"Look at this pretty little band," says an older lady, elbowing her fellow paradegoer. They gaze admiringly at the crisp uniforms -- robin's-egg blue, highlighted with a little maroon and gold. The uniforms' breastplates are emblazoned with the letters A and L -- for Alfred Lawless -- and the image of a python, for the school's mascot, the Pythian, taken from Greek mythology.
At the front of this small sea of blue uniforms is Virgil Tiller, a tall man with a shaved-clean head and a black suit with the words "Band Director" embroidered in small letters near one shoulder.
That morning, Tiller had arrived early at Alfred Lawless High School bandroom. "I get here at 8 a.m. to calm myself down," he says. "Then the kids get here at 9 and I calm them down."
The adrenaline comes from reviving a marching band in the lower Ninth Ward, home to both Lawless school and Virgil Tiller, who was born and raised here and then returned in January 2003 with a master's degree in biology. He was hired as the school's biology teacher, but he is a longtime bandsman who played woodwinds and piano growing up and then, in both 1994 and 1995, led the band at St. Augustine High School as one of its drum majors.
So it made sense for Shirley Taylor, the Lawless principal, to ask Tiller if he'd also teach music. Tiller talked to Edwin Hampton, St. Aug's legendary band director. "He told me that I would be giving up my life. He told me to understand that," says Tiller.
When Tiller started the job in August, he was faced with a band program that hadn't marched for several years. "I probably had a good eight kids who knew how to play an instrument," he says. The student body wasn't optimistic. "At first, everybody was saying y'all band's going to be garbage; it's going to be sad," he says.
Tiller recruited about a dozen kids, put them on instruments and worked with them every day. But when homecoming -- the band's first scheduled performance -- arrived, all he had was a 10-piece drum section. They played anyway. Now he's got about 50 kids and is adding about five new members a week, he estimates.
At 27, Tiller is one of the youngest band directors in town. He has hopes that Lawless will develop its own style, like other longtime bands. "You know that Fortier is coming down the street because of their distinctive rock, the way their plumes move a certain way, the way the band marches. That is Elijah Brimmer's claim to fame," he says, speaking of the longtime director at Alcee Fortier Senior High School.
Brimmer first arrived at Fortier in 1978. Things were different then, he says. The kids were more eager, the parents more involved, and the band directors, once they got into a job, were likely to stay there for 20 years. Within the past few decades, however, the city's longtime band directors began retiring. They were replaced with new college grads, who might take the band director job, then stay for a mere year or two.
Now Brimmer is noticing young directors like Tiller and Rawlins. "I've been observing them," he says, and he believes that these young directors are devoted to the kids in the same way that their older predecessors were.
"The kids have to know you care about them," Brimmer emphasizes. Every year, he sends a list of his band students to all the Fortier teachers. If they have problems with any of band kids, they should talk to him, Brimmer says.
Brimmer says that he personally has watched band programs lose their director and then fizzle. Without band, he says, many of the young men put down their instruments and drift toward trouble.
"I think what's happening now is that the Lord is tired of seeing young people destroyed on these streets, so he's sending these young band directors to our schools," he says. "It's nothing but the grace of God that's sending them here."
For his part, Tiller says he knows that his commitment goes far beyond band director. "I have to be their mother, father, brother, their friend," he says. He may also be their biggest booster. "I want people to see that they can do something positive," he says. "Something positive can come from at-risk kids."
- Cheryl Gerber
- At first, bandleader Virgil Tiller recruited about a dozen kids for the Lawless band. Now he has about 50 musicians and is adding about five kids a week.