Playing in the Morgan Park High School marching band makes you ‘part of something bigger’


Lunch begins third period in Morgan Park High School, which might sound odd, since the bell sounds at 9:25 a.m. Students use the time to eat, study, or in the case of Kanliah Lastic and Jaydah Keefer, both 14, both 8th graders, both friends, to slide by the band room with their trumpets for a little practice.

“B flat scale, let’s do it,” says music teacher Steven Schnall, who plays 13 instruments and has a doctorate in jazz from the University of Illinois.

They play.

“Good, good, excellent job,” he says, when they finish. “When you get to the higher notes, make sure you’re supporting just as much as on the bottom notes.” Then, snapping his fingers to set a tempo. “One, two ready go…”

If you read the Sunday paper, you might have seen my column on how trumpets are made. The story began with a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra,” with Batallán playing the first three notes, CGC, made famous in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I originally thought it would be a fine thing if the story that began with one of the great musicians in the world ended with students just learning to play.

But getting to know Lastic, looking smart in her ROTC uniform — 5,444 CPS students are in JROTC — and Keefer, with her purple dreadlocks, made it impossible to confine the South Side teens to a stylistic flourish in the last few paragraphs of a long story about making trumpets.

“My dad played it in high school,” said Lastic, playing a Horton B-flat trumpet, explaining why she took up the instrument.

“My friend was in it, and I really wanted to join her,” said Keefer, who has been playing a Blessing Scholastic for about six months.”I thought it would be really cool to try to learn something new…”

Plus playing a trumpet is a way to stand out.

“So I can flex on people,” Keefer said, as her friend laughed. “I really like the idea of being part of something bigger. I’m glad I chose this instrument. It’s hard, but if you put in the work, it’s worth it.”

For all the guff young people get, slagged as dispirited zombies crushed by social media, the impulse among students to learn music and march around in public while playing instruments remains strong.

“Marching band is alive and well in the United States,” said Sean King, executive director of USBands, a national organizing body for school music.

The situation is less rosy in Chicago, where schools struggle with declining enrollment and chronic underfunding. CPS reports that 514 schools have a music program, which means 120 don’t. Out of 157 high schools, only 47 have marching bands.

This, despite the real world benefits that music brings.

“It gives them structure, it gives them discipline,” said Morgan Park band director Everett Newchurch. “It gives them an outlet, takes them to the next level, and opens up a lot of the kids’ eyes.”

Studies show that students taking up an instrument do considerably better in both English and math.

King said that marching band, like football or baseball, offers physical demands and social acceptance.

“There’s a sense of family, if you’re in marching band,” he said. “it’s very similar to sports, instead of doing it with stick and ball, doing it with musical instruments. Music is a unifying force; everybody is playing from the same sheet, whether at the Chicago Symphony or a marching band. “

Speaking of the same music, though I told Schnall I didn’t want him to go to any trouble, or see anything out of the ordinary that wouldn’t occur if I weren’t there, he ignored that request, and took the time to drill the duo in a particular piece of music I’d mentioned when setting up the interview.

“You wanna do some Strauss?” he asked the teens. “Low D…” They began to play.

“Let me hear your A…” he continued. “You sat up a tiny bit, your sound improved hugely. Now play the top D. One two ready go.”

They play the three notes, DAD.

“Yeah, you got it,” said Schnall. “Let’s try it one more time….”

Sharp readers of Sunday’s story might recall that the CSO played CGC. But — sidestepping the music theory involved — the CSO musicians were playing C trumpets, while their Morgan Park counterparts play B flat trumpets. So while they play different notes, the music sounds the same, a reminder that there’s a lot more to this music business than just blowing through a horn.

“D …. A….. D… !” enthused Schnall. “Ready, second part!”

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