If Kelvin Spencer’s drum students sound or look anything like Southern University’s famed Human Jukebox marching band, it’s no mistake.
Spencer was a section leader in the band in the 1970s. His students, who range from 4 to 15 years old, even wear T-shirts printed with a blue and gold logo.
At the Spencer Drum Clinic, every child is held to the same expectation: “to become whatever you want to become,” Spencer said. And for many of those he teaches — some of whom are underprivileged or have disabilities — marching in Southern’s band is a dream.
In the meantime, Spencer believes, drum lessons condition the children’s minds for success in everything from schoolwork to music to life in general.
Spencer, who retired a year ago from a 37-year career teaching at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, has conducted his drum clinic since 1976, stopping lessons only for a few years to care for ailing family members.
He has taught about 400 children how to play the drums over the years. The hallways of the former Trophy House building on Dallas Drive, where he holds practice several times a week, are lined with photos of current and former students — children and their parents, in many cases.
Spencer remembers all of their names and what they’re up to nowadays. One plays in Southern University’s band, one is studying to be an engineer and another made the U.S. Navy’s drum line. He pauses at several photos to recount how shy the student was when they first began lessons.
There’s something about the drums that can bring a child straight out of their shell and turn them into a proud musician.
“It’s some kind of calmness in it, some kind of peace in it,” said Spencer’s wife, Perlinda, who manages the clinic’s office. “It motivates them. ... When they play those drums, they stand out with their chest out. Everybody loves to hear those drums.”
Some parents enroll their kids because they “beat on everything at home” and someone advised: “Bring them to Mr. Spencer,” Perlinda Spencer said.
Years ago, when Kelvin Spencer was young, he too banged on pots and pans and boxes at home. As a boy attending Park Elementary School, he usually spent recess standing near the playground fence, where he could watch Capitol High School’s band practice.
“They marched and played, they kicked the dust up and that drew me in right then and there,” he said.
From 1973 to 1976, Spencer played in Southern University’s marching band, which is noted for its fast stepping and rocking music. Today, Spencer teaches his students some of the same drumbeats he learned back then.
Spencer’s youngest student is 4 years old. Beginners practice beating their drumsticks on pillows to learn to control their hands, Spencer said. Next, they go to the drum pads, whose texture requires a harder stroke that develops tendons in their arms.
Some of the older students who have moved on to playing the real drums have worked with Spencer since they were 5 or 6. They didn’t even have to look at their drumsticks as they threw them from hand to hand while practicing cadences and rudiments on Saturday.
Spencer said middle and high school band teachers often call to tell him, “Mr. Spencer, your kids can play!”
“It’s something I can do when I grow up and be famous,” said Braylon Barnes, 10.
Braylon said the most important thing he’s learned from Spencer is alternating — using both hands to hit the drum, allowing the player to create more complex rhythms.
But Spencer’s students know more than just fancy moves, because he also teaches them how to read music.
“It’s preparing them for middle school bands and high school on to college,” Spencer said. “… No matter how good you can play, if you can read music, that can take you everywhere.”
Drum lessons with Spencer are about more than music, however. He approaches his clinic as a youth ministry and sometimes refers to its acronym, SDC, as “Saving Da Children.”
Perlinda Spencer said playing the drums keeps some kids off the streets and gives others a release from problems at home or school.
Joshua Mason, 10, said he wants to keep playing the drums, but realizes “your grades have to be good to play” in middle and high school bands. He also learned the hard way “not to play around, not be talking or cut up with friends behind the director’s back.” He had to sit out of class for a week.
Braylon Barnes’ mother, Michele Barnes, started bringing her son to Spencer’s clinic four years ago and is now working on a documentary about him.
“Mr. Spencer gets in there and talks to these little kids like he’s talking to a 16- or 17-year-old,” Barnes said. “… He works with them like they know, and some kind of way, he keeps doing it and they adapt to it. They grasp to what he wants them to do.”
Barnes said she wanted to make the documentary because Spencer has been teaching music for nearly 40 years and it was about time for him to “get his accolades.”
But Spencer never brags about his efforts, Barnes said, instead crediting his wife and God for the clinic’s success.
At the end of every class, Spencer kneels with his students in a circle to pray.
“I’m on a mission to save as many youth as I can,” he said. “… I give God the glory. A seed was sown, and I’m that seed. … He watered me and gave me all I needed to know to one day reach so many kids.”