Rebuilding New Orleans An Instrument at a Time

Phil Aguglia | September 2008

    For years the band and orchestra staff at Kenmore East High School followed some simple guidelines whenever any of the ensembles traveled. We would decide on a date, location, and festival to attend, then locate a school en route willing to share a concert with us. The ensemble members would raise the funds to cover travel, food, and hotel expenses; and then we would pack and go.
    In the fall of 2006 that reliable format quickly changed after I attended a concert by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and learned that all the musicians in the group were victims of Hurricane Katrina and had performed with borrowed instruments, mouthpieces, and clothes. For the first time I grasped the gravity of the devastation to the musicians of New Orleans. I felt it was time to help other musicians and talked to the other music staff members at Kenmore East about involving our ensembles in the relief effort. Gail Bauser, the orchestra director, willingly agreed to include the orchestra in my plans.
    The trip for 2007 would be to New Orleans and the members of the band and orchestra would help in the relief effort to clean up the mess by Hurricane Katrina. With the help of Kaleidoscope Adventures, a travel company, we developed a packed itinerary that was reasonably priced.
    During the summer Gail and I decided to program music throughout the year that related to New Orleans, so we devoted hours to researching ensemble music about the city. We called music publishers and talked with editors, composers, and local musicians. I even visited Lincoln Center in an effort to meet musicians with New Orleans musical roots or experience. 
    The 2007-08 school year began with a special meeting to present the trip proposal to band and orchestra parents and students. To set the mood the meeting included a performance by a Dixieland band, a meal of Cajun cuisine, and a PowerPoint presentation that laid the groundwork for the trip. Students would study the history of New Orleans, the city’s importance to American music, and learn why it was important to help fellow musicians in need.
    We explained that Kenmore East High School music students would raise money and instruments for an adopted school in New Orleans, and as part of the trip students would work with an organization to help rebuild some homes. Our goal was to fund raise $5,000 to $10,000 worth of instruments and cash for a school that would benefit from the assistance. The scope of the project was greater than anything the music department had attempted in the past.
    Little did we know that finding a school would be the most difficult part of the venture. Many schools had shut down, some never returned our calls, and others didn’t even have a music teacher. Several schools had changed to charter schools or were taken over by the state. After the storm the City of New Orleans Public Schools fired its entire staff and started over with an organization one tenth its original size.
    Through telephone calls and many conversations, we finally located Marta Jurje-vich, the music de-partment chairwoman and orchestra director at the Lusher Charter School for the Arts; she was delighted to learn about our interest in assisting a music program in New Orleans. After describing our trip proposal to Marta, Kenmore East officially adopted the Lusher Charter School for its project.
    Deposits for the trip were due in October 2007, but only 41 students out of 150 brought them in. It seemed that a year’s worth of preparation was wasted. Disappointed, we explained the gravity of not participating to students who had previously committed to the program. When I asked why the change of heart, some of them said, “Why should I spend my money to help someone else?” “Trips are supposed to be fun, not work,” or “My family just can’t afford it.” Gail and I promised that everyone would have a good time and that we would help finance anyone who wanted to go. The next day 100 students brought in deposits, and I created a waiting list for any openings.
    In December the band and orchestra councils started the fundraising drive for the Lusher School. After drafting a letter, we dropped it in mailboxes, mailed copies to businesses, and e-mailed it to anyone on the school’s mailing lists. The local press picked up the story and gave it full-page coverage in all the community papers, and the local television news stations helped to publicize our efforts. Meanwhile the students were busy with fundraising projects to cover the cost of travel by selling magazines, candy, talent show tickets, bowl-a-thon sponsorships, discount books, cookie dough, and more. 
    As a part of the experience, students started a Dixieland combo with four trumpets, one trombone, two saxes, and rhythm section. One of the trumpet players had enough guitar experience to play banjo, and the addition of a washboard made the group sound as though it had just hit town from New Orleans. After learning the “Peach-ering Rag,” students burned the tune to a C.D. and submitted it to the Music Is Art Battle-Of-The-Bands Competition. The ensemble was awarded first prize, and the students received a clinic with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans in addition to being asked to open the Mardi Gras Jam in Buffalo.
    Gail and I wanted the students to have a broad exposure with the different New Orleans genres, so a local musician who specializes in Zydeco, Creole, and Roots music came in to teach a tune in each of these genres. Everyone picked out the melodies by ear (the opposite of what we typically do in school music programs) and loved it.
    Several teachers proposed having a Mardi Gras curriculum in subjects other than music for the students, which captured the interest of our principal. We met several times with experts on Mardi Gras and discussed how to include such a theme into daily academic classes. The foreign language teachers discussed Acadian influences and how this group celebrates Mardi Gras in different countries, and teachers of Home and Careers classes made king cake and café au lait as a special project. Art classes studied Mardi Gras Indians and made masks, while the band and orchestra ensembles provided music representing each of the New Orleans genres. The classes culminated in a Mardi Gras parade and assembly in the auditorium.
    By the beginning of April 2008 the travel company had received all of the payments for the trip, and we collected over $17,000 in instruments and cash for the Lusher Charter School for the Arts. The school council printed a five-foot wide check with the amount of our gift to present to the school as well as a plaque that said, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” and listed the date of our visit.   Everyone was buzzing with excitement.
    A week before the trip, a parent asked if we had the necessary safety equipment for our home rebuilding project. It was a shock to discover that safety equipment would not be provided, so the parents went to work and Dival Safety and Sevenson Environ-mental Services donated nearly $3,000 worth of hard hats, gloves, safety glasses, respirators, and painter’s hats to use in New Orleans.
    The 27-hour bus ride to Louisiana included a stop at the Desoto Caverns in Childersburg, Alabama to break up the long trip. It also turned out to be a special treat. One of the students recommended taking a tour of the cavern, and we were so glad he did because it was terrific. 
    On our first day in New Orleans the band and orchestra students worked with members of the St. John’s Baptist Church. Groups helped to paint an entire ranch house, gut several homes, and clean out the construction and storm debris from houses and yards.
It was humbling yet uplifting to hear the many stories of how people survived the storm and the hardships that followed. Many were still living in FEMA trailers, and others had not yet settled insurance claims. Several had lost homes and family members.
After the relief project and a stop at the hotel to clean up, we took a bus tour of the city that was beautiful but sobering. So many people were living in tent villages under highways, and it was easy to see abandoned homes everywhere. The streets of the French Quarter bustled with folks enjoying the bands and entertainers performing as a part of the French Quarter Festival that was taking place. Later that evening we had dinner at the Bayou Barn in a rural area outside the city. It included a Zydeco band, dance floor, and a huge meal of Louisiana cuisine that included tons of boiled crawfish that everyone loved.
    The next day as we arrived at the Lusher Charter School the sounds of a Dixieland band played its greeting as dozens of young students danced on the school steps. It was surreal. The band continued to play as we walked into the building, up the stairs, and into the library where a big breakfast awaited everyone.
    During a tour of the building led by Lusher students, we learned that the teachers cleaned the school before it was ready for students to return after the storm. Next on the agenda was a musical exchange with ensembles from both schools taking turns to play for each other. The music making took place in a large rehearsal room because the school did not have an auditorium.
    With the performance over, it was time to present the gifts we had brought. As our students unfolded the oversized $17,000 check, the Lusher students, parents, and music teachers became very emotional. There were cheers, tears, and hugs galore, but when one Kenmore East student crossed out the $17,000 figure and wrote in $21,000 (we had taken in another $4,000 after the check was printed) the room nearly erupted.
    The students from Lusher presented us with beautiful tee shirts with the motto, “From Buffalo to New Orleans  . . . rebuilding one instrument at a time.” I know that this experience has changed the lives and perspectives of everyone who participated in the trip. Students and adults made friendships that will last a lifetime.     



