Musical Notes of Change

Accomplished artists turned teachers are inspiring Wilmington youth

It’s one thing for an adolescent or teen to listen to music — an activity that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, impacts children behaviorally, socially, and academically.

But to play music can be life-changing.

Research by the NAMM Foundation — which supports scientific research, philanthropic giving and public service programs surrounding music making — shows that two years of musical training improves auditory brain function. The Harmony Project, a NAMM Foundation grantee, found that in thousands of children living in gang-reduction zones of Los Angeles, participation in community music programs “can literally ‘remodel’ children’s brains in a way that improves sound processing, which could lead to better learning and language skills.”

Scores of music teachers in Delaware can attest to the impact of music. Here are a few who are making a difference in the lives of kids in their communities:

Frederick Reed is an artist, singer/songwriter, production engineer and cofounder (with wife Cora) of Reeds’ Refuge Center, an outreach organization “committed to the holistic development and well-being of the children and financially afflicted families of the inner city.” Its motto: “Seek Refuge in the Arts.”

Reed, who has opened for R&B acts internationally, is now sharing his talents with his community.

“Coming from the Riverside projects, me and my wife came up with Reeds’ Refuge Center,” he says. “We use music as a way to reach kids, as a platform for them to use their talents to combat [the influence of] guns, violence, teen pregnancy and [to promote] social justice.”

The nonprofit’s music program is geared around audio engineering and vocal, guitar, piano and drum instruction. Guest artists may volunteer to teach violin. A child may learn to mix and master a track and copyright it, building a song from the writing stage to finishing and recording it.

The center, at 16th and Pine Streets in Wilmington, also offers opportunities for poetry and dance and “cooking without a stove,” which focuses on skills and safety, flavors, and how to take raw ingredients to make tasty, balanced meals using a microwave. Homework help is also available.

200 Youth Daily

And it’s all free for the children of the community. The center has grown from serving 200 children annually in 2012 to serving that same number daily. It serves youth as young as six and as old as 18, and has seen a number of teen participants return to the center to work as adults. During the school year, doors open at 2:30 p.m. and close at 7. It hosts an all-day camp in the summer.

The center purchased its facility in 2020. The building was once an office where people reported for probation and parole, a fate Reed wants never to see for the center’s kids.

He says it is important to pay attention to kids’ influence over their peers, and try to give them a voice for themselves and other youth.

“You want strong leaders because they like to listen to each other,” he says.

Organizationally, Reeds’ Refuge has been supported in the past by a number of donors. They once were engaged in a long-term partnership with the Delaware Criminal Justice Council (CJC), but Reed is now working to replace the CJC partnership with an expanded fundraising campaign. Meanwhile, self-funding is helping to keep the doors open.

“Me and my wife own two childcare facilities, and we put a lot of money into our nonprofit,” Reed says.

Darnell Miller is an accomplished singer and musician who has performed around the world, from Africa to Spain, touring internationally with artists like Tye Tribbett, Mary Mary, Toby Mac and Eric Roberson, and appearing on the “NAACP Image Awards.” He records, produces, and performs regularly, most recently as a solo act and with his band, The Souldaires.

Miller once had intentions of moving to Nashville, but fate intervened to keep him in Delaware.

“I was approached about becoming a teaching artist,” Miller says. “I wasn’t really sold on the idea at first, but something said give it a try. It’s been about 10 years, and I’m hooked.”

He has taught music to students at the Delaware College Prep Academy and the Prestige Academy, as well as children at the West End Neighborhood House. He has experience in early childhood education and teaching music to kids ages 4 and younger, but has settled on a slightly older age group.

‘Meant to Do This’

“I ended up where I always wanted to be, at Kuumba,” Miller says. “All of this happened through Christina Cultural Arts Center [where he is chair of the music department] and Raye Jones-Avery, who brought [the idea to be a teaching artist] to my attention. Raye told me, ‘You can do this.’ Even though I was so hesitant to work with kids, within my second year, it was like I was meant to do this.”

At Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington, where Miller is a music instructor, fifth graders declare majors. He leads small instrumental and vocal ensembles of these musically-committed middle schoolers and teaches general music to grades kindergarten through fourth. Classes run approximately 50 minutes, and ensembles meet for up to 90. After school, he coaches students in voice and offers guitar instruction.

Sometimes he writes the music he wants the students to learn, but other lessons are based on a curriculum called Quaver Music. Many of the lessons focus on the whole child, and highlight the students’ strengths.

“A song that I’ve taught, ‘Unique,’ basically talks about ‘there’s only one you. You’re strong,’” Miller says. “I’ve taught ‘Flashlight’ by Jessie J and a traditional African song, ‘Fanga Alafia.’ I teach in other languages and ASL [American Sign Language].”

He says that the ages of the students dictate different approaches. While older students may learn how to write, or learn the elements of recording, younger students are learning instruments and how to play as a band.

“We may do something…to get the wiggles out and calm down,” Miller says. “But a typical day is me joking with them, trying to inspire them. But when it’s serious, it’s serious. They understand that. At the end of class, as well as throughout class, I try to reflect.

