A triumphant moment for the Marching Mustangs Credit: Tristan Brown

Giving Tuesday is over, but if you’ve still got a few dollars to spend, you could do worse than donating them to the kids at Horace Mann Elementary School in the South Chicago neighborhood. They’re trying to raise money for more instruments and supplies for their school band, the Marching Mustangs.

“Old instruments need to be replaced,” explains Horace Mann’s music teacher, Tristan Brown, whose many duties include leading the band. “We can’t fix them anymore. More and more students want to join the band, and we can’t accommodate them.”

The Marching Mustangs during their collaboration with Mucca Pazza at Steelworkers Park in SeptemberCredit: Daris Jasper

Currently, there are 40 Marching Mustangs and about 15 more kids waiting to join. Because most of them can’t afford to buy or rent instruments of their own, they use the school’s. When Brown began teaching at Horace Mann five years ago, he would wander through storage rooms and find horns just sitting there. Many of those instruments hadn’t been played in 10 or 15 years and needed extensive repairs. The instruments now in working condition—Brown estimates he has about 20 wind instruments and 15 drums—need regular upkeep, including new reeds and pads, replacement mouthpieces, and valve oil. Plus the majority of Horace Mann’s students come from low-income households and can’t afford to buy their own uniforms.

Brown has discussed the issue with his principal, who is sympathetic and has given him a budget—but that budget stretches only so far. So Brown has decided to seek help from outside. The Mustangs’ wish list, posted on the fund-raising website DonorsChoose.org, includes two flutes, two clarinets, three trumpets, one alto saxophone, and an assortment of reeds and mouthpieces. The total cost comes to $2,272, and they’re a little less than halfway there. Donations got a boost earlier this month after a virtual battle (via Google Hangouts) with the Pulaski International Marching Sabers.

CPS band programs typically don’t start till high school, but Horace Mann students can join the Marching Mustangs as early as fourth grade. Brown starts them on wind instruments, but starting in fifth grade they can opt for drums. If they pick up one instrument quickly, Brown says, there’s nothing to stop them from learning another—except lack of equipment. He’s made adjustments to the band’s arrangements, including the substitution of trombones for tubas.

The Marching Mustangs have an ally in Mucca Pazza, Chicago’s self-described “absurdist marching band.” Artistic director Ronnie Kuller happened to see the Mustangs perform, and she was so impressed she decided the two bands should collaborate. In late September they both appeared at a Night Out in the Parks event, playing Mucca Pazza’s song “Surf” and the Mustangs’ signature number, a cover of Paula Abdul’s “Cold-Hearted Snake.” Though their styles are very different—Mucca Pazza is more free-form and interdisciplinary, while the Marching Mustangs follow the traditional football-halftime model—they enjoyed working together.

Mucca Pazza taught the Mustangs some theatrics as well as a song. “The funnest thing we go to do is, we all pretend that we fall down and the song sort of dies,” says Mucca Pazza’s John Carroll, a band teacher in Evanston. “We told them, ‘We have to be as silly as possible.’ They said, ‘Wait, we can be silly?’ They loved that. There’s a lot of structure in the typical marching band. They were totally ready to see what we had to show them, and vice versa. We had a great time with them. They’re sponges, ready to soak it up.”

Carroll says there’s great value in elementary school kids playing in band. That’s when students in better-funded suburban districts start, so by the time they’re in high school, they’ve progressed well beyond “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But at Horace Mann in particular, band provides something else. Brown writes on the DonorsChoose.org page that many of his students have to walk through unsafe neighborhoods on their way to school. “This does not stop our students from coming to school with a smile on their face ready to learn in a safe environment.”

“I wish I could understand what it was like to be those kids,” Carroll says. “I wouldn’t want to speak for them. I don’t know what they’re going through. If it is what I think it is, it’s not always the safest neighborhood. The kids really need this. This is amazing—the kind of stuff that saves kids.”

Updated: The Horace Mann Marching Mustangs’ fund-raising campaign at DonorsChoose.org has met its goal. Further donations will be diverted to other projects in the DonorsChoose.org network.

Marching Mustangs Winter Concert
Wed 12/20, 4 PM, Horace Mann Elementary School, 8050 S. Chappel, 773-535-6640, $3 suggested donation, $5 includes raffle ticket. More info here.