Comments from Students
Amanda – “The trip made me re-examine my life. It made me realize we take so much for granted every day. We have so much and continue to complain while the people in New Orleans lost everything. They still have so little, but they find joy in the simplest things of everyday life.”
Patrick  – “It really hit me when I saw people living under bridges.”
Danielle – “The part that affected me most was seeing the numbers on the homes telling you how many bodies were found. It was so incredibly sad and really hit me.”
Nick  – “The thing that surprised me the most was seeing how gleeful and welcoming the people were. After all of the devastation the people faced, it was amazing to see how people can still attempt to preserve their lives.”
Stephanie  – “I learned that life isn’t about how big your house is or how expensive your car is, because all of that can be wasted away in a day. Life is about the friends you have and the love in your heart, because that lasts a lifetime.”
Sarah – “One highlight was the jazz performance combined with the Lusher students. We were all taking solos and having fun, and you could feel the excitement in the room. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
James  – “I just want to thank Mr. A. for everything he has done for us. He is one of the most generous, thoughtful, and inspiring people I have ever met.”
Matt  – “What made this special was that I could connect to the students at the Lusher Charter School just because of our common interest in music.”
Matt  – “It was a bit upsetting to see the living conditions of those who suffered from Katrina. The water marks on the homes were unbelievably high and the number of people living under highways in tents is ridiculous.”
Kristen  – “The humanitarian project was special to me; I worked with 20-25 girls on one lady’s house that was damaged in the storm. It would have taken her a year to clean her yard. It only took us a couple of hours.”