One man’s determination to bring music to Kansas City’s youth

By Lindsey Mayfield

At 10 years old, Darryl Chamberlain (B.A. ’15, ’16) walked to school composing music in his head. Not the jazz or blues music he was used to hearing, but orchestral music. Despite having no formal training and no instruments in his home, the music still came to him at an early age.

Now, more than 40 years later, Chamberlain is actually composing some of those melodies for the Kansas City children in his A-Flat Youth Orchestra. Since its creation, Chamberlain has helped more than 200 students learn to play instruments, many of whom wouldn’t have had access to music lessons otherwise.

Chamberlain’s journey from 10-year-old sidewalk composer to volunteer orchestra director is an unlikely one, made possible through remarkable hard work and tenacity.

Two first loves: music and reading 

One of Chamberlain’s defining life moments came when he was just a kindergartener. A teacher brought an opera record to class. Six-year-old Chamberlain was moved in a way he had never experienced. And though he doesn’t remember the exact composition, he remembers vividly how it made him feel.

“That music touched my soul to my core. It changed me,” he says. “I wish that teacher was still alive so I could tell her how much it meant to me.”

Chamberlain may not have had access to lessons or even an instrument, but he did have one important advantage: a mother who loved music and encouraged him to love it too.

He grew up listening to records with his mom — mostly country and western, he says, since that’s what they enjoyed watching on TV at the time, but also jazz, gospel and instrumental. Standout favorites included Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” and anything by Mahalia Jackson.

Chamberlain’s mother had always wanted to play an instrument and at one point enrolled in a mail-order piano course. But without a piano in the house, she didn’t get very far. Her investment didn’t go to waste, however. Chamberlain read the course cover-to-cover, gaining a basic understanding of music theory.

It would be another decade before he picked up his first instrument, but Chamberlain says it didn’t matter. His mother may not have been able to give him music lessons, but she gave him something much more valuable — a gift that would last a lifetime and change him into the man he is today.

“The thing my mother gave me that was most important was a love of reading. In our house there was everything you could ever want to read,” he says. “In eighth grade, I used to skip lunch and go to the library and read. I bet that librarian wonders where that strange kid ended up.”

A winding road to music (and back)

At 17, Chamberlain begin attending a church full of energetic young people like himself. The church had a youth choir Chamberlain longed to join, but he didn’t know how to sing or play an instrument.

Instead, he hung around the choir practices and one day noticed a guitar leaning in a corner. With a few minutes’ instruction from the bass guitarist and the devoted study of a Mel Bay guitar book, Chamberlain taught himself how to play.

Then, another stroke of luck: The church needed a place to store their piano after a storm, and Chamberlain’s house was nearby. A few months later, and Chamberlain had taught himself piano, too.

Over the next few decades, Chamberlain continued to learn and teach music while he, as he puts it, “created a life.” He got married, worked as an auto mechanic, earned an associate’s degree from the Electronics Institute and got a job at Texas Instruments.

The degree in electronics is a special point of pride for Chamberlain, who for years lagged far behind grade-level in math. Because he was such a gifted reader, his issues with math weren’t always noticed in school. By eighth grade, Chamberlain says, “I was sure I was stupid,” and he barely graduated from high school.

So when he started his degree in electronics, he had to start with beginner’s algebra, earning no credit, then work his way up to college-level algebra. How did he manage it? The same way he learned the guitar — asking someone to help him. At the time, he was working in food service for St. Luke’s Hospital and recruited someone in the financial department to help him understand the mathematical equations.

Today, he understands the strong correlation between math and music.

“We don’t think of music as being mathematical, but it is,” Chamberlain says.“Everything should line up correctly as you work through the score, and many of the instruments have to play in different keys to sound good together, otherwise you’ve got chaos.”

Community need becomes personal mission

In 2004, Chamberlain moved back to Kansas City from Texas and found himself at the American Royal Parade. When he had left Kansas City back in the 1980s, the parade had been full of Kansas City high school bands. By the early 2000s, he was concerned to see none performing. He started talking to educators in the area and discovered the need for music education was great, but funding wasn’t always available.

In 2005, Chamberlain decided to create a youth orchestra for kids who might not have access to music otherwise. He began buying instruments for his project, which has now become as the A-Flat Youth Orchestra.

Chamberlain purchased most of the instruments out of his own pocket, starting with just the money he earned playing piano at a local church. He was a familiar face at local pawn shops and spent hours searching listings on eBay and newspaper classifieds, looking for any instrument that looked playable (or at least fixable).

Today, the orchestra owns enough instruments to outfit two-and-a-half concert bands. Bassoons, violins, cellos, guitars, flutes, drums and more, are all owned by A-Flat Music Studio, Inc. and loaned or rented to students who want to play music. Recently, a woman saw
a Kansas City Star story about the orchestra and donated a harp.

On Saturdays, the instruments show up in places like the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, in the hands of dozens of young people, many of whom wouldn’t have had access to an instrument elsewhere. More than 30 students play in the orchestra, ranging in age from seven to 19. Chamberlain has recruited five other teachers to help instruct various sections.

Chamberlain’s motto? “There will not be a child in this city who wants to study music but can’t because money is an issue.”

Chamberlain’s love for teaching is apparent. It’s part of what led him to UMKC in 2009, eventually earning two bachelor’s degrees: one in secondary education–social sciences and another in history. His studies at UMKC were a natural fit, he says, giving him access
to formal education in the areas of art, history and teaching that he’s informally enjoyed his entire life.

The power of giving kids a chance

When asked about the particularly memorable moments from his 14 years directing the orchestra, a few come to mind, Chamberlain says: The day a student who had been struggling blurted out, “I’m doing it! I’m actually reading!” Receiving an invitation to a graduation party for one of his students who had earned her M.D. Seeing the students play at the Kauffman Center in bow ties.

Once, a young man asked him why he “dresses up” for rehearsal. Chamberlain explained to him, “I dress up for you, because it’s the kind of respect I want to extend to you. I want you to know you’re worth it.”  The next week, that same student came to class in slacks and shiny dress shoes, looking, as Chamberlain put it, “like a million bucks.”

It’s all part of his teaching method, exposing students to sights and sounds they might not experience anywhere else.

“I might be in the middle of class and decide to sing a line from Ave Maria or recite a poem,” he says. “I think it’s important for kids to see a black man recite a poem, because I hope they see some of themselves in me.”

He recalls another time when a student who, after learning to play the timpani, told her grandmother, “I think I finally found something I can be good at.” Chamberlain was moved.

“The ‘finally’ part was what caught my attention,” he says. “‘Finally’ means you’ve been looking for something, and that’s what I was in eighth grade — looking for something to be good at.”

Now, that girl is the orchestra’s chief timpanist and, as Chamberlain puts it, “a totally different person.” Just like the young boy composing music on his way to school back in the 1960s, she’s found a home in music that, with any luck, will last her a lifetime.

The important thing, Chamberlain says, is giving kids a chance. Because if we can teach music, we can also teach discipline, character, tenacity, all those little things that make a person — and a community — great. In the process, you might help a child discover a part of themselves they didn’t know existed.

“There are among us Beethovens and Bachs and Mozarts and Schuberts and Schumanns and so many more,” Chamberlain says. “They are among us, and sometimes they get a chance to surface, because they came from a community that supported music and allowed them to grow.”

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