The way he talks animatedly about music -- from the history of the trombone to the "mind-blowing" effect of overtones -- you'd never guess Andre Brooks started playing his instrument just one year ago.
And you couldn't possibly guess that the 17-year-old high school junior's marching band, which has been invited to play at the 2012 Olympics, also started playing music just one year ago.
But it's true. Brooks plays trombone in Detroit Public Schools' All-City High School Marching Band, a group comprising talented students from across the city. In its first season, the band has played major city events, like America's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Noel Night and the Compuware Parade. And it's receieved invitations to play the Gator Bowl and join the Olympic celebrations.
Yet the Detroit All-City High School Marching Band's crisp look and professional sound hide a rocky history.
The original All-City Band formed in 2001, bringing together nearly 300 students from Detroit's public high schools. In just three short years, their combined talents secured a Rose Bowl performance, among other honors.
But DPS's financial troubles increased and the program was shut down in 2004, to the deep disappointment of its members and directors. The district continued to face drastic budget cuts, and the idea of declaring bankruptcy was floated. Some schools' entire music programs were shuttered.
But a year ago, Robert Bobb, the district's emergency financial manager, found several hundred marching band uniforms mothballed in a warehouse. Something clicked. The All-City Marching Band had to be revived.
"Instrumental music being missing from a lot of the high schools, it was an opportunity [for students] who didn't have music programs, as well as students who did," explained DPS Director of Fine Arts Education Willie McAllister, who currently directs the band.
Bobb started with $25,000, and found a matching grant from the Pickard Family Fund. Then came a small funding miracle: A $560,000 donation from Transportation First, the school system's bus company, was able to push the plan beyond new uniforms. The Detroit Public Schools Foundation awarded the money in late 2010, to be distributed to the All-City Band over five years.
In June, McAllister set to work recruiting 92 band members from across the school system. Throughout the summer, students met several times a week to practice.
McAllister spoke of the pride he feels for his students and the great ensemble sound they've managed to develop in their first season together. Brooks, the trombone player, agreed the band has been able to forge a special sound.
"You get accustomed to one sort of sound, style and feel when you're in just one band," Brooks explained. "But when I got to All-City, I got to hear a mixture of different sounds and interpretations. Once we did agree on an interpretation, it was beautiful."
Brooks, who attends King High School, also plays in his local school band -- a requirement for All-City Band members whose schools have band programs. He said he initially picked up an instrument because he had to wait for a ride home from another student and thought he might as well have something to do while he waited.
Just carrying his trombone with him has provoked positive reactions. People have often approached Brooks on the street, asking him about music. He said he once played an impromptu performance at Children's Hospital, after one of the nurses noticed his instrument.
"I didn't have my case because it was very heavy ... and one of the nurses on break stopped me and wanted me to play something," he explained. "I wasn't exactly warmed up and was already late. But I did my best."
That commitment to excellence is part of the All-City Band program, which aims to teach students much more than how to play an instrument.
McAllister, the band director, said he's proud of the group's first season but wants to expand further to "put every uniform on the back of a child." The band has room for another 200 students.
And McAllister hopes more funding will make it possible in the future for the band to accept invitations to perform beyond the Detroit area.
"Our goal is to have the band do regional things, national things and have an international program," he said.
"I want to travel across the world," he said. "I want to go to the moon if we can."
And after Brooks plays his trombone all over the universe? He wants to come back to his high school to teach music.
Listen to the Detroit All-City High School Marching Band perform:
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