fueled by

harmony

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United States

Compton, CA

Step to the rhythm of the award-winning Centennial High School Marching Band.

What is music? Sound waves that travel at specific frequencies organized in time. Musicians conjure life from otherwise silent objects to make magic — guitars, violins, pianos and drums. Synthesizers, spoons and little plastic kazoos. Music is made from nylon strings and rubber mallets. People whistle, hum and sing it. People drive for miles to go see it or play it. They hold lighters in the air for it, press it onto vinyl, dance slowly and tenderly to it.

And while there’s no concise and general definition for what music really is, to the music students of Centennial High School in Compton, Calif., it’s definitely a transcendent vehicle.

CHS has been at the center of the community for decades. With alumni like Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar and DJ Quik, music has always been thick in the halls. But while former students have helped shape the music we listen to, the current student body is composing the future. 

Manuel Castaneda has been running the music program at CHS for the past six years. In that time, he’s managed to make an impact on these kids that moves well beyond music. Students of the music program have some of the highest graduation and college acceptance rates in the area.

How does music play a role in your students’ lives?

We have structure, which by nature teens don’t have or don’t like. I just use music as a way of teaching them how to have structured dedication.

But I’m also teaching them that they are ambassadors of Compton. First of all, they represent their family and they represent their school. But they represent their entire community. Wherever we go, how they behave or how they speak, people have this preconceived idea of what somebody from Compton looks like or should be. So I like taking them out of the community and seeing people say, “You guys are from Compton?”

I’m real big on schedule because — what’s the saying? — if you don’t plan to succeed, you plan to fail.

Why is structure important?

You need routines to get results. Everything is a procedure. Set up your chair, your stand, your music and then your instrument — that’s the setup procedure. When I’m at the podium, they have to remain quiet — I can’t speak when someone is playing drums or blowing the trumpet. Then it falls into their daily routines, like when you wake up you have to have everything in line and be in school. I’m real big on schedule because — what’s the saying? — if you don’t plan to succeed, you plan to fail.

What do your students get from being a part of the music program?

The music program provides not only structure but a sense of family. A sense of belonging to something important — something of value. I tell them that music is a gift, and that there are very few people who can figure it out on their own. But if they’re fortunate to have somebody to take the time and, as they say, “teach them the secrets,” someone who is with them before and after school to break it down even though it’s not part of the lesson — that’s something that is a gift.

What successes has the program achieved?

I went in there my first year just trying to survive. But within two months on the job, we won a battle of the bands. We beat all the local high schools here, and that seemed to gain us some respect right off the bat. In all the local parades, we always come in first or second place. BET did a drum-off competition — we got first place in that. And we did an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneresShow” my second year.

But I think it’s about changing the mentality of the students. I’ve had students who are ninth graders come in very insecure — but just seeing them believe in themselves to the point where they’re not afraid. They’re not afraid of going to school. And I don’t know if that would be the case if we didn’t have a music program or some other kind of organization on campus that makes students really believe that they can achieve great things.

In all my years in the district, I’ve never had to tell a student “you have to go get your own instrument.”

Tell me a little about the equipment?

We’ve been blessed. The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation donated to my program when I first started. I was two months on the job, and I had maybe a dozen instruments. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I went online and applied for a grant — I made a wish list and they gave me everything. It must’ve been like $70,000 worth of instruments.

Our school district is also very supportive of our music program. We have a budget to have our instruments refurbished and running smoothly. In all my years in the district, I’ve never had to tell a student “you have to go get your own instrument.” 

How about the uniforms?

It’s a high-quality uniform — the same company that makes uniforms for the big universities with the huge marching band programs. When I first proposed to have them, I was new and the district was uncertain, but I was adamant about it. I didn’t want people saying, “Oh, those poor Compton kids in jeans and T-shirts.” So I organized the parent booster club, and we did fundraiser after fundraiser, and we bought about 15 of our own. The district realized that we were serious about this, and they went ahead and purchased the rest of them for the entire band.

What fuels you?

You know, there’s no beauty without struggle. I have two beginning band classes, and I like that first day when they’re completely oblivious to what it is to play an instrument. I like the process. I like the dedication that some show. The reason for them to be happy at school or to find their niche. I like being the person that introduced them to that.

I’m motivated by student success. I like to be a part of their success team. That’s what gets me going in the morning. The more they accomplish, the more I feel pumped to continue doing what I do.

You’re stuck on a desert island. You only get one record to listen to for the rest of your life. What is it?

“Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. Definitely.