A Slam Dunk Ensemble In one Detroit school students are learning music in a unique way thanks to an assist from the Detroit Pistons

“What’s a tempo?,” Darell “Red” Campbell asks his Detroit Pistons Bucket Band students, perched atop his bucket at Spain Elementary-Middle School. The students offer up a variety of responses, and after they land on the correct definition — “how fast or slow something is” — he points his drum sticks at each student in turn, prompting each to repeat the definition. The students quickly answer, paying close attention to their charismatic leader in Nike Air Jordan high tops.

In partnership with the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), the DSO’s Civic Youth Ensembles (CYE) has launched a bucket band this fall that will include 15 to 20 Spain Elementary students in its inaugural year. The partnership includes provision of instruments and music instruction, plus future performances at Orchestra Hall, trips to Pistons games, and, potentially, some interaction with Pistons players.

“Music is a powerful way to reach kids and inspire their creativity,” said Detroit Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem. “We are pleased to help support the creation of the new bucket band and hope it galvanizes a passion for music that leads to even greater achievement. I can’t wait to see them perform this season.”

Red’s goal as a bucket band instructor is to enable kids to see what they’re capable of, something he learned himself as an inaugural student in the Civic Jazz Ensemble in 1998.

“CYE takes kids and teaches them to play at a professional level,” he says. “It’s an incredible transition to experience. Playing buckets takes teamwork, and the rapid improvisation it requires encourages elastic thinking—thinking on your feet—which is invaluable in life.”

A multi-instrumentalist who splits his time gigging around Detroit and teaching in the DSO’s Civic Jazz program, Red is thrilled to be the first bucket band instructor: “I love the musical ingenuity. People have been playing music on creative instruments and buckets for a long time. Remember Fat Albert’s bucket band in the ‘70s? There’s a guy downtown who makes his living out on the sidewalk with two buckets, two cymbals, and sticks. I’m not going to lie: I’ve joined him before! I’ve been playing buckets since I was a baby, and now I’m teaching kids how to do it.”

Accessibility is a key component of the DSO’s plans to expand its music training programs to include this bucket band. No prior training is required to play a bucket, though students will also learn how to read music notation, and gain basic musicianship skills, such as following a conductor, which will prepare them to join more advanced orchestral or jazz ensembles as their skills develop.

Unlike most CYE programs, which take place at the Max, the Pistons Bucket Band will be taught at the kids’ school, providing another level of access to students who may not otherwise be able to participate.

The DSO’s commitment to providing music training programs in DPSCD schools began in 2017 with the launch of the Dresner Foundation Allegro Ensemble, for entry-level violinists in the third grade at DPSCD’s Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art. This partnership has enabled the DSO to instruct 61 students and is completely free of charge for participants, including instruction, instruments, and administrative support to recruit students and host auditions at local schools.

Students who play in either the Dresner Foundation Allegro Ensemble or Detroit Pistons Bucket Band are guaranteed scholarships if they wish to continue their training in more advanced ensembles.

Tina Rowan, Executive Director of Accent Pontiac, an El Sistema-inspired music program that uses music as a vehicle for social change, says that teachers report improved behavior and test scores by students who play in their program, which includes a bucket band in the Pontiac Public School System.

Rowan believes buckets are a unique vehicle for teaching musicianship because of their accessibility: “Buckets are an immediate entry point to music-making. Kids can leave their first session already having played a song. Student leadership is required of each participant due to call and response rhythm exercises, wherein each student takes a turn creating a rhythm that the rest of the class than has to repeat.” The DSO will utilize similar techniques in their instruction.

“Buckets are disruptive,” says Caen Thomason-Redus, DSO Senior Director of Community and Learning, “because they get past the perceptions people may have about what it takes to be a musician."

“The program brings music that may have already caught people’s attention, that they likely have already encountered, into the classroom; attending a sporting event is one of the places people may have experienced bucket music. It was a natural partnership with the Pistons.”

“Bucket bands immediately introduce students to higher level ensemble concepts,” said Alex Laing, Principal Clarinet with the Phoenix Symphony and DSO African-American Fellow from 1999 to 2001. Laing founded The Leading Tone, an after-school program in South Central Phoenix utilizing bucket bands to explore music as a context for student development.

“If you put a flute in front of someone with no prior training there might be trepidation. ‘How do I hold it? How do I blow it?’ People understand what bucket music is and what it sounds like, allowing them to start playing in an ensemble almost instantaneously, and building a very quick pathway to learn about coordinating your body with a group, and coordinating your intention as a member contributing to a whole.”

Bucket bands also provide an outlet for a student’s voice, Red says, “Playing buckets helps kids express emotion. They can beat what they’re feeling on the bucket.”

Two weeks into instruction, Red asks his students what they’ve learned so far and answers range from technique (where to hit the bucket to get the best sound and how to hold the sticks), to skills like cooperation, teamwork, and how to listen. What does bucket music sound like to the Detroit Pistons Bucket Band players:

“It sounds like a TNT explosion,” says 5th grader Mariah Smith. “Like a herd of motorcycles. It sounds like King Kong!”

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