A pocketful of music

Attired to test the limits of the dress code, the 12 surly teenagers shuffle in. Who would possibly look forward to embracing this marginal collection of anti-social misfits whose behavior has them teetering on the edge of permanent suspension? Leaning against the desk up front, Bruce attracts only passing glances until one by one each boy sneaks a sullen study of the faded jeans, the khaki shirt, the worn sneakers and a headband that barely corrals the man’s long, unruly hair. He is obviously cut from a unique pattern. As they rowdily compete for seats as far as possible from the man up front, they have no idea of the good fortune they’ve just stepped into.

“Welcome to music class,” the instructor greets his defiant charges. Before the boys can inappropriately “diss” the teacher with groans and moans, Bruce whips out a harmonica from his shirt pocket and tears into an extended blues riff. Instantly, the look on each face portrays a dramatic transformation.

“Do y’all want to learn how to do that?” Before the stunned boys can respond, Bruce adds, “If you do, hold out your right hand. But if playing the blues is not your bag, head on back to study hall.” Before he finishes his sentence, 12 hands eagerly reach out. Bruce places a shiny new $5 harmonica into the extended hand of each rebel. His return to the front of the room is accompanied by a cacophony of reedy wails from the dozen harmonicas. One by one each boy gives up on trying to coax a tune from the 10-hole instrument and turns with out-of-character anticipation to his music teacher.

Bruce Andrews is part of an outreach program that provides hands-on experiences for people who have limited or no access to the arts. Sponsored by the Shelby County Arts Council, professionals are providing lessons, performances and exhibitions in art, music, drama, dance and creative writing in an effort to improve quality of life. And the results are life changing. This alternative school principal reports that Bruce’s music lessons provide at-risk youth with practical skills, self-confidence and motivation that transfers to all aspects of life, as well as appreciation for music and its place in history.

The powerful influence of the muses is evident. It is amazing what a pocketful of music can do for a kid with low self esteem bent on responding to life’s challenges with dead-end behaviors.

Even more amazing are the scores of similar life-altering initiatives underway across Alabama, most flying below the radar of public recognition. Incarcerated youth are learning to write and publish their stories (writersforum.org). Live symphonic music is also provided for hundreds of elementary school students (shelbycountyartscouncil.com). Authors are revealing their creative secrets to community groups (ahf.net). Thanks to corporate, foundation and private funding, purveyors of the arts and humanities are reaching out to serve those considered to be the most vulnerable, and among the rewards are productive citizens who make valuable contributions to society. Young men leave Bruce’s class with more than music in their pockets; your brush of humanity has tinted their souls.

Written by: Bob W.