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A Red Hot Chili Pepper joins W.Va. students to support music in schools

Courtesy photo
Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith performs with the Shepherdstown Middle School jazz ensemble at a March 20 ceremony in Washington, D.C., honoring Joe Manchin, Jay Rockefeller and Randall Reid-Smith for their commitment to music education.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith said he had no idea what they were going to perform when he and the award-winning Shepherdstown Middle School jazz ensemble took the stage in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.

"I think we're supposed to be doing some kind of march," he said. "But we're probably just going to wing it."

"Music teaches you to think on your feet, to improvise."

As it happened, the ensemble, Smith and professional baseball player-turned-Grammy nominated guitarist Bernie Williams performed "St. James Infirmary," an old folk song and jazz standard.

Smith, Williams and the students, along with Grammy-nominated singer Vanessa Carlton, were in D.C. Wednesday to honor Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller for their support of music education.

The event was sponsored by the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, a "nonprofit organization dedicated to creating systemic change in the American public school system by restoring instrumental music programs and by raising public awareness about the importance of music as part of each child's complete education;" the National Association of Music Merchants, a trade group that promotes the music products industry and the pleasure and benefits of making music; and the National Association for Music Education, an organization of music educators who seek to preserve and encourage music education as part of schools' core curriculum.

The celebrities and students presented the senators and West Virginia Division of Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith with the SupportMusic Award.

Smith said they were also there to educate and inform, to talk to lawmakers about the importance of continuing to fund music education in school.

"It's really important that young people have the opportunity to be exposed to music in public schools," the multi-Grammy Award winner said.

Smith, considered one of the best rock drummers in the world, said he likely never would have gotten into music, probably wouldn't have even graduated high school if not for the music program in the public school system he attended.

The 51-year-old, who attended schools in Detroit said, "I wouldn't have showed up for school. Music was my passion. I was just really lucky to find that out in the early years and that there was an opportunity for me to explore music."

Smith got involved with the school music program starting in the fourth grade.

"That was Mr. Hioron," Smith said. "He gave me my first drum lesson. He was a music teacher, one of those guys who taught a little bit of everything: trombone, drums, whatever, but very versatile."

In middle school, he kept with the drums and was first introduced to real band discipline.

"That was Mr. Tilton." He laughed. "Mr. Tilton was a sweet guy, an older gentleman."

He had a bit of a temper, too.

Smith said Tilton had a miniature baseball bat from the Detroit Tigers, the kind ballparks sometimes give out as promotional gifts. If the drummers couldn't keep time or if they were having trouble following a piece of music, Mr. Tilton would put away the baton -- and bring out the bat.

"He'd bang on the music stand with it," Smith said.

It got everyone's attention.

"He was great," Smith said. "A real disciplinarian, which was good for a kid like me, when I was 12 or 13."

In high school, studying under Mr. Hillman, Smith got most of his education.

"I took concert band, jazz band, symphonic band. I had music theory and marching band."

Aside from giving him the foundation from which he helped build his decades-long career, the public school music program provided him with a place to fit in. To Smith, that seemed almost as important as the education he got.

"It was definitely a very social thing for me," Smith acknowledged. "It taught me how to interact with people."

He laughed. "My first girlfriend was a French horn player."Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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