasn't for band." High school students need a place to be, a group to be with, she says.

Like McAllister, Miller concentrates on building character. "If you teach them to believe in themselves and how to work with others, then you'll have the band that you need," Miller says. "I teach them through music. I'm not just a music teacher. ... It's about teaching them the lessons of life and how to be successful."

While Detroit once led the nation in music education, says McAllister, the school system's fiscal crisis and families' personal economic hardships have made it very difficult for many kids to get an early start in music. And without an early start, it's difficult to develop the skills to perform professionally.

"Some of them played in middle schools, but I start students out as beginners in high school because they've cut so many middle school programs." It's very difficult to master an instrument beginning in high school, she says. "When students are younger, they try anything. By the time they get to ninth grade they say, 'This is too much.'"

Universities and cultural institutions are doing their share to support young music students in the city through programs such as the Sphinx Preparatory Music Institute and Weekend School of Music and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Power of Dreams program for string instrument players at Wayne State University. Michigan State University's Community Music School-Detroit also offers the New Horizon Program for entry-level music students who have never played before and want to experience playing an instrument. "For a lot of those students, not only do they enjoy the process (of playing) but they continue on to our advanced bands," says McAllister.

Both teachers lead jazz, symphonic, and marching bands, often working after-school hours, holidays, and summer sessions to ensure that their student musicians get the support they need.

Miller uses poetry and motivational tapes to inspire students. Sometimes, she'll ask students to write about a song they're learning as a way to open their imagination to the path of the sound. Once, she asked her students to write about Abram's Pursuit, a composition by David Holsinger. "One student wrote that he could see Moses and the Hebrews running from the Pharaoh and the sea opening. A lot of people don't take time to imagine (music). I make them visualize. ... You have to make it come alive for people. You have to make it beautiful."

Tours and teaching

When the students get a chance to represent the city in Europe, the travel also cultivates pride in themselves. "It's not just about music and going to Europe. It's about networking and learning about another culture ... being able to speak with young people."

Marching down Woodward Avenue on Thanksgiving Day morning is all about "fun," says McAllister. Whether in their hometown or abroad, it's about exposure to the world they will live and work in.

"If we stay within these four walls, (educational inspiration) would die," says McAllister. "Education is exposure; exposure to a lot of different things. As students are exposed, they learn. Not only do they learn, they become teachers. The public that sees them learn from how they do things. It's a two-way street."

Several of Miller's students have received sizable scholarships to attend college -- some not even required to pursue music. About 70 or 80 of her former students have pursued musical careers, as performers or educators. While others have found careers unrelated to music, she advises them to continue playing music "to help get through life."

McAllister notes that some of his former students are in professional fields like psychology, law, pharmacy, chemical engineering, and mathematics. One former student owns a couple of businesses based in Detroit, works as a professional musician, and mentors Renaissance jazz band students in his spare time.
"What we advocate is that they all become productive members of society and that they use the discipline and mindset that they use through music to become anything they want to in life -- because it is possible," says McAllister.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit based freelance writer. Send feedback here.

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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.