Hernando Buitrago is standing in a classroom on the second floor of Horace Mann Middle School, strumming a guitar beneath a poster that reads, “A fantastic guitar is like a delicious hamburger.”
“What song is this?” he asks. Ten kids stare back at him, holding their electric guitars and conga drums, trying to look cool.
“This is the blues,” he continues smoothly. “It could be any song.”
Buitrago has been doing this for a while. While he was a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, he walked into a local nonprofit and wound up building a recording studio, teaching music and serving as a conduit between talented local kids and music schools like Berklee. Now he’s an employee of another nonprofit — the Center for Music National Service, which recently moved its headquarters to the Mission District.
Like most middle schools in this country, Horace Mann once had a music program. By the time Buitrago arrived, that program was not much beyond a closet filled with dusty old instruments. In this era, education budgets are sparse and test scores are critical. When cuts roll out, music programs are an early casualty.
The Center for Music National Service both is and is not a replacement for these lost programs. Its director, Kiff Gallagher, is a rock musician who learned to play music by ear. Working in the Clinton Administration, he became preoccupied with the idea of resurrecting certain aspects of the New Deal — giving talented artists a chance to work, full-time, sharing what they have learned and broadening cultural ideas of what music education in public school looks like.
“We’re looking for aspects of music education that are a bit collaborative,” says Gallagher. “These are skills that are being lost in schools and the economy. Social skills. Emotional perseverance. Risk-taking. Collaboration. Ability to manage a high rate of change. Skills that are broadly held under the term ‘creativity.’”
The program was piloted in five cities and continues to expand (Since then, Music National Service has placed 40 musicians in full time public service positions with benefits.) But in the early days, Gallagher supported the enterprise through his skills as a day trader on the stock market, developed in those uncertain years as a full-time professional musician. “I learned day trading at the same time that I learned Pro Tools,” he says. “I see it as more of an art than you think. Music and trading have been great teachers for me.”
Meanwhile, in the classroom, the students struggle to stay focused. “You have 500 boyfriends,” says one girl to another.
“No I don’t,” she says, insulted. “No. Wait. Yes I do.”
“Ew,” says the first one.
The students begin to play. At first, the sound is complete cacophony. Then it begins to resolve into coherence, and to sound really good. Or rather, it begins to sound really good, but the convergence of everyone else’s instruments makes it clear that one of the girls has given up and is just hitting her congas in no particular rhythm. The boy next to her stops and looks over at her meaningfully, pantomiming the drum pattern in an exaggerated way until she falls in with the rest of the group.
Okay, says Buitrago. “The D note. Did we all find it? We should all play it together like we did the A.”
This time, the boy who called out the girl for not focusing seems to have lost his way. As everyone launches into their parts, he lifts the congas over his head like he’s a weightlifter and they’re barbells. But this time the girl plays her part flawlessly.
It goes like this: Some of the kids are now so obsessed that they’ll skip lunch and stay after school, fumbling together over the opening chords to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns ‘n Roses. “It’s relaxing,” says one of the students, Chris Rodgriguez. “Because when everybody holds the beat it flows together. I would rather be in this than in school.”