Company Front – Issue 8
From Murder to Music
They are the kids better left unseen. They have performed acts of violence that would raise the ire of any person with a conscience. They have lived a life void of hope, kindness, true friendship, or direction. I began doing therapy with these former gang members as an intern at a local facility. They came from all over the state with one idea in mind, “I have to change, or I’m going to die.”
Remembering the rough and tumble roots of drum corps, I floated the idea of getting a drum line together as an activity for the boys. At first I was not sure they would like the idea. A few days later one of the boys approached me asking when “drum group” would start. A few days after that, a boy from another facility transferred to ours because he wanted to play drums. Here came the hard part. With no budget, where do we get musical instruments? I soon found myself at the junk yard pulling parts off cars and at the hardware store buying garbage cans that sounded good.
The night of truth soon arrived and I laid out what looked like a pile of scrap metal along with a few drums my friends had donated. The boys began straggling in and soon a hefty group of ex-gang members from all across the country stood before me looking at this pile of rubble and wondering what to do next.
There they stood with baggy pants sagging below their waist lines, some with tattoos of gang insignias on their necks. They stood with hats sideways and excited looks on their faces. These were no rookies of the streets. Each of them between 18 and 25, they had seen the cruel realities of street violence. I had performed group and individual therapy with many of them and knew their shame, sorrow, grief, anxiety, and had spoken with them about their nightmares. Most of them suffered from PTSD and other trauma related anxiety-based mental conditions acquired through the violence they had perpetrated on the cruel streets of cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, and even Chicago. Some had already suffered addictions to the most savage of street drugs and had lived to tell tales of outrageous events they had lived through. Every one of them had lost a close friend, homie, or family member to gang warfare. They had come from the American war zone of gang retaliation and street justice, which is never true justice.
Though I knew most of them, I still found myself wondering if my little drum line would reach them. I had been taught in a top-tier drum corps by such illustrious names as Murray Gusseck and Jim Casella. I entered Santa Clara Vanguard intent on exactly what I wanted, already knowing how to play the tenor drums (well enough to fake my way through auditions at least). These kids had held guns more than they had held drum sticks in their lives, and knew nothing of classically taught music.
I soon began briefly explaining how music works. I played a few rap songs to get them to count to four, then passed out sticks and explained the ground rules which were essentially, “Shut up when I’m talking.” My goal was to get them to understand how to read music and rhythms so they could understand how what they were playing lined up to a quarter note. To my delight, these young people were very hungry to learn and laughed with me as we wrote out rhythms to their favorite rap songs and played them together.
Standing back, I looked at these young men playing old tom toms, an old chrome snare drum, a djembe drum, and anything they could hit with sticks, and finally saw the real origins of drum corps. Here they were, the 1955 Cavaliers, the 1961 Imperials, the 1962 Holy Name Garfield Cadets, and they were playing together when they would otherwise no doubt be killing each other. They were laughing and getting into simple street beats I had fashioned after popular rap artists like Dr. Dre and 50 Cent.
How pious I used to be as an adolescent, when I would look down my nose at high stepping drum and bell corps from inner city boys and girls clubs. There I stood, bound for greatness with a new pair of drum sticks in my hands and a new set of drums every few years. There they stood, at the origin of my path with second hand drums, wearing sneakers, and trying to get their lives going in the right direction and survive the streets in the mean time. They are where drum corps began, on the mean streets of gang territory and hard knocks.
The drum line has proved quite therapeutic for the young men. Like magic, they have a new gleam of hope in their eyes as we invent new beats. I introduce new objects and ideas to them such as a metronome, how to count 8th notes, and how to mark time.
My favorite part of the lesson is the end, when I have them listen to a piece of music they have never heard before. They had never heard Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, or Fantasia on a Theme from Thomas Talis by Vaughn Williams, but they thank me each week for letting them listen to these masterpieces. Their worlds expand with each note they play and with each masterpiece they hear.
There is a great lesson we can all take from this exercise as we return to teach our respective groups. There is a great legacy to this activity. It does not simply teach young people great dance and musicianship. This activity has a strong legacy of saving lives. Not only does this activity save lives, but it gives hope, esteem, and goals to young people struggling to find their way in every different environment. It is impossible to do a drive-by with a drum strapped to your shoulders. It is even more impossible to do a drive-by when you are infected with the gang-killing disease of hope, goals, dreams, aspirations, and discipline. From the gang member on the streets who finally says, “Enough,” to the goal-driven future Blue Devil center snare drummer who plays flam-fives all night to her favorite Green Day songs, the young people involved in the activity are learning to achieve greatness in their own unique ways. Whoever we teach, this activity will open their minds, and drum corps will continue to save lives.
Company Front is a regular series of articles and essays, written by a group of young authors that have published books related to the marching arts. You’ll find all of the issues of Company Front by clicking here.
Jeremey "Spike" Van Wert is the author of Not for the Faint of Heart: My journey into manhood in the Santa Clara Vanguard and will be approaching his contributions to Company Front from the perspective of the psychological experience of growth in drum corps and its lasting influence on the lives of its competitors. He is currently a graduate student, studying Marriage and Family Therapy. The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author, who may be reached by writing to jvanwert [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com?subject=Regarding%20your%20Company%20Front%20column%20on%20DCP