New Orleans Drummer And Tuba Player, Work To Stay Sharp For Band And College : Code Switch In May, we shared the story of a New Orleans high school marching band. Two students earned scholarships to play for Jackson State University's marching band, the Sonic Boom of the South.

Drummer And Tuba Player Work To Stay Sharp For Band And College

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Six months ago, we brought you the story of the Edna Karr High School marching band in New Orleans. Reporter Keith O'Brien spent a year chronicling how music changed the lives of young people, two in particular, snare drummer Charles Williams and this promising musician.

NICHOLAS NOOKS: My name is Nicholas Nooks, and I play tuba in the band. Most people call me Big Nick.

BLOCK: Both came from single-parent homes with not a lot of money. They nailed their music auditions last spring and earned scholarships that sent them to Jackson State University in Mississippi, a dream come true. We wanted to know how that transition to college has gone and how they're doing away from home, so Keith O'Brien went to Mississippi to find out.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: The marching band at Jackson State is known as the Sonic Boom of the South.




O'BRIEN: And the freshmen learned right away this fall, come unprepared to practice and the band directors - they'll notice.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you on scholarship? Then maybe we need to adjust the scholarship and send you on back to Georgia. Excuse me? You want to go?

O'BRIEN: Band camp began in August, with 164 freshmen - late nights and early mornings, musical training and also push-ups. By the time it was over, 24 had quit. But Big Nick and Charles never considered leaving. They'd come too far, Big Nick said, to give up now.

NOOKS: A lot of people didn't think I could do it, you know? But I showed them that I could. And I'm here.

O'BRIEN: There's something magical about the fall of your freshman year of college, to be young and on your own in a new place, making new friends. There's a feeling that anything's possible. And that can be exciting and also terrifying, especially if you're the first in your family to ever go to college, like Charles Williams.

CHARLES WILLIAMS: I don't really have a lot of stuff here right now. I have a few clothes.

O'BRIEN: His dorm room is tiny.

WILLIAMS: Small - it's not the best of dorms. It's not the best.

O'BRIEN: Charles hasn't bothered decorating. There's not a single poster on his white, cinderblock walls. But then, he doesn't have time.


UNIDENTIFIED BAND MEMBERS: (Singing) Sonic, sonic, sonic, sonic boom.

O'BRIEN: Band practice for the Sonic Boom begins almost every day at sundown and can last for five hours. Show up late and you're penalized - $50 off your scholarship. Miss a practice, that's a $200 fine.

DOWELL TAYLOR: And if you miss a performance, that's $1,000 and a suspension because this is very serious business.

O'BRIEN: Dowell Taylor is the director of bands at Jackson State. He's been here for 31 years. The marching band reports to him. And every fall, he delivers the same message to freshman like Big Nick and Charles.

TAYLOR: Do not expect to have a social life. It will not exist. If you try to have a social life, you are going to fail. So forget it now.

O'BRIEN: Because the Sonic Boom, with its blue uniforms and white feathered caps, 287 members strong, isn't just a band. It's the most visible marketing tool Jackson State has. And only the best will make it.


O'BRIEN: Big Nick and Charles understood the stakes from the beginning. As high school students last year, they prepared for their college auditions with the urgency of desperate men seeking a way out of poverty, violence, life in New Orleans.

WILLIAMS: If you do good on your audition, that's like a lottery ticket. That's putting - basically, you're winning money towards your education.

O'BRIEN: And when it happened for Charles last spring, when he got into college, he thought life would be better, easier. This fall, though, has been anything but easy for Charles and Big Nick.

NOOKS: We exercise a lot more. We are at practice a lot more. We've got a lot more homework to do, class work.

O'BRIEN: Yet, the same work ethic that helped Big Nick in high school is serving him well in college, too. He earned a spot on the field show in August as a freshman. And in September, when the band played at a New Orleans Saints game in the Superdome, just a few miles from his old high school, Big Nick took to the field, part of the Sonic Boom.

NOOKS: You know, I got my family watching me on TV right now. And they're just all proud of me. I'm just really excited.


O'BRIEN: Nearly 200 band members marched that day, but not Charles. He hadn't made the cut to be in the field show.

