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With scores of instruments and $7 lessons, a Kansas City man is building an urban youth orchestra

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Darryl Chamberlain didn't play an instrument when he was in school, but said he was always writing songs in his head. He's been teaching kids to read and play music for decades.

Darryl Chamberlain has a vision for improving Kansas City’s urban core that has led to national acclaim — and kept him on the lookout for second-hand instruments since 2007.

Darryl Chamberlain has so many instruments, he’s kind of lost track of how many there are.

“Oh, golly,” Chamberlain said, as he pondered how many he’s purchased over the years. “We’ve got instruments that belong to every section of the orchestra — plus some.”

And while he does play multiple instruments, they’re not all for him. Chamberlain is the founder and director of the A-Flat Youth Orchestra and Music Studio.

“I probably have about 15 trombones … there’s probably about 15 trumpets, 15 clarinets … alto saxes, I don’t know, maybe 10. Tenor saxes probably about five,” Chamberlain said.

And the list goes on; the storage area where Chamberlain keeps his cache is packed.

Chamberlain’s ensemble has graced the stages of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Johnson County Community College’s Polsky Theater and the Gem Theater in the 18th and Vine District.

“We are on goal to build an … inner city youth orchestra that’s going to serve the urban core of Kansas City,” he said.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Darryl Chamberlain estimated that he owns more than 200 instruments. He's been directing the A-Flat Youth Orchestra for 14 years.

According to Chamberlain, school band and orchestra programs in Kansas City have been hit hard in recent decades, and are only just beginning to bounce back. To help fill the gap, Chamberlain, who is also a technical writer and visual artist, gives kids who may not have a chance at a music education the opportunity to get on stage and show their stuff.

“Music gives you the courage to stand in front of people and say what you want to say,” he said.

With his ensemble, Chamberlain brings students together from all over the Kansas City metro, hooks them up with an instrument, and teaches them how to play it — all for about $7 a lesson.

It’s a great value for parents, but the nonprofit depends on donations.

After his students know the basics, Chamberlain invites them to play with the Youth Orchestra, which tackles music from concert band and orchestral numbers to gospel, jazz, blues and pop.

“I think it’s important to expose the child to as many diverse styles that you possibly can,” Chamberlain said, “because that’s what the world looks like.”

"Everything else got better because of it."

That’s exactly the sentiment behind much of the music of Black Violin, a Florida group that was in Kansas City this week, for a performance at the Kauffman Center.

Mark Clennon
Professional musicians like Wilner Baptiste, left, and Kevin Sylvester, who tour as Black Violin, can give students an "end-goal vision" for their musical studies, Chamberlain said.

The string duo leans heavily on elements of pop, rock and hip hop, and they tour with a drummer and DJ.

“But we feel like it is important to be exposed to the classics,” said Kevin Sylvester, one of the group’s leaders. “Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to take the classics and turn it into something new.”

Sylvester, who uses the stage name Kev Marcus, started Black Violin with Wil Baptiste, aka Wil B. The two first met in a high school orchestra class 25 years ago.

Sylvester said his early musical mastery made him more confident as a kid, and landed him a full-ride scholarship through college.

“What it did probably more than anything is that it gave me a way to disarm people,” he said. “I’m a big Black guy, you know — I’m like 285, 6-foot-2, big beard, you know?”

It’s not the kind of physical appearance that people generally associate with classical music, Sylvester said. That’s why Black Violin also puts a heavy emphasis on breaking down stereotypes, and paying it forward.

The pair have created the Black Violin Foundation, which gives money to young musicians looking to improve their own expertise. And it’s not just about creating better musicians.

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Apart from playing in the orchestra, Sudipto Bhowmik, who plays the electric guitar, said Chamberlain has also given lessons on music composition and theory.

“(Music education) just allowed me to walk around school kind of like, ‘Oh — I could do something at a high level,’” Sylvester said. “Then in turn … it rubs off on the rest of my studies so, you know, everything else got better because of it, too.”

Preparing for the future

At A-Flat’s rehearsal space in Kansas City’s Jamison Memorial Temple CME at east Linwood and Benton boulevards, Chamberlain’s students agree.

“I do better at school because it helps with math, because you have to count everything out,” said Sudipto Bhowmik, a 13-year-old who plays electric guitar and goes to Center Middle School.

“It makes me more smart,” said his 11-year-old brother, Dipanto Bhowmik, who plays vibraphones. “It makes me more focused.”

Dylan Lorenzo, a 16-year-old trumpet player who goes to Northeast High School, said the experience has taught him several life skills.

“Like how to be responsible, how to take care of your instrument, to practice every day,” Lorenzo said. “(It) keeps you busy — and I think that’s a good thing.”

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Dylan Lorenzo, 16, plays trumpet in his school's band and the A-Flat Orchestra. "It taught me that if you put in the work, it'll show," he said.

For now, the orchestra is focused on its next show, at the Gem Theater as part of December’s Kwanzaa Festival.

They’re set to play on the fifth day of Kwanzaa, known as “Nia,” which is dedicated to building community in order to restore its greatness.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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