By Laurie D. Willis
Livingstone College News Service
SALISBURY — Alex Blumenthal is a soft-spoken boy who’d never played an instrument before joining The Overton Elementary School Mini Funk Factory Band.
For the past two weeks, he’s been playing the trumpet at the band’s annual summer camp, which runs from 8 a.m. to noon at Overton. Alex’s mother said learning to play music is just one benefit he’s gotten from the band, organized by Anthony Johnson, Overton’s technology facilitator.
“I think the camp is wonderful,” said Jessie Blumenthal. “It’s an outstanding program that Mr. Johnson runs, and it has helped Alex’s self-esteem and self confidence.”
Tonight, Alex will get a chance to demonstrate his self confidence and music skills when The Mini Funk Factory performs at 7 p.m. in Varick Auditorium at Livingstone College. The event is open to the public.
“It was just a drumline in 2010,” said Johnson, a Livingstone graduate. “This is our second year as a full marching band. We’ve added an academic component to our program to ensure the students are doing well in school. Playing instruments is one thing, and it’s good for the kids to learn how to play, but their academic success is much more important.”
Johnson’s program patterns The Roots of Music, a New Orleans afterschool band program spawned in 2008 as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. For children ages 9-14, it was founded by Derrick Tabb, snare drummer of the Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band. The Roots of Music has been featured on The CBS Morning Show, NPR’s All Things Considered, CNN and in The Times-Picayune and Rolling Stone.
“We started The Roots of Music as a way to try to save the lives of New Orleans’ youth through music and mentoring,” said Lawrence Rawlins, band director. “We provide everything free to the children, including the instruments, transportation, tutoring and hot meals, so there’s no excuse for their parents not to let them participate. We have 140 children in the program and more than 500 on a waiting list.”
Johnson is a New Orleans native and knew of Rawlins and his brother, both high school band teachers. As he was starting The Mini Funk Factory he contacted Rawlins via Facebook and later, during a business trip to The Big Easy, stopped by a Roots of Music practice session to check out the group and pick up a few pointers.
Starting outwith a drumline
“Mr. Johnson started out with a drumline, and his program has really grown,” Rawlins said. “I think he’s doing a good job, especially since he’s providing an outlet for kids to have something positive to do.”
Johnson relies heavily on his alma mater to help him with The Mini Funk Factory. Sidney C. Sessoms Jr., Livingstone’s director of bands, has worked with Johnson since the group’s inception.
“The Mini Funk Factory provides musical and educational outlets for the 65 kids with whom we work,” Sessoms said. “Many of them wouldn’t have gotten exposed to playing musical instruments without this program, and I’m happy to assist Mr. Johnson with it.”
Livingstone students help out
Several Livingstone students worked with The Mini Funk Factory this summer, including Ashley Hall, 22, a rising senior from Flint, Mich. Hall plays the flute and piccolo in The Livingstone College Marching Band and is head drum major.
“I like teaching the kids new things,” Hall said. “I’m an education major, and while working with the kids this summer I got a chance to try out different teaching methods that will benefit me after I graduate and have students of my own.”
Overton music teacher Beth Yelvington thinks highly of Johnson’s program.
“It’s giving them a chance to explore new musical options because it’s something that’s not available in my music classroom,” Yelvington said. “For those that have been a part of the band, I can see some growth in the skills they’re learning and in their ability to work within groups. I think Mr. Johnson puts his whole heart into it, and the kids are getting the benefit of what he’s trying to share with them.”
Tamika Burns, president of the Overton Band Boosters, agrees with Yelvington about The Mini Funk Factory’s impact. Her sons Christion, a Knox Middle School student, and Jayden, an Overton student, are group members.
“I think it’s a good thing because everybody’s kid is not going to be able to play sports and be good in sports, so if they’re good in music, give them music,” Burns said, adding she’s glad Johnson plans to implement an academic component.
“The tutoring will be a big help to make sure the kids don’t fall behind with their grades,” Burns said. “Livingstone is probably a real big help to Mr. Johnson, and the kids also get some motivation because they see you can go to college by playing in the band.”
Although 65 kids participated in The Mini Funk Factory’s summer band camp, Johnson expects more than 100 to be involved once school starts.
During tonight’s event at Varick, called the Music & Academic Excellence Tour, Johnson will formally announce the new thrust on academics. He’s calling the performance the first stop on the tour because the group is already committed to performing at Livingstone’s Homecoming on Oct. 6 and in Salisbury’s Christmas Parade.
That’s good news for Alex and other band members, including Gabrielle Sloan-May, a drum major, and Jessica Gonzalez. All three said playing in the band is fun and they’re grateful to Johnson for giving them the chance.
But Alex’s words, no doubt, are music to Johnson’s ears: “Playing in the band is fun, but grades are more important than music because you need good grades no matter what you do in life.”
By Laurie D. Willis