Through music, transforming young lives

Seventh grader Zy'Mir Hutchinson plays the drums at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, which has a successful jazz-funk band for beginners.
Seventh grader Zy'Mir Hutchinson plays the drums at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, which has a successful jazz-funk band for beginners.
Posted: October 24, 2010

The seventh and eighth graders in Julius Brown's music class sat with backs straight, clutching their instruments, ready to warm up by improvising as they performed scales.

"Eyes here," Brown told them. "Everyone's eyes."

How would it look, he asked, if they were playing a gig and their eyes weren't focused front and center?

The students, who are members of the Extraordinaires jazz-funk fusion band at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, snapped to attention.

A gig? That was not some idle fantasy. Performing at teachers' weddings, fund-raisers, and the annual spring showcase at Warmdaddy's - the rhythm-and-blues venue on Columbus Boulevard - was part of the Extraordinaires' cachet.

Brown, 30, recently won national honors for his success developing a nontraditional music program at this North Philadelphia college-prep school and building a band with seventh and eighth graders who had never before plucked an electric bass, blown into a harmonica, or touched a keyboard.

He was one of 10 teachers selected from 99 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools nationwide for a $10,000 Excellence in Teaching Award.

"This teacher has taken his love of music and wrapped it around our children," said a teacher from another KIPP school who announced Brown's award at a national conference. "He turned his music classroom into a space for students to express themselves in new ways."

Brown, who grew up playing an array of instruments in Wilmington, aims to teach his students, drawn from around the city, how to make music for themselves.

"This is not as much about quality as it is about the kids getting meaningful experiences," he said.

He wants his students to think musically, enjoy playing, and find success. When a student selects an instrument, Brown makes sure it's a good fit. "Are they going to be successful on it?" he asks. "If not, let's try this other one - like a matching experience."

Standing at the front of his small classroom, Brown instructed:

"Let's play our scales. Newbies, if you have trouble, just play the bottom note. One, two, three, four."

Karlz Beaubrun, 12, began tapping out a staccato beat on drums. Alan Taylor, 12, and Iman Williams, 13, noodled around on electric guitars while Israel Renteria, 14, led the trumpet section through the ascending notes.

"It's the best thing," said Renteria, in his second year with the band. "It's a different feeling when you go out on stage because all you see is people's faces. You see smiles. You just think in your head, 'Wow! I just made someone smile just for playing some music.' "

Seventh grader Alissa Smith, 13, signed up because she had always wanted to play the piano. "There are so many opportunities being in the Extraordinaires," she said. "Everybody gets a chance to shine."

Marc Mannella, founder and chief executive officer of KIPP Philadelphia, selected Brown in 2006 to create an instrumental music program with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Miles Family Foundation.

"What would you do?" Mannella asked Brown, showing him the tiny space for his classroom.

While Brown wasn't sure at first, the former school band director knew he didn't want a traditional middle school band.

"I thought it would be cool if I could start a program that was funk with stop percussion, and the kids would focus on improvising and jazz," recalled Brown, who had performed with funk and R&B groups.

He ordered instruments, held tryouts, and launched the Extraordinaires. In class, individual lessons, and KIPP's Saturday School, he taught students to read music and play pieces like the R&B classic "Green Onions" and James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing."

Its first year, the group won awards at the University of Delaware's Jazz Band competition in the spring of 2007. The band also was tapped to play that June at a World Cafe Live fund-raiser for Teach for America, which trains top college graduates to fill vacancies in understaffed schools.

"It was really sort of a coming-out party," Mannella said. "It wasn't as complex as the pieces that they can do now, but it sounded terrific."

A videotape captured the Teach for America event, where Mannella stunned the audience by revealing that only one student had ever touched an instrument before September.

"If I close my eyes, I wouldn't know they were kids," an awed listener said.

Mannella, who nominated Brown for his recent award, said it wasn't just about the band's success. Brown, he said, also has a knack for helping students who have behavior issues or academic troubles in other classes find success in music.

"Other teachers will send him kids who are struggling," Mannella said.

Brown lays a musical foundation by teaching all sixth graders the rudiments of drumming using drum pads and how to play recorders. And during a "talent show" portion of his Friday classes, they can test-drive other instruments for short solos.

After winter break, sixth graders can try out for a band offered as an enrichment class during KIPP's Saturday School to encourage them to join the Extraordinaires in the seventh grade.

David Reid, 18, a founding member of the Extraordinaires who picked up an electric guitar at the start of eighth grade, was a featured soloist within a few months.

Reid called his teacher "a creative genius. He is so talented, and he lets you be you."

Now a senior at West Catholic High School, Reid plays the saxophone there, but the electric guitar remains his instrument of choice.

"I learned the guitar from him and how to read notes," said Reid, who is considering applying to the Berklee College of Music in Boston or to the University of the Arts.

"He's a great teacher. . . . I knew him for only a year, and he still keeps in touch."

Brown knows about the studies linking music with improved academic performance, but his goal is not to boost test scores.

"Music stands on its own," he said.

"Imagine a world that doesn't have music to listen to. Imagine not being able to listen to a radio. . . . Our brains think in musical terms. Music creates joy and happiness in us, and it defines our culture. It doesn't need to support math scores."


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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