Dum dum dum. Dum dum dum. Sound familiar? No, it’s not your heartbeat (if it is, I’d suggest a visit to the doctor); it’s the beat that drives Nelly’s 2002 smash hit, “Hot in Herre”. Or at least, it’s the beat that my girlfriend had to learn upon being inducted into the West Side All-Stars, her school’s thrown-together faculty band, in preparation for the group’s performance at the school’s year-end party. For several weeks, Angela stayed late to practice with other novices on staff, plunking an E on the keyboard again and again while the school’s music teacher, Doug, a member of ‘90s some-hit wonders the Verve Pipe, shaped the notes into an actual song. Soon, she told me, it actually began to sound decent. But that didn’t mean her nerves ever settled; the night before she was meant to perform, she was still drumming her fingers on my arm, making sure she remembered the few notes she needed to know: Dum dum dum. Dum dum dum.
For most of us, music doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes, it doesn’t come at all. I may boast of my superior trumpet skills in elementary school, but I have far stronger memories of the many times I picked up—and subsequently put down—a guitar in college. Whether it was my small hands (my preferred excuse) or my lack of work ethic, I never could get through more than half a song before shutting it down. I eventually accepted that the only musical group I had a prayer of joining was my friends’ ramshackle jug band, where they didn’t mind if you wandered off in the middle of a song to go top off your beer—it’s not like it would be so hard to get back in the rhythm of banging that cowbell.
Most working musicians have to do a little bit more than that, and they often manage to do it under the influence of harder stuff than Miller Lite, a feat that will never cease to amaze me. Sure, after a certain amount of practicing, muscle memory kicks in, but it’s still impressive—I wouldn’t trust myself to type a coherent email after a few drinks, and I spend all day using a keyboard. (There’s got to be an art to drinking on the job as a musician; one or two can ease your nerves and stop you from overthinking things, but at some point, your talents are bound to suffer. The key is knowing where that point is. In this sense, Keith Richards is a genius.)
Point is, musicians make something that’s frustrating for a lot of people appear to be relatively easy. So it’s pretty darned impressive when a guy like Doug, who’s played in front of tons of screaming fans, has the patience to walk his peers through something that is probably pretty basic to him. Then again, he must have a never-ending supply of patience; he does work with ninth graders, after all.
We got to see a little of the progress he’s made with the students as well at the party, as a select group of kids got onstage to perform a few songs. Being a drummer and keyboardist, Doug chose largely percussive instruments for his class, including plenty of steel drums—which especially came in handy for the first tune, a soca. As I listened to the songs (which also included Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” and Alicia Keys’ “No One”), I found myself both jealous—the coolest song I’d ever learned on the trumpet was probably “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”—and amazed. It’s hard to watch a group of kids giving it their all on a song without grinning like an idiot. It wasn’t hard to tell that they were nervous—they don’t get the benefit of a few drinks beforehand—but it rarely came through in the notes.
I was also struck by how far they’d come. As Doug explained before the show, these kids—merely freshmen—had arrived at school with little to no experience with music (playing it, that is; as Angela has learned over the course of the past year, these 15-year-olds are just as knowledgeable about Salt ‘n’ Pepa as she is, even if they prefer Soulja Boy). That meant Doug had plenty of work ahead of him, but also the opportunity to exert some serious influence—as much as the math and English teachers who preside over the students for most of the day.
As these kids’ first real music teacher, he has the power to shape their attitudes on music—to introduce them to new instruments (how many ninth graders do you know who’ve seen a steel drum before, let alone played one?), new artists, and new genres. He can begin to combat stereotypes about who can play what types of music and who can sing what songs. He can encourage their creativity and imagination, and help them build upon their innate talents—something that all teachers can do, to be sure, but Doug has a leg up: he’s relating to the kids through something they’re already interested in. No matter how much Angela gets her students excited about algebra, she knows they’re probably not going out this summer and solving for x—but they’ll most likely be engaging in some musical activity.
We’ve all heard about the benefits of arts education—and this school clearly believes in its power, regularly spotlighting student performers at its assemblies—but what sometimes gets lost among all the talk of socialization and self-image is that these kids are acquiring real skills. Doug is giving his students the opportunity to actually be able to play music—a skill that has essentially passed by people like me and Angela (though she does play a pretty mean keyboard when she wants to; the pre-recorded “Hit me!” button is always a crowd-pleaser). They might not ever be members of some chart-topping band, but if they stick with it, in ten years they’ll be able to pick up an instrument and play something recognizable. Here’s hoping that something is not “Hot in Herre”.