Growing the Next Crop of New Orleans Musicians with Business Know-How
There are so many great musicians in New Orleans that one might think they grow here organically, like the jasmine or the sweet olive.
Not true. While the city’s vibrant musical culture certainly provides a nurturing environment, the answer to the question, “How do you get to Tipitina’s?” remains: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Of course, the path to musical success is much more involved than that. For many young people in New Orleans, that path is paved by The Roots of Music, a 15-year-old nonprofit organization that provides music education and mentorship, as well as academic support, instruments and even some hot meals along the way.
“We’re training the next generation of New Orleans musicians,” said Executive Director Suzanne Raether.
The Roots of Music traces its own roots back to the post-Katrina era. The organization was co-founded by Derrick Tabb, snare drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band, who observed that few youth programs were coming back after the flooding. To help, he started up a small-scale drum camp, which in its first week drew five times the number of aspiring young percussionists he had anticipated.
From this base, the organization expanded to offer multiple programs. Most visible is the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders band, a full-size marching band that performs in numerous Mardi Gras parades each year. The Marching Crusaders have also performed for former president Barack Obama and at the inauguration of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, as well as at festivals such as Essence and Satchmo. The band has travelled as far as Normandy and Amsterdam to entertain audiences.
For younger children, the Sprouts of Music program introduces them to the instruments and begins teaching them the basics of performance, reading music and similar early aspects of musicianship. For older children who want to take a deeper dive into music, there is the Roots Academy.
“The Academy focuses on the production and technical side of music,” explained Raether,” and also on the business side. They learn everything from financial literacy to how to write a business plan, everything you would need to know in order to run a sound studio.”
This approach is vital to the future of the music business in New Orleans. While talent in the region is unparalleled, the business infrastructure to support that talent has long lagged behind, forcing many local musicians to go elsewhere in search of professional success.
The Roots of Music has a particular focus on children from low-income households, and employs a wholistic approach to support its participants. This includes providing transportation to tutoring and practice sessions, underlying mentoring and academic support, hot meals during the day, and the instruments most of the participants use. Growing from that initial drum camp, the programs now serve approximately 200 young people per year – until the latest epic disaster to hit New Orleans, the COVID pandemic.
“Music education is a very human and intimate, one-on-one experience,” Raether said. While the music classes, like everything else on the planet, went virtual, Raether said the situation is far from ideal. “It’s been rough. Imagine trying to learn the drums, get that one note right on your clarinet. Zoom just doesn’t really work for music.”
Raether added that “the pandemic overall has been very tough on kids, so we’ve tried to keep them connected to their teachers just on a personal level — tried to nourish them in every possible way.”
The organization went so far as to have the instructors meet their students at the children’s houses, sitting outside and tutoring them from 20 feet away. Phone calls and Google Classrooms were also employed.
“We really wanted to maintain at least one interaction per week with the instructors,” said Raether.
As restrictions eased, the marching band regrouped section by section, with the full band finally getting back together at the beginning of summer – just in time for the latest virus spike, which is forcing the organization to pull back, hopefully just for the short term.
Ultimately, The Roots of Music intends to sustain and grow its role in advancing opportunities for low-income youths to thrive in the world of music.
“It’s really important that we continue to invest in the future of New Orleans and our musical culture,” Raether said. “It’s how we heal, how we celebrate, who we are.”