NEW ORLEANS (AP) – One. Two. Three. Four.
One. Two. Ready. To breathe.
For a brief moment, there is silence as a room full of elementary school students takes a breath and waits for a signal.
With a wave of his hand, their director, Lawrence Rawlins, queues them and play their instruments in unison, playing the notes of Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire”.
The band, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, are rehearsing for their next performance at this weekend’s annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two-day festival dedicated to legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday. The Roots of Music plays Saturdays at 11:30 am outside the gates of the New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade Avenue.
Established in 2007, Roots of Music is a non-profit, after-school and summer music education program for 9-14 year olds from low-income families.
Derrick Tabb, co-founder and executive director of Roots, said he was inspired to create the program after his middle school band’s director took particular interest in him.
“It saved my life,” said Tabb, who then started using music as a positive outlet.
He expanded the concept of the music program by introducing transportation, food and mentoring.
Roots of Music operates three buses that pick up students from more than 50 schools around the city, Tabb said. After training, the buses take the children home. As for food, students receive a hot meal each day, donated to the program by organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank.
The mentoring program is led by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said she hopes mentors can serve as role models for her students and inspire them to pursue higher education.
“These three things are the tools these guys really needed to be successful,” Tabb said. “Their implementation has made this a no-excuse program.”
The program runs year-round, with students coming four to five times a week for music history and theory lessons, instrumental instruction, and show preparation, which includes honing their walking and practice skills that make them regulars of the Carnival parade. Since the beginning of 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to around 150.
Throughout the year they perform at conventions and festivals in New Orleans, as well as parades. The band also travels around the world for performance opportunities, having previously played in London, Canada, France, Amsterdam and most recently Switzerland.
“It’s a good time for (the) children,” Tabb said. “It makes them see another part of the world, experience a different culture and meet new people they probably wouldn’t have.”
With children from all over the city, Tabb said the program is more than just music.
“It’s also like an anti-crime program,” he said, explaining that the band helps kids build friendships and learn teamwork. “It brings them together around a common goal in a neutral place. They now have a positive reason to be together instead of being out and about doing anything.
Tabb said the added benefit of bringing children together is that it also brings entire communities together.
“When you bring the children together, you bring moms, dads and everyone else. Create friendships with the whole family, “she said.
For the ninth year Imand Peterson, 15, playing the French horn, the performance at the Satchmo SummerFest will be his last with the Roots of Music, as it’s time for him to graduate from the program.
“I’m sad because I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. “I know it will hit me hard.”
Before Roots, Peterson said he never touched an instrument. He remembers hearing the band for the first time while he was looking for random bands on YouTube.
“I just knew I wanted to join them,” he said.
After a quick application, he was learning the rudiments of music and playing drums, before finally moving on to horns.
Although he wishes he could stay longer, he said he is grateful for everything he was able to accomplish with the group.
“Playing a horn isn’t just for the moment,” he said. “Now I can get scholarships for schools and travel around the world playing music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said that music changed his life. When he’s older, he wants to play in a brass band before he starts working as a band director.
“There is no feeling of coming here and seeing the children happy and eager to succeed,” Tabb said
Roots of Music graduates, such as Jazz Henry, continued to have professional careers in music. Others are coming.
Every high school band in the city has Roots of Music students, most of whom serve as section heads, Tabb said. The program also has a partnership with Berklee City Music Boston, an out-of-school, student-focused educational music and performing arts organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which has returned to its normal operations after a distance learning period due to the pandemic and a hiatus after Hurricane Ida.
“I want to make this the best place for kids to come,” Tabb said. “I want them to want to come here every day.”
Students interested in joining the band or those wishing to make a donation to the organization can find out more at therootsofmusic.org.