“Sometimes I’m called the grumpy uncle. I want them to understand that music is serious. Art is serious. You can bet your life on it, and it’s connected to everything.”

Regardless of the demeanor he assumes, he says he’s positive at all times. Sometimes that means developing a rapport and sense of trust with a child who seems withdrawn. Miller says that he can see students’ potential and that he “can’t help but go out of my way to invest in them and to let them know that this is something they can do.”

Using Personal Experiences

When that potential is dulled by circumstances in the child’s home or neighborhood, he talks about his personal experiences as a way to connect and inspire.

“I tell them, ‘I know your situation at home is rough. You can be the light in your home. There were times I had to be the light in my home.’”

Although he says his upbringing was “not super rough,” he says it was a music teacher who inspired him.

“That’s really what I try to do. If I see a kid who really has that light, that potential, that drive, that hunger, I try to inspire them.”

It seems to be working. Two of his summer students sing and play guitar, and are releasing a song this fall.

TAHIRA TAHIRA yes, that is her full, legal nameworks with young people as a singing, songwriting storyteller.

“I ventured out as an artist back in 1994 when my daughter was a baby,” she says. “She used to enjoy me reading and I was animated; I used to put melodies to different parts of the book, and it always engaged her more.”

TAHIRA honed her natural abilities and also pursued a degree in communication theater.

“Culturally,” she says, “I’m a member of the global majorityI’m a Black womanand music was a part of our everyday life. It’s infused in my everyday existence. And I went to school for it.”

Her storytelling comes out of the African experience and diaspora, in which she says there is no difference between storytelling and music and dance.

Although one of her daughter Imani’s first favorite books was by Ella Jenkins, a world-renowned Black artist many call “the First Lady of children’s music,” the family’s influences were diverse.

“[My daughter’s] first words were actually a song. She sang the ‘Barney’ song’.”

Many of TAHIRA’s clients are schools, and her visits typically work like hour-long assemblies. Unsurprisingly, 2020 ushered in a new format for her: virtual assemblies. They are typically live and interactive, although sometimes schools will elect to have a recording of a program, allowing them to play it on demand.

When classes were in person, students would join TAHIRA on stage with instruments.

Now, as then, the music and storytelling format allows for reciprocal activity. Students may be assigned parts, and they may be asked to make predictions in the midst of a story. “Call and response is rooted in the African American experience” she says.

She notes that she usually doesn’t have to “give kids instructions or permission to jump in,” whereas adults (although she excludes elders from the generalization), whom she performs for at festivals around the world “always need permission.”

Connections at Every Level

She performs for children in pre-k, elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as for college and senior centers, and says that there’s a way to make connections at every level.

For middle schoolers, she will perform the same content that she performs for younger kids, but in a different way. High energy performing “feels too juvenile for them,” and she reminds them of what they can contribute by saying, “You all know this.”

“I may ask them to do movements. If we can get it in a few minutes, maybe we can do our own TikTok video,” she says. “Talking about a character dancing, I’ll say, ‘He tried to do…’ and name a popular dance…and try to do it. They’re laughing at me, but they’re laughing with me.

“I’ll say, ‘Am I doing it right? Somebody show me how to do it.’”

She believes it’s the affirming content of her music and stories that helps young people realize their full potential.

A sample of her lyrics: “I’m ready to learn, my heart is open, my mind is sharp. I’m ready. I’m ready to learn.”

Students perform a physical movement for each part of the lyric, and the experience is intended to create social-emotional learning, awareness of self and connectedness with others.

“A story can change your heart and make miles seem blocks apart,” says TAHIRA. “We learn through stories; we connect.”

She says that connectedness creates a state of active listening. And active listening is important for a child’s academics.

“Music is the only thing that uses the full brain, the right and left simultaneously,” she says. “The way I perform, I have something for every type of learning: visual, kinetic, listening. It’s a space of learning and fun for kids of all abilities.”

TAHIRA’s herself has benefitted from mentors, one of whom is internationally-acclaimed storyteller and musician Charlotte Blake-Alston, who is still her mentor today. In turn, TAHIRA has mentored others.

A Thriving, Not a Starving Artist

“I’ve had artists come to me because I’ve made a career from my art, and they ask to be mentored. Maybe not in the making of art, but in the business of being an artist. I do free tips on YouTube on how to be a thriving artist and stop being a starving artist.”

She is the co-director of the National Association of Black Storytellers. Many of the organization’s 14 affiliates, including the Philadelphia organization, called Keepers of the Culture, include youth groups. TAHIRA has led workshops for the Philadelphia affiliate where young people learn the art, history and social applications of storytelling and demonstrate their learning by performing at the end of the series.

“Watching our youth embody a story to make it their own is the most rewarding part of mentoring young people,” she says.

Bernard Parker, who is artistically known as B Smithsonian, has been composing music since 2003 and has produced, directed, and edited video and music for more than 40 projects, ranging from corporations to athletics to other artists.

