KC man buys enough instruments to build an urban youth orchestra — and a community

The old tympani drum Darryl Chamberlain got for cheap, about $119 on eBay, was pretty beat up — scratches, chipped paint and a soiled drum head he would have to scrap.

It was just the kind of “good deal” Chamberlain had been looking for. He could fix that old drum, give it some love and showcase it in the urban youth orchestra he has been building in Kansas City for nearly two years.

Chamberlain got the idea to start the A-Flat Youth Orchestra more than a decade ago after attending an American Royal Parade in downtown Kansas City and noticing that most of the bands marching in it were from suburban districts.

Chamberlain, 59, grew up in Kansas City and remembers that when he was in high school, every high school in Kansas City had a band in the parade.

“Good bands” that he said were playing complex music like “Grazing in the Grass” — the Hugh Masekela version, heavy on the horns.

“I started asking around,” Chamberlain said, and learned that many schools in the city had stopped participating in the parade because they no longer had a band or orchestra.

“That bothered me,” Chamberlain said. “The research tells us music students have the lowest incidence of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, in-school suspension, behavior problems, and you see the pluses in the form of math ability, spacial reasoning, abstract reasoning.

“All of this applies to the student as he goes through the music concepts, and so music is powerful. It’s produced presidents, positive people in every walk of life.”

Also, declines in enrollment the city’s district schools have spread student talent thin, and that makes it difficult for some schools to support sports teams and other extracurricular activities like marching bands or orchestras. Many city charter schools also don’t have a large music program.

Chamberlain decided he could pick up the slack. So in 2005 Chamberlain, who years earlier had organized an ensemble of school-age musicians in Texas before returning to live in Kansas City, decided he would build an urban youth orchestra.

“People told me it couldn’t be done because it would take $300,000 to build an orchestra. I don’t have that kind of money,” said Chamberlain, a document control coordinator for Harcros Chemicals in Kansas City.

But he had learned something from his father, who in the mid 1950s couldn’t get hired as a mechanic in Kansas City even though he’d served as one during his military service and built jeeps for the U.S. government. When his dad applied for a job, “every time, they would just hand him a broom,” Chamberlain said.

Rather than give up or give in, Chamberlain’s dad, whom everyone called Moe, just started his own shop on Kansas City’s west side and turned it into a successful business.

Folks would come in with a busted-up car and no money. They’d ask Moe to hold on to something they had of value until they scraped up the money to cover the repairs.

“I believe that it is our job to restore and preserve our community,” Chamberlain said. “Each of us must use our talents to make things better, and we should not wait for someone else to do it,” he said.

“Help is good, but there is nothing like rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.”

The A-Flat orchestra doesn’t have a funding arm behind it, Chamberlain said. “Just wit and ingenuity, and with a little ingenuity you can do anything.”

With money he earned playing piano at churches around town, Chamberlain started buying instruments: a flute, a violin, a cello at a time.

“I search the classified papers and the pawn shops looking for instruments for sale,” he said. “When I find one and the price is right, I buy it.”

Chamberlain has accumulated more than 70 instruments that he either rents to students who can afford it, or lends to those who can’t. His musical menagerie includes trumpets, violas, saxophones, drums, clarinets, French horns and more. And he’s still buying them when he finds them.

Chamberlain, who studied music theory at Grayson College and is certified to teach high school history in Missouri, also knows that instruments without musicians don’t make an orchestra. So these days he’s recruiting students. Lessons are $7 an hour. But Chamberlain makes exceptions.

So far Chamberlain has 14 students coming to him three times a week for lessons in the basement of St. James United Methodist Church. An assistant helps with instruction on the strings.

It’s a big basement. There’s room for plenty more.

A chamber orchestra — much smaller than a full symphony orchestra — needs 15 to 45 members. But Chamberlain’s dream has him conducting about a 70-piece symphony of students.

“I want to provide an avenue on which youth who wish to study music can do so regardless of income or other elements that might normally prevent them,” he said.

He’s not turning any student away. Chamberlain welcomes students who already play and students who have never picked up an instrument.

The one thing he demands, though, is that every one of them must learn to read music. His students start by learning the basic language of music. They have to answer simple questions like what’s a staff, a treble clef, a whole note.

Chamberlain’s tiny orchestra is just two years old but most of the students have been actually playing their instruments less than a year. They spent the first year learning the fundamentals, tapping out rhythms on table tops with drum sticks, and plucking notes — pizzicato — on strings.

In a recent Saturday practice session, the chaotic sound of instruments being tuned and a drummer gone rogue rose from the church basement and lured a parent down the steps to peek into the rehearsal room.

“I’m proud of what they are doing down here,” said Jackson Alexander Winsett Jr., a member of St. James whose son is the percussionist hammering on the snare.

“It is great for these kids to be able to express themselves through music.”

When Winsett’s son first came to Chamberlain he was set on playing trumpet.

“But his lungs aren’t developed enough, so we went to drums,” Winsett said. “He’s getting better every week.”

During the session, Chamberlain barked out directions to students rehearsing for a performance planned for the church on Sunday morning.

“Look at what you have and count exactly what you see,” he told them. “If you don’t have your music, don’t ad-lib in here. We don’t do that.

“You’re dragging, and that’s killing the song. You have to feel it. Get with it.”

Notes from Emily Parker’s clarinet rose above the flute, guitar and strings. The ninth-grader said she chose clarinet “because it sounds so pretty. It has a beautiful tone.”

Emily said she probably wouldn’t be playing in an orchestra if it weren’t for Chamberlain’s group. “So I practice every day,” she said.

Micah Mishal Quinn, 13, says she plays her violin every day, too.

“I just have to play the violin. I think it is so cool.”

Chamberlain is teaching music on his weekends because “it’s important” and it’s a passion he got from his mother. She never played an instrument, but she filled his childhood home with a variety of genres. He recalls jazz and classical music lilting from a phonograph.

Chamberlain taught himself to play guitar and piano, his first instruments. Now he plays, at varying levels, just about every instrument that would make up a full orchestra.

“But I’m doing more than teaching music,” Chamberlain says. Not a Saturday rehearsal goes by without a few of his history lessons or life lessons creeping into his instruction.

“I draw parallels to life situations and help them to understand how music connects to everyday life,” Chamberlain said.

“If your neighbor drops her music, and you can bend and pick it up for them, then do that,” Chamberlain tells his students. “If we help one another we can all finish this song together. If we are fighting one another our music is going to sound like we are fighting.”

An orchestra, Chamberlain said, is a community. A community with a common goal — playing good music. That’s why, he said, he is so certain his urban youth symphony is important for Kansas City and its youth.

“Music builds character,” Chamberlain said. “And, if you learn the power of character when you go out into the community you are going to be a builder not a destroyer.”

Oh, and that old drum: Chamberlain sanded it down and repainted it. A few fresh coats of bronze restored its shine.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc