In a city like Austin where so many children are exposed to music at an early age at school, at home or in the community, you expect to see young musicians playing in bands. It's one of the perks of living in the Live Music Capital of the World.
But not every kid enjoys the same musical opportunities; some attend schools and live in areas of Austin that lack funds and resources for music programming. That's where Paula Beaird and the Austin Community Steelband come in, a nonprofit steelpan school.
Paula fell in love with the tropical sounds of steelpan drums during her visits to Trinidad, the birthplace of steelpan. She decided to create the Austin Community Steelband in 2003 and officially opened the school's doors in 2007. The goal of the organization is to share the joys of steelpan with Austin citizens of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. Paula focuses on reaching at-promise youth. "I want to teach these kids discipline, focus and teamwork through music education" Paula said. "I also want them to learn and appreciate all genres of music."
For the past six years Paula has been working with the Boys and Girls Club, the Austin Independent School District and other organizations to identify children who would be a good fit for the band. Students who make the cut have to put in up to 4 hours a week of practice led by steelpan drummer Cecil Francis. Francis has 39 year of experience and has played steelpan concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall and Apollo theater.
Francis recently led the band at CultureMap's May Mixers on the Map at Olive and June. "Being a part of these community events help the kids learn social skills because they talk with the audience and work with venue staff," Paula said.
There is no shortage of lessons to be learned but there is a shortage of funds. Like most nonprofits, Austin Community Steelband relies on donors and grants to survive. One of their biggest challenge is funding transportation. "The low income, disadvantaged kids' families either don't have cars or gas money, or don't drive, or their parents are working and unable to transport them," Paula said. Paula and her team have to provide rides for the students and their drums to and from practice and performances.
The Austin Community Steelband performs throughout the year with their next performance on June 22 at the Alvin Patterson Battle of the Bands at Nelson Field.