By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
When most of the girls were playing with dolls, Tamara Travis, who conducts the Epic Primary School Orchestra in Birmingham’s Glen Iris neighborhood, “always played the role of teacher”.
Travis knew she wanted to teach when she was still a student at Hudson Elementary School in the Collegeville neighborhood, first learning piano under Mabel C. Bohannon, who not only taught music in elementary school, but also taught Travis through high school.
“All I wanted to do was practice the piano,” Travis said. “I loved being in the group at school.”
Travis’ mother, Marian Daniel, and grandmother, Bessie Revis Jones, played the organ at Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, where civil rights legend Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was the pastor.
Travis, who attended church as a child, said Daniel was present when the church was bombed in 1963, which left Jones with scars on his legs from the broken glass. Shuttlesworth even stayed with Jones after the bombing.
“He wasn’t just their pastor,” Travis said. “He was their friend. He was the kind of pastor who knew all the people in his church. He visited them. When his church was bombed, he stayed with my grandparents.
Travis and his family follow the Shuttlesworth family to this day, seeing them at events such as church birthdays, as well as at a show that Travis’ son William, a musical theater artist, did in Ohio, where the Shuttlesworth now live.
“[Fred Shuttlesworth] was like a family member who lived out of town, whom we saw whenever he was in town or if we went, ”she said.
Travis grew up with musicians and married one too. Her husband, Ed Travis, played the trombone at the Agricultural and Mechanical University of Alabama (AAMU), where the couple met. And the family’s love for music was passed on to Travis’ two sons: Jared, 31, and William, 29, who played trumpet and trombone at Huffman Middle School. William has also played an ensemble role in a touring production of the popular musical “Hamilton” since 2017.
“Music has just been a part of my life,” Travis said.
At Epic, Travis teaches music to 76 third, fourth and fifth graders. When schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Travis was hosting online practice meetings via Zoom music, she noticed her students had less than ideal ways to prop up their scores.
“Looking at them at home, they put the books on the floor, on the dresser, in their bedrooms, on the pillow, anywhere. … I was like, ‘You have to sit down to have good posture’ and ‘your group book has to be higher.’ “She applied for and recently received a $ 1,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation for buying music represents each of its band students.
Travis students are back in person to learn music on a variety of instruments, including flutes, clarinets, saxophones, baritones, tubas, trumpets, trombones and percussion instruments. They play together in Epic’s auditorium to enable social distancing.
Working with students is not that difficult once they have mastered the basics. “It takes time,” she said. “[With brass and woodwind instruments, for instance], students learn to use the correct mouthpiece, [meaning] their mouths rest correctly on these instruments. … It takes a while to get started, but once they get started and can play, making these sounds is very simple.
Looking to the future
Travis has an “avant-garde” approach to teaching music, which means she wants her students to be “advanced” when they leave elementary school. “I’ve had college kids texting me. . ., and they say, “We play the music that the high school kids play,” because they’re so advanced, “she said. “It makes me feel really, really good.”
Parental support enables her students to be successful, she added. All of the children in Travis’ group play their own instruments. “Investing in children at this young age means a lot,” she said. “When parents buy an instrument,… they’re going to say, ‘Hey, you have to practice,’ and the [student] will improve.
As the group begins in third grade at Epic, Travis also teaches sophomores to play the recorder, a simple wind instrument commonly taught to children in music lessons and to read music. This allows him to spot the traits that make good group members. Some people are simply “born with” these traits, she said, and some have to work to develop their musical abilities.
“[Those born with talent] can hear the notes, they can touch the notes on the little recorders. They just get it, ”Travis said. “It takes a lot of work to get some people to do it, but I believe all kids can do something musically. They may not be able to play a wind instrument or brass, but they can keep a beat on the drum.
After Travis started learning the piano at the age of 5, she continued to play the violin in Hudson before moving on to strings at George Washington Carver High School in Birmingham, where she studied with Dathia Means. After graduating from Carver, Travis got a music scholarship to AAMU through the school’s group director and Means’ husband Arthur Means Jr. Ironically, Travis did not perform in the AAMU group.
“I went to college on a scholarship, but when [Dr. Henry Bradford Jr.], president of the music department and pianist, discovered that I was such a great pianist that I changed my specialty to piano.
After graduating with a degree in music education from AAMU, Travis returned to Birmingham and worked as a music teacher for Birmingham City Schools (BCS), teaching at Donald Comer Elementary, Center Street Middle, Norwood Elementary and Giddings S. Lewis Elementary, among others. . When Travis was at Norwood Elementary, “I would have had about 50 kids at [Norwood and North Birmingham Elementary], and we would make a great group and they were awesome, ”she said.
Towards the future
Travis is passionate about music because it “brings everything together in a universal way”. She believes that learning to play music makes her students feel special.
“My students know they’re focused, they’re disciplined, but they love to play music,” she said. “They listen to different kinds of music, and being able to play an instrument is something that they can do that someone else at school can’t, so it makes them feel special.”
Although Travis primarily taught elementary school students, she said it seems high school groups are smaller than they were at other times in her career. She thinks this may be because there are higher expectations of students.
“[Students] I have so many other things to do today besides being in the group. Some of them have to work while they’re in high school, so they can’t participate in extracurricular activities, ”she said.
Travis hopes teachers can increase the number of these groups in the future.
“I believe that if we continue to work on it at this level – this is the base, in elementary school – we can continue to increase the numbers from elementary to middle school, to high school, to college”, a- she declared.