one. two. Ready. Breathe.
There is silence for a brief moment as a room full of students catch their breath and wait for a signal.
With a wave of his hand, their director, Lawrence Rawlins, lines them up and they strum their instruments in unison, playing the notes of Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire.”
The group, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, was rehearsing for its upcoming performance at the annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two-day festival dedicated to legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The festival took place on Saturday and Sunday. The Roots of Music played Saturday 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 children ages 9-14 from low-income households.
Derrick Tabb, co-founder and executive director of Roots, said he was inspired to create the program after his junior band director took a special interest in him.
“He saved my life,” said Tabb, who then began using music as a positive outlet.
He expanded the concept of the music program by introducing transport, food and tuition.
Roots of Music operates three buses that pick up students from more than 50 schools in the city, Tabb said. After practice, the buses bring the children home. As for food, each day the students receive a hot meal donated to the program by organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank.
The training program is led by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said he hopes the faculty can serve as role models for his students and inspire them to pursue higher education.
“Those three things are the tools these kids really needed to succeed,” Tabb said. “Their implementation made this program unapologetic.”
The program runs year-round, with students coming four to five times a week for lessons in music history and theory, instrument training and performance preparation, which includes honing marching skills and drills that make them Carnival parade regulars. Since the beginning of 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to about 150.
Throughout the year, they perform at New Orleans conventions and festivals, in addition to parades. The band also travels the world for performance opportunities, having previously played in London, Canada, France, Amsterdam and most recently Switzerland.
“The weather is good for (the kids),” Tabb said. “It gets them to see another part of the world, experience a different culture and meet new people they probably wouldn’t have.”
With kids coming from all over the city, Tabb said the program is about much more than music.
“It’s also like a crime-fighting program,” he said, explaining that the group helps kids build friendships and learn teamwork. “It brings them together around a common goal in a neutral location. Now they have a positive reason to be together instead of being out doing whatever.
Tabb said an added bonus of bringing children together is that it also brings whole communities together.
“When you bring kids together, you bring moms, dads and everybody else together. It builds friendships with the whole family,” he said.
For ninth-grader Imand Peterson, 15, who plays French horn, the Satchmo SummerFest performance will be his finale with Roots of Music as it’s time to graduate from the program.
“I’m sad because I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. “I know it’s going to hit me hard.”
Before Roots, Peterson said he never touched an instrument. He remembers hearing the band for the first time while searching for random bands on YouTube.
“I just knew I wanted to join them,” he said.
After a quick application, he learned the basics of music and played the drums before eventually switching to French horns.
While he wishes he could have stayed longer, he said he’s grateful for all he’s been able to accomplish with the band.
“Playing the French horn is not just for the moment,” he said. “Now I can get scholarships to schools and travel the world playing music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said music changed his life. When he grows up, he wants to play in a brass band before starting work as a conductor.
“There’s no feeling like coming here and seeing the kids happy and wanting to succeed,” Tabb said
Roots of Music graduates, such as Jazz Henry, have gone on to professional careers in music. Others are on the way.
Every high school band in the city has Roots of Music students, most of whom are section leaders, Tabb said. The program also partners with Berklee City Music Boston, a student-centered after-school music and performing arts education organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which is returning to normal operations after a period of remote learning due to the pandemic and disruption following Hurricane Ida.
“I want to make this the best place for kids,” Tabb said. “I want them to want to come here every day.”
Students wishing to join the group or those wishing to donate to the organization can learn more at therootsofmusic.org.