Flying High with Low Brass

Images captured during production of the Early Light Media documentary film about Richard Antoine White R.A.W. directed by Darren Durlach and David Larson. Image by John Waire.

By Leslie D. Green

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Clothing and a safe place to sleep once were just dreams to Richard White. His earliest memories include being homeless , scrounging for food and running barefoot on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland.

“I would knock on a door and (people) would give me a sandwich,” said White, 46, now a professional musician. “They knew my mom was an alcoholic and that I was the snot-nosed kid running around with no shoes.”

During a snowstorm one winter when he was 4, White recalls crawling into an entryway to stay warm and then waking up with blankets and cup of hot tea. Strangers had found him. The authorities eventually found his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain, who took him into their care.

Yet, White wasn’t comfortable in his new surroundings. He didn’t trust the people he thought took him from his mother.

White would eat half a sandwich and put the other half in his pocket, just in case food would be scarce later. And he wouldn’t talk with the McClains, except to mutter a few polite remarks, like “Hello and goodbye,” as necessary.

Little did his foster parents know when they gave 9-year-old White a trumpet, that they also were giving him access to a healthier, happier future.

“I believe that magic is real in the imagination,” White said. “I had to imagine a warm blanket and full tummy. But without music, I don’t have my magic wand. Music gave me the ability to change my own life.”

Today, White is also a principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Early Light Media is making White’s life story into a documentary film called “R.A.W. Tuba.”

It’s a turn-around story worth knowing. And telling.

As a young student, White decided there were too many trumpet players at school, and he wanted to stand out. So, he picked up the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family. His teacher, Mr. Burns, rewrote songs for him to play and Mr. Burns gave him rides home from school on Fridays — so he could practice with the school sousaphone over the weekend. On Monday mornings, Mr. Burns would pick up White, and the bulky and heavy brass instrument, for the ride to school.

At the time, White thought his hope for the future would be a career as a carpenter or football player. But kids in his neighborhood saw a different future for him.

“I tried to hang out on the basketball court with the drug dealers, but they would say, ‘Shorty, go home and play the bugle,'” White said. “Even they were cognizant enough to know I might have a future.”

Then, White, who was going to vocational tech school, broke his hip on the football field and doctors said he might not be able to play the sport anymore. With crutches in hand and a sousaphone wrapped around him, White headed to the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“I literally just showed up at the school and said, ‘Yo, I’m here to audition.’ But Chris Dr. Ford (the current director at the BSFA), told me, ‘Auditions were yesterday.'”

Impressed by White’s hunger to learn, Chris admitted him.

“I would leave my house at 6 a.m. and practice every day before school,” White said. “I thought somebody’s going to pay me to do this.” And White began talking to his family.

He worked even harder in college at Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied with David Fedderly, then principal tubist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me there,” White said. “The dean saw that I was having trouble and started having meetings with me. He took diversity seriously.”

The McClains sent him $200 a month, religiously.

“It was a sacrifice,” White said. “They were proud. I was the first in the family to go to college.” White added he also worked a job while going to the Peabody Conservatory.

School was incredibly difficult, White said. He still used poor grammar, didn’t have a typewriter or a computer to write papers and didn’t understand, at first, how students knew the music before going to class.

“The teacher said I was missing so much, but he knew I could do it,” White said. “He knew I could take it. After every lesson, I would walk down the steps and cry.”

Under the pressures of school and work, White decided to quit his job and just focus on his music. He shared his plan with his professor.

“He told me he would fail me if I quit,” White said. “He told me to figure it out and learn to be disciplined.”

White endured and graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. From there, he attended Indiana University Jacob School of Music and eventually became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Music in Tuba Performance, then taught at New Mexico School for the Arts. Today, in addition to performing globally, White is associate professor of Tuba/Euphonium and associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs ( and low brass specialist with the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs).

However, learning tuba didn’t just provide White with professional skills and opportunities. Music introduced him to someone he never thought he’d meet.

During a concert one afternoon, a man stood up and began thanking everyone who taught White how to play tuba. The man was White’s birth father, and it was the first time White had seen him.

“I ran off the stage and hugged him and had to go back to play,” White said.

White said his story is an example of why the arts matter. “Music gave me the ability to change my own life,” he said. “Now, I change other people’s lives.”

The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

‘Music Helps Me Engage’

Composer and trumpeter Kurton Harrison III plays the "Rising Stars Series with Sean Dobbins" in the Kerrytown concert House.Photo by Jeff Dunn

By Leslie D. Green

Songs are not minor in trumpeter’s life

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Diagnosed at age 5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Kurton Harrison III keeps defying expectations.

