Gathered in a classroom at Bristol Township’s Harry S Truman High School, about 25 students from Drummers With Attitude are showing me what each can do with two sticks and an overturned bucket.
And while the music was incredible, the change in some of the players is even more stunning.
The boy who hadn’t looked me in the eyes when I arrived? He is flipping his sticks in his hands and casting me side looks, grinning. Another teenager, who told me he doesn’t like to show emotion, has his eyes closed and his lips slightly open as he plays, moving his body to the beat. There are so many smiles, so many shared, proud glances among the players that said, “Yeah! We got this!”
And in the midst of it all – with sticks a blur and the biggest smile of all – is the man who founded this group almost 16 years ago. Kevin Travers, a special-education teacher at Bristol Township’s middle school, sets the pace, calling out counts and occasionally reaching out to strike the rim of a student’s drum.
“Trav’s a funny guy. He’ll tap my bucket just to mess with me,” Jaquill Wheeler, that once-shy high school freshman, told me later. “When I started, he told me to just tap. Now I can follow him. He helps you learn.”
Travers isn’t a trained music teacher. He doesn’t give lessons on reading sheet music. When he first started this bucket-drumming group, he imagined it as a small mentoring program for students who felt marginalized, including those he taught in his special-education classes. As a boy growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, he found that drumming gave him focus and helped him build friendships. A local priest kept a drum set in the church basement so Travers would have a place to practice.
“We’re using buckets as a tool to connect with kids,” he said. “The importance of being involved in something and accepted is invaluable. I know what drumming did for me.”
Then, as now, the group is open to anyone. No tryouts. No cuts. They are Drummers With Attitude, yes, but a positive attitude.
There were six students that first year, but the number quickly grew. What started with special-needs students and kids who just needed a place to go after school soon included students from every part of the social hierarchy of the middle and high schools. Varsity football players play with students who don’t care about the game. Those struggling to socialize find themselves sharing jokes with the most popular kids in school. Travers estimates that a thousand students have played with the group over the years.
“Without this group, if these guys saw each other in the hallway, they probably wouldn’t interact,” he said. “But now they function as a family. They try to take care of each other.”
Providing mentorship and support is still part of the program. Travers and high school special-education teacher Scott Laden run Drummers With Attitude together. While Travers teaches one group of drummers new music, Laden will tutor players who are struggling in class. Students can’t perform if their grades are poor or if they misbehave in class. Laden said the extra time with students is a bonus.
“During the school day, it’s so hard to make connections with the kids,” he said. “There are so many of them, and they’re so busy. The true connections come from the after-school programs.”
Those connections became even more clear to me when I privately interview some of the drummers.
These kids love playing. Tyler Simmons, 14, shows me his faded red drumsticks, pointing out a chip here and a nick there, signs of his commitment to the group. Christina Armstrong, 13, admits that her family had gotten noise complaints from the neighbors because of her at-home practice sessions.
They love the outlet Drummers With Attitude provides. “I block it all out when I’m drumming,” 15-year-old Dayshawn Berry said. “It helps me cope,” Gabrielle Musnuff, 14, confirmed. “It takes my mind off stuff.”
They love the opportunities the group offers. “You get to travel places, go where you never thought you would go, like the Linc and Hershey Park,” said Noah Bottrel, 16. “We’ve had some amazing experiences.”
And they love their teachers, particularly Travers. They talk about how he is always smiling, always supportive. Noah’s twin, Jeremy, put it this way: “If you’re playing and you look over at him, he can keep playing and act ridiculous and make everyone laugh. He’ll get you to smile. He gets everybody to smile.”
I told Travers what the students said about him. It was clear the love went both ways.
“These kids are amazing,” he said. “If you give them a chance, you’ll be surprised by what they can do.”
To hear the Drummers With Attitude in action, visit Www.drummerswithattitude.net.