Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Real-life 'Drumline' playing at Taft


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In last year's hit movie Drumline, a talented inner-city kid gets a scholarship to college as marching band drummer. But he has to overcome a handicap - he never learned to read music.

Cincinnati has its own version of Drumline. And it's better than the movie.

Anthony G. Smith was one of nine children raised by his mother in the Laurel Homes projects.

His mother always told him that her children were going to college.

They'd find a way.

Smith found his way. As a freshman, he tried out for Taft's drum line.

Drum lines are the heartbeat of many predominantly black high schools and colleges. Leading the marching band, these snare, tenor, quad and bass drums provide the pulse of a school's spirit.

It's attitude. Drummers don't just play rhythms; they dance, stomp, swing and spin their sticks, drums, arms and heads.

So you can't just listen to them; you have to watch.

Smith climbed an empty auditorium stage, approached the microphone and snare drum, and played the unfamiliar music on a sheet in front of him.

He got in. In later years he'd compete with bandmates - just like in Drumline - to keep his place on the line and later become its leader. He'd also win a college scholarship.

Eighteen years later, Smith, a teacher, licensed social worker and principal, returned to what is now Taft Information Technology High School.

He resurrected its academics and sports programs. But he put the drumbeat in back of his mind - for a while.

Now, Cincinnati Bell and others have raised $100,000 for new drums and percussion instruments at Taft.

Fifty-eight students signed up, but only 27 can be accommodated.

There are other obstacles. Smith learned to read music in middle school. But Cincinnati Public Schools later dropped that instruction in most schools.

Like the young hero in Drumline, these kids can't read music, he said.

"They've never played an instrument before."

Every morning, an hour before school starts, the kids and Mr. Smith take the stage.

In three weeks, they've learned six cadences, complete with choreography. Taft's drum line performs tonight at the school's Open House. Its official debut is at a football game Sept. 26. And it will honor its donors at a homecoming parade and party Oct. 10.

It was never a question of talent.

Impromptu drumming sessions were part of lunchtime in the cafeteria and disruptions in the school's library.

Vonitia "Nish" Wise, 17, was one of those drummers without sticks.

"I'm so happy we've got a drum line," said the senior. "We're in the lunchroom always making beats with our hands, which are totally different than with drums."

To stay on the drum line, each kid must show commitment. If one is late, he or she has to strap on his or her instrument for the entire practice, while the others play on stands.

One boy who was late to middle school 52 times last year is on time for practice, Smith said.

"It creates a different spirit in the school, a sense of pride in who you are and what you can do," he said.

No question.

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E-mail damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395




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