He believed in music education. So he did it himself

Darryl Chamberlain noticed that students at Kansas City public schools in the urban core were missing out on music. His response? Founding an orchestra.

Q&A: Darryl Chamberlain

About a decade ago, Darryl Chamberlain noticed that students at urban Kansas City public schools were missing out on music. His response? Founding an orchestra.

Now, the St. James United Methodist Church A-Flat Youth Orchestra has gained national attention with a recent appearance on the “Today” show, among other media outlets.

Kansas City Spaces caught up with Chamberlain, an industrial technologist by trade who is certified to teach high school history, to see how the project came about, where it stands now and what his plans are for the future.

Kansas City Spaces: How did you get the idea to start a youth orchestra?

Darryl Chamberlain: This is a project that I started working on around early 2005. After moving back from Texas, I attended the American Royal Parade and was amazed that there were no Kansas City school bands in the parade, though there were many suburban schools. Music used to be a mainstay in Kansas City public schools. They all had bands. Ours were among the best. I was alarmed.

I started visiting some schools, talking to music teachers. I knew something could be done. I’ve done more than my share of petitioning school boards. You hear them say, “You have a really good idea, but now’s not the time.” You get tired of that. School administrators don’t always get the vision, the passion, the importance of a project. I’d already been “now’s not the time”-ed out.

So, I started looked at buying instruments. I would comb the classifieds, go to pawn shops. I developed a group of pawn shops that kept good instruments, a good rotation of them. I kept three instruments on layaway. As soon as I got one out, I put another one in.

At the time, I was playing for the Jamison Memorial Temple (Christian Methodist Episcopal) Church. Here is where I formed the [original] A-Flat Youth Ensemble. Then I had to have open-heart surgery. It took three years to recover, but I continued to play and purchase instruments. I re-formed the youth orchestra, and those original kids. They grew up, went on to college.

I thought I wanted to teach in the public school system. I enrolled in the UMKC School of Education to pursue certification. I had to put the orchestra on hold. I finished certification in 2014. In May of 2015, Tyrone Yarbrough of St. James contacted me. I’d been putting pictures on Facebook of the former orchestras I’d formed. He asked if I wanted to continue that at St. James.

KCS: How far have you come since then?

DC: February 20, 2016, was our start date. We began our first music fundamentals class with students who knew nothing about music. My fundamentals class takes them from a whole to a sixteenth note in eight weeks; it summarizes music in grades 6 through 8. You’re learning the rhythms, tapping out the beat. Once they take that, the kids can start to play music immediately.

I wrote music that they could pick up fast. After a few weeks, we had a request to be ready to play in a Maundy Thursday service in two weeks. We got that ready and played —that let parents know these kids are actually going to learn how to play. And with parental support, you can do anything with kids.

KCS: Now, less than two years later you have 14 kids enrolled, 10 more ready to sign up, and have been featured on the “Today show. What’s next?

DC: The biggest thing right now is, I believe, to roll up your sleeves and make something happen. I did one instrument at a time for many years. If you brought me 50 kids today, I would have instruments to put in their hands. We need to be getting the word out if there are students who want to learn.

What I envision is to get a building that we call a youth center. The orchestra rehearses there, but kids can come there and learn dance, art, technology. I could teach them some technology and really wet their whistles.

Studying music lowers incidences of violence, of teen pregnancy—all these things we grapple with—and we put out the very tool that would get rid of them. There’s so much power in musical study. We can’t afford to take it out of the public schools.