He produced the theme music for the Villanova Wildcats sports program, a song that’s been played to introduce the team at the Wells Fargo Center. He also created a song for the Philadelphia 76ers warm up period.

In 2019, he formed his business, known as The Institution, focusing on audio and video productions, weddings, deejaying and composition.

Today, he inspires young people as the music program director at the Boys and Girls Club.

“I want kids to make the songs that they want to make,” Parker says. “They make songs, they make beats, and we post them on Spotify.”

Parker’s music setup includes six mobile studio workstations, with a build that is based on a guitar pedal board. There is an interface for plugging in a microphone, a keyboard, and a drum machine, all powered by portable chargers.

“Their finished beat is the same as what they’d get from a professional with a mobile workstation,” Parker says

Parker’s Maverick Music Program targets kids ages 13 to 18. Most recently, it was for participants in the club’s Wilmington summer camp, but the program will expand to William Penn High School this fall, as well as continuing after school at two Boys and Girls Club sites, the Greater Newark location and H. Fletcher Brown at 16th and Spruce in Wilmington. All for free.

“For summer camp, the program could only accommodate up to nine kids,” Parker says. “When school starts, we will be able to accommodate nine to 12 kids. One person can write lyrics and you can plug up to five headphones into one mobile workstation.”

At the end of a seven-week program, students will be able to perform their songs in an open mic or talent show format. At the time of the interview, the summer camp students were preparing their songs for uploading to Spotify and Apple.

Parker believes he stands out from other music teachers because of his professional background.

“I am actually in the industry that I’m teaching,” Parker says. “I’ve worked with celebrities, Citibank, Villanova. When I tell them, ‘This is what you need to do,’ they know to listen to me because I am practicing what I am teaching.”

He seems to have the heart of a teacher.

“Before I worked with the Boys and Girls Club, the only thing I got back from any gig was money, and that goes away every month,” Parker says. “Here, the kids give something back to me.”

Richard A. Watson Jr. is the program director for the Culture Restoration Project and lead facilitator of the organization’s Beyond Those Bars music program. Many people know him as Richard Raw, thanks to his regular top billing on regional hip-hop events.

“Music has always been in my family,” Watson says. “When we moved from the west side to the north side, the way that we acclimated into the community was through music.”

Watson says that around the time hip-hop became a worldwide phenomenon, he started his musical journey. He says he fell in love with music around age 6 or 7, and immediately started writing.

Teaching came later.

“I was working some dead end jobs,” he says. “I was just trying to figure out what is my passion and what is my talent. I’ve always had a way of sharing with others. I take what I’m passionate about and what I’m talented at and merge those two. And that gave me the ability to become a teaching artist.”

Watson started by getting involved with after-school programs, where he found the children were heavily engaged. These days, he’s juggling his successful programming while pursuing more formal education training.

Through the Culture Restoration Project, which operates out of various sites in Wilmington, Watson conducts a one-on-one teen artist development program as well as group programming.

“A day with me would be sitting down and creating a production; they would actually make a beat,” he says. “They would sit with one of our producers and talk about the creation of music and show them how to make the beats with the technology.

“From there, we’ll move them into the writing process. So then they’ll actually sit down and come up with ideas about song creation. Then we’ll move to lyrics…then we’ll go into the rhythm. How are we going to say this? Voice inflection. From there we’ll probably do some vocal recording.”

He sometimes works with a student for five to six hours straight. His program — which does have a structured curriculum — can work with up to 15 kids at a time, but for larger groups he works with the students for 60-90 minutes. Some schools and centers call for 12-week programs, and some can go the duration of a school year. Typically, he works with kids ages 12 to 18.

Watson prefers to deliver a program for free, which means his organization needs school contracts or public or private grants to cover the costs.

Deep Dives

While the kids he teaches may have stardom in their minds, Watson is influencing them in ways they may not realize. He guides them toward deep dives into subject matter.

“The children have agency,” he says. “They’ll come up with ideas in terms of what a song will be about. Then they’ll move into doing research.

“Let’s say poverty, for instance. We’ll actually start to look at statistics for their neighborhood. If they’re writing a verse, we’ll suggest that they use that research in their verse.”

He says his program often includes children who are gang members, and kids actively involved in other risky situations, and it offers them an opportunity to express themselves through music.

“Some of them have walked away from that life,” Watson says. “Those kids need an outlet, and they need an investment. If you make it, they’re so passionate, they’ll leave that alone and get focused.”

Not every turnaround is a gang redemption story. Some of Watson’s students bring ordinary teen challenges to the table.

“We work on confidence, communication and character development,” he says. “We’ve had students whose parents come back to us saying their child benefited so much from this.”

A few students have stood out.

“We have three of our interns who came to us when they were 14 or 15,” he says. “All three of the interns we had are in college at this point. They were having challenges and pursued careers in music and college. We offer them employment for the summer.”

Watson isn’t afraid to share the spotlight with young talent. Of a recent performance for the Curbside Wilmington outdoor happy hour initiative, he says, “Last night, it was packed. I had a show and I let the young people take over the show and perform.

“We’ve got so many young people getting ready to release albums under our tutelage.”