RODERICK LITTLE: The biggest thing with Charles is just remembering the part.

O'BRIEN: Associate band director Roderick Little.

LITTLE: He'll start off on the part, and then for some reason or another he'll just totally just shut down and kind of give up.


O'BRIEN: It's a problem because at Jackson State, band members have to prove themselves every week to perform at football games on Saturdays.

LITTLE: We do cuts. They have to play a solo that they've been working on throughout the week.

O'BRIEN: In front of Mr. Little and everyone else.

LITTLE: And if they don't perform their solo correctly, then that simply means that they don't make the cut for that week.

O'BRIEN: Every Friday for Charles it went the same. He'd play his drum solo for Mr. Little...


O'BRIEN: Freeze up or fall short and sit out.

LITTLE: Right now, as a whole, we have 20 snare drummers. But only 12 can march. And we have nine upperclassmen. So 10, 11, 12 - that's three freshmen on the drums.

O'BRIEN: Charles was getting frustrated, practicing hard but never getting the payoff of actually playing. And then he got the letter that made things worse.

WILLIAMS: It's says failure to complete registration. If you do not complete the registration process as required by Jackson State University, you must vacate the residence hall by...

O'BRIEN: The problem? Despite his band scholarship and his financial aid, Charles Williams still owed the University $5,800.

WILLIAMS: That's a lot of money.

O'BRIEN: Especially because Charles can't even afford to pay his cell phone bill these days or buy other things he truly needs.

WILLIAMS: I can't get books.

O'BRIEN: Wait a second. You haven't actually bought some of your books?

WILLIAMS: I still don't have money for books. It's real hard right now. I want to stay here. But it's just too much money.


O'BRIEN: Charles had escaped New Orleans, but he couldn't outrun the other problems in his life. And in the band room, he began to worry that he'd get kicked out of school and have to scramble for a ride home. His mother, a baker at a New Orleans casino, has three other children and no car. But in late September, university officials allowed him to stay, giving Charles more time to try to work things out. They've handled cases like his before.

DEBORAH BARNES: We draw in an enormous number of students to Jackson State University with the band.

O'BRIEN: Deborah Barnes is the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

BARNES: They've seen the band, and they want to be in the band. And all they know is, I want to come and be in the band, sometimes not understanding that that band is attached to a university. And the way you stay in the band is that you stay in the university.

O'BRIEN: Some struggle with grades. Others lack support. And some have no idea how to survive at college because they've never seen anyone do it before.

BARNES: Frequently, that kid will drop out and be lost.

O'BRIEN: Charles was pretty sure he was headed in that direction. And he felt alone.

WILLIAMS: Really alone right now.

O'BRIEN: And then, late last month, he got some news.


TAYLOR: Charles?

O'BRIEN: Dowell Taylor, the band director, searched for his snare drummer inside the music building at Jackson State.

TAYLOR: I understand meager beginnings, meager assets, not enough money for books, not enough money for clothing.

O'BRIEN: Taylor's a Mississippi native, the son of an asthmatic, cotton picker-turned minister, one of 19 children. If anyone could relate, it was him. And he finally found Charles.


TAYLOR: Charles?

O'BRIEN: Outside, beneath a grove of oak trees, drumming on handrails and practicing with his section leaders.

TAYLOR: We know you've been struggling, trying to get your financial picture together. And I want you to know, we're glad to have you here. You've been hanging in there no matter what. And we have worked it out.

O'BRIEN: The university had found funding, $5,800 to cover the gap that Charles was facing this semester.

TAYLOR: How about that?


TAYLOR: Happy moment, huh?

WILLIAMS: Yes, really.

TAYLOR: Well, that's good. Good, you deserve it.

O'BRIEN: All of Charles's problems weren't solved. He still didn't have money to buy those textbooks. He was worried about his grades. And he had no idea just yet how he'd cobble together his tuition in the spring. But standing next to Mr. Taylor beneath those oak trees at sundown, Charles felt relieved. He'd finished this semester at least. He'd make it till December. Forget about the band. Charles still had a chance at college and the life he was dreaming for himself. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien.

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