Rather than talk, Harrison pointed, pushed and developed his own sounds to communicate. He didn’t make eye contact and was so sensitive to some sounds and touch that he would physically respond in a negative way. Even warm water provoked a burning sensation for Harrison.

As a result, his doctor said Harrison would probably have to live in a group home.

The devastating outlook made his mother, LaJuana Harrison, cry. It also compelled her to act. She knew her son was capable of so much more.

“I would say, ‘We have to train him to do what we need him to do,'” Ms. Harrison said. “I would look in his eyes and say, ‘I know he’s in there.'”

To help him associate words with his world, LaJuana Harrison used Post-It notes to write down the names of every item in their house. She stuck them where her son would see them. Then she, her husband, and her mother dedicated nearly a year to instructing him to speak.

“If he wanted it, he had to touch it and say it before we would do it,” Ms. Harrison said.

Once Kurton Harrison started speaking, they made him spell the words before they would respond. Eventually, he started to string words together, though not always in the right order.

One day, shortly after they arrived at a family friend’s home, 6-year-old Kurton pulled himself up to the friend’s piano and started playing “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys. He had just heard the song on the car’s radio during the drive.

While Harrison’s mom was freaking out about her son bothering someone else’s property, her friend told her to stop and listen.

“He barely spoke, but he was playing this song,” LaJuana Harrison said. “I went out and bought a $700 keyboard and got fussed at. But it paid off in the long run. He played everything he heard.”

Then her son asked for a trumpet.

Pleased with his progress, his parents rented him a trumpet and enrolled him in the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. Still, Harrison’s grades were poor and he would only talk if the subject was about music. He got into fights with bullies.

His mother told him the trumpet and keyboard were going to go if he didn’t stop fighting and improve his grades. Then, when he reached 7th grade, they encountered another issue.

“The music teacher said they could no longer work with him because his skills were too great,” Ms. Harrison said. “They wanted him to go to MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D).”

Operated by Michigan State University, CMS-D, an independent affiliate of Michigan State University, provides more than 60 music classes and music therapy for students of all ages, skills and incomes.

His mother enrolled him in CMS-D’s Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp. When she picked him up, she found a different kid.

“Kurton was so friendly there,” Ms. Harrison said. “He would walk into CMS with his trumpet, knowing he could play anything he wanted there, even the snare drums. Now you have a kid who can sit in a circle with these other kids and talk about music. Now he can talk about what he saw on TV because the music opened the door for him.”

Kurton Harrison said that he didn’t feel as if he had an opportunity to talk with people before AMP Camp. “Music helps me engage,” Kurton said.

“Before I participated in the camp, people picked on me and teased me because I am different from everybody else,” Kurton said. “Meeting more people that are engaged with what I want to do made me able to have a conversation. They are open to each other. Networking with other musicians is easier than talking with classmates who aren’t in your industry.”

Most teachers were willing to just pass Harrison to the next grade or class without challenging him because of his diagnosis, his mother said. However, his grades increased from Cs and Ds to As and Bs, landing him in the National Honor Society because of his participation in CMS-D.

CMS-D also helped get Harrison in the Detroit School of the Arts high school and in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, which are all within walking distance of each other. As a result of these musical connections, Kurton would perform his own composition at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Doctors once didn’t think it possible, but Kurton Harrison received his high school diploma in June. What’s more, rather than living in a group home, he will be living in a college dorm this fall.

Harrison was awarded a full ride – a $73,000 a year scholarship — to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to play trumpet as his primary instrument. He also plays piano, bass guitar, and most horns. Plus, he composes jazz, classical, orchestral, big band, and modern music.

“I can’t say where he would have been if it hadn’t been for that MSU program,” Ms. Harrison said. “I don’t think he would have grown like this without the music. Put an instrument in their hands and their minds will wake up.”

About Autism

• Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that usually appears before age 3

• Autism affects 1 in 59 children

• Autism effects the normal development of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function

• More than half of children diagnosed with autism are classified as having an intellectual disability or borderline intellectual disability

• 40% of children with autism do not speak

• 25%-30% of children with autism have some words at 12-18 months of age but lose them

• No two people with autism are alike

• Children with autism can progress but early intervention is key

Source: National Autism Association


This story was originally published on The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

Keeping neighborhoods safer, healthier

Genevive Meeks was 19 when AmeriCorps members began boarding up abandoned homes in her Detroit neighborhood.

“There were open holes where there was a lot of drug trafficking,” she says.

Afterward, she says the neighborhood felt different. “I know the kids felt safer going to school. It wasn’t just every person for themselves anymore.”

