When Jesse Mell first proposed putting a drumline program in every Philadelphia public school, he said people laughed at him.
An important milestone to that goal would be getting every student drumline group in the city on one stage for a performance. Resources were limited and it would take an enormous amount of time, organization, and patience.
But Thursday night at the inaugural citywide Drumlines Exposition, the beat of more than 100 student drummers from over 20 schools carried out of the Philadelphia High School for Girls auditorium and echoed in the SEPTA station across the street.
For Mell, coordinator of the drumline programs in the Philadelphia school district, it was an impossible dream realized. Philadelphia public schools have been clawing their way back from a “doomsday” budget in the 2013-14 school year that saw funding for the district’s arts department slashed, leaving many schools with only one art or music teacher if they were lucky.
Nonprofit organizations like Musicopia, a co-host of the expo event and where Mell previously worked as a contractor, stepped in offering a free after-school percussion program open to students in grades 3-12. This year, for the first time, drumline will be offered as a summer program for students in grades 6-12.
“When I joined the district, I just saw kids just not being treated with respect and … that makes me want to fight for them,” said Mell, who is also the former artistic director of drumlines at Musicopia. “Even in those difficult situations [when we] were under-resourced, with a lot of violence in the neighborhood, a lot of conflict in the schools, a lot of racism going on in the schools … I could show up, and we could be okay in our little space.”
For the students, the performance was a point of pride and the promise of a career.
Sixteen-year-old Paris Parretta said drumming is more than just noise to him: “It’s my life.” He hopes it will earn him a spot in the drumline at Michigan State University. The West Philadelphia High School student said being able to make music and being able to play it “and have this outlet to push myself further in my career, it means everything to me.”
Parretta’s favorite part of the night? Playing alongside a city icon.
“Seeing West Philly Elmo was a great experience,” Parretta said.
Mell said drumline is different from traditional band and orchestra programs because it provides an easy access point for students — especially Black students in neighborhood schools starved of resources — who may not have had the opportunity to take up an instrument early in their school experience.
“I think that the pandemic taught us a lot. It taught us that … we needed to look beyond the traditional band and orchestra program to provide ensembles [and] access for anybody at any point,” Mell said.
In each small drum ensemble, Mell said, there are three parts that a student can play that are level one, level two, or level three; level three is the hardest.
Drumming is also more accessible to non-musicians who can learn to play music without needing to understand notation, Mell said. “Bass drummers can just vocalize their part and move to a steady beat and therefore internalize it. They don’t need to be able to read sheet music to participate.”
Gabriela Delvalle, a 15-year-old Edison High School student, said for her, drumline is about feeling, rhythm, and timing.
“Music in general makes me feel so happy. It’s the way that everyone syncs and coordinates and it makes a beautiful masterpiece,” she said.
Mell said the students at the expo event represented a small portion of the “probably 1,000” marching percussionists in the Philadelphia public school system. He said it’s his mission to grow the drumline program into “something that can be viable in every school.”
But with the ongoing pressures of significant funding needs, school closures due to asbestos, and gun violence, Mell said giving time, space and resources for arts education — especially drumline — is crucial.
Joel Gomez, 14, a student at The City School, a private Christian school, said drumline has given him an outlet to play with students from across Philadelphia and the discipline of regular practice.
“It’s like speaking a language from your drum,” Gomez said. “It’s literally speaking. When you do your solos you’ve really gotta put yourself out there and stand out from other people.”
Correction: May 8, 2023: A previous version of this story misstated Mell’s goal for the district: He proposed putting a drumline program in every Philadelphia public school.
This story has also been updated to clarify Mell’s employment status at Musicopia.
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at firstname.lastname@example.org.