While working on her street, a volunteer told Meeks about Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies and its AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program. Meeks joined the one-year program. Now 22, she has renewed her commitment twice.

The AmeriCorps safety program is just one of many at the Center for Urban Studies. The center, which collects and disseminates data related to urban policy in metro Detroit, seeks not only to understand the challenges urban areas face — such as health and safety — but also to test and implement programs that can alleviate those challenges. WSU created the center in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot.

“We are a research center, but we also experiment and try to figure out what programs are effective. Then we seek to intervene and help the communities of Detroit,” explains Lyke Thompson, director for the center and professor in WSU’s Department of Political Science.

With a federal grant, the center started the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program to reduce susceptibility to criminal activity in Detroit’s communities. More than 100 AmeriCorps members, like Meeks, create block clubs, expand or establish neighborhood patrols, clean up lots, and board vacant homes.

“A lot is education. A lot is intervention. Criminals often case houses before they try to break in, and we try to educate people and give them tools to make it harder,” Thompson says.

Meeks enjoys interacting with the police as they assess residents’ homes and, if necessary, install deadbolt locks and battery-operated alarms on their doors and windows.

“I never thought about how some people didn’t have locks and stayed up all night worrying that someone might break in,” she says.

As part of the Detroit Fire Prevention and Safety Project, Center for Urban Studies volunteers install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in homes and educate residents on ways to reduce their risk of a house fire. In addition to crime prevention, the center is heavily involved in Detroit’s crime-fighting efforts.

Thompson says they began working with the WSU and Detroit police departments about nine years ago to create a model for patrolling neighborhoods. The center facilitated meetings between police agencies, community organizations and businesses to get a handle on crime in Midtown.

As a result, Thompson says, crime in the area has decreased 55 to 60 percent.

WSU implemented the model in the city’s 11 police precincts, where the center facilitates monthly meetings with precinct officers, businesses, community leaders and the Department of Corrections to examine strategies and tactics to fight crime specific to those neighborhoods. Every two weeks, the center holds crime-mapping and analysis meetings with commanders and captains who focus on solving one or two tough issues.

Raising awareness of health issues

Even more powerful than volunteering with the center’s public safety programs is working with its healthy homes programs, says Meeks.

A large number of illnesses, injuries and deaths are caused by deteriorating housing conditions. So, the Center for Urban Studies is working with HUD and other partners to identify dangerous homes. That includes looking for homes with pest, water and lead problems.

A healthy homes assessment indicates 17 percent of kids living in the 48214 ZIP code have lead poisoning, for instance.

“If residents have kids in the house, we refer them to programs that can help them abate the lead and urge them to take the child to a primary care physician or to the health department for testing so they can get the lead levels down in the child as soon as possible,” Thompson says.

Because Detroit has one of the worst problems with asthma of any city in the country, his group is working in southwest Detroit to reduce asthma and related conditions by helping families control pests and get new roofs on old houses so they don’t leak and grow mold. The center has already assessed about 2,200 houses this year.

“I always wanted to make the community better,” Meeks says. “You have to make a change to see a change.” Still, she’s surprised by how much she and the city’s residents have grown since she started volunteering with the Center for Urban Studies.

“Being a part of this empowers me and seems to have a positive effect on the people we encounter. Being part of this has helped me also see the growth of Detroit, how it’s changing for the better and how people are trying to make a difference.”

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for Wayne State University.

Jazz hands: Connecting with kids with math and care

The day starts with breakfast, though that’s not what gets the kids going. Enthusiastic hugs, high fives and groan-worthy riddles set the tone as staff celebrate the students and one another during morning assembly.

No one needs to tell them when it’s time to sit and listen. They just do. That’s because they know math isn’t the focus of Math Corps, a 25-year-old, tuition-free, six-week summer mentoring and enrichment program for Detroit students.

Professor Steve Kahn, director for Wayne State University’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, started WSU Math Corps with Leonard Boehm, who also teaches discovery classes in advanced math to fifth- through eighth-grade Detroit students.

“This is a program that tries to make a difference for kids in Detroit,” Kahn says.

The difference is that the core curriculum involves teaching kids that they matter.

“It’s largely a social justice program. We started with the notion that it’s about loving and believing in kids. The kids learn they will get a different vision, one where kindness rules and where you love and support one another. Then we want them to be healthy, and then we want them to have fun,” Kahn says.

“A central part of the Math Corps is humor. There are kids who come to us who need to smile right now, today. And then,” Kahn adds, “since we’re mathematicians, we also teach them math.”

With a credo of kindness, courage and integrity, Math Corps serves 400 students — 120 seventh- through ninth-graders and 80 high schoolers (10th through 12th graders) at all math levels. Proof that the program works is in comparing the pre- and post-exams: students average 30 percent in their pre-tests; after the six-week summer program, they average 90 percent.

In 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded Math Corps nearly $3 million to replicate its summer program nationwide.

“Soon, Math Corps will serve all kids in need,” Kahn says.

Albert Einstein had it right

At a recent Math Corps morning assembly, Kahn reads a letter from a visitor praising the program. “They came to see you. You are the show,” he says.

Silently, the kids raise their hands and wiggle their fingers.

Jazz hands.

He continues: “We just got (New York Life Foundation’s Excellence in Summer Learning Award) one of the biggest awards in the country because of you, and six of the foremost educators in the country interviewed me about you!”

Again, jazz hands.

In a sort of roll call, Kahn calls out each team. Sometimes the team members respond in unison, sometimes one student gets up and tells a joke. Instead of laughing out loud, many of the kids mime belly laughter and put their hands above their head, indicating the joke is funny.

Then, Professor Boehm stands up. The kids turn to the back of the room to look at him, clearly intrigued by what he might say. He tells them Albert Einstein was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, he tells them about the speed of light, and he asks them to read a quote aloud.

“You never fail until you stop trying,” the kids chant.

In celebration mode, Kahn calls each team by number and either a college-aged team leader or a student announces the team’s success in finishing homework or conquering an assignment.

One student struggles to read his list.

There is no snickering or sign of impatience among the 11 to 18 year olds. Instead, like referees placing both of their hands in front and moving them in a circle to signal a basketball player is traveling, they all rotate their arms in a circle. This isn’t criticism. It’s the students’ way of saying “keep going, we’re with you, you can do this.”

Finally, the child finishes.

Jazz hands.

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for Wayne State University.

Empowering educators to build a stronger, smarter future

Despite being one of the most powerful countries in the world, the United States doesn’t rank in the top five for literacy.

In fact, according to some studies, the U.S. doesn’t rank in the top 25 for literacy based on the population. Finland, Armenia and Norway rank higher, and students in Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore test better. In the U.S. alone, 30 million adults — nearly 12 percent of the population — are illiterate, meaning they are reading below fifth-grade level.

Marcie Craig Post believes that won’t change until government and industry leaders start treating reading as a basic right and teachers with more respect. The executive director of the International Literacy Association in Newark, Del., says the ability to read “should be a fundamental right.”

Originally published on

Craig Post’s global advocacy group is comprised of educators from nearly 90 countries looking to completely eradicate illiteracy in the world. ILA programs include professional development strategies aimed at pinpointing the best method for teaching students to read and comprehend.

Craig Post started her career working with students with learning disabilities. After 12 years, she ran the school where she worked in Rochester, N.Y., for another 10 years.

Part of her job now is analyzing what works and what doesn’t.

Finland works, she said, because teaching is highly competitive and only the best students get into teaching schools. Moreover, parents value both education and the field of education.

South Korea, she said, has made remarkable gains in improving literacy because the government recognizes the importance of education for young people.

“There’s a general cultural attitude there that for you to succeed you need to be educated,” she added, pointing out that’s not always the case in the United States.

She said there are a variety of issues. Most of them involve kids not accessing traditional forms of education in this country because low-income rural areas and urban communities have difficulty attracting and maintaining quality teachers, a problem compounded by the large number of students that teachers have in their classrooms.

In light of proposed federal budget changes, Craig Post has been spending time talking to senators and congressmen and women about the way we as a culture view education from a family and community standpoint and a funding and government standpoint.

“There are plenty of states sinking billions of dollars into educating the kids,” she said. “Until we value educators and put them on par with doctors or lawyers, and we see the role of the teacher differently, until we consider the intensity of the job they do, we will have the difficulty forever of creating equitable balance of educating all kids.”


She said the proposed federal budget threatens to cut national Title 2 funding, which covers the cost of conferences and actual professional development for teachers.

“It’s a weaning away of our ability to develop quality teachers. Until teaching becomes a competitive field and producing quality teachers because important, we’re going to struggle to punch into the literacy rate all over the world.”

Still, she says it’s not all about education.

Looking at what’s happening outside the classroom is as important as what’s happening in the classroom. “If (kids) come to school and they don’t have food in their belly, clothes on their back and they don’t feel safe, the ability for a teacher to teach them is extremely limited,” Craig Post said. “We’ve got to address this through community development and economic develop. It’s a community system and economic system.”

Read more in this series:

Turning the page: Nonprofits, companies join to lift kids through reading programs

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