MLK Jr. Charter High School band
Students in MLK Jr. Charter High school band practice in the school's gym. Credit: MLK Jr. Charter High School

Freshmen Brandon Forrest and Jabari Jackson are members of the marching band at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter High School in the Lower 9th Ward. The school’s music program combines music and education to help students improve their mental health, while also giving them the skills to achieve academic success. 

Since 2000, the marching band has created a space where students can foster creativity and reduce stress. Currently, between 55 and 65 students participate in the MLK music program.  

Fifteen-year-old Jabari Jackson is one of them. For anyone growing up in New Orleans, music is an integral part of the culture. That’s why the teen jumped at the opportunity to join the band. 

“Just making people happy and marching on St. Charles, you see the reactions, smiles and people dancing to your music, it gives you a sense of satisfaction,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that being in the marching band helped him become a better student.

“It’s really interconnected because you have to know how many beats are in one count, that’s math,” Jackson said. “Learning how to read music helps with ELA (English, Language Arts), you know, identifying things with what you’re reading.”

After recognizing the issues that students face, such as teen violence or family issues, it was important for the school to create a program that addressed students’ mental health.

MLK band director Charles Brooks said that many students at MLK are raised in single-parent households and have to take on a lot of adult responsibilities. Others are left to navigate life by themselves at an early age, he said, entering the school building with built-up anger, depression and anxiety. 

Band director Charles Brooks with band members at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter High School. Credit: MLK Jr. Charter High School

“Music soothes the soul,” Brooks said. He encourages his students to use their instruments as an outlet to deal with “emotional health, family issues or just the stresses of life.” 

One of the main reasons young people struggle with mental health is because there aren’t enough creative outlets and opportunities, said Dr. C’MA (Corine Brown), a mental health professional at The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. The clinic provides health care and mental health services to local artists, musicians and culture bearers in the city.

“Something unique about New Orleans is the culture around music,” giving young people a freedom in expressing themselves, Brown said. 

Brandon Forrest, 15, who plays the trombone, said having the support and guidance from band directors has helped him academically. He describes his relationship with his band director as close-knit. 

Forrest considers Brooks a “second father to me” because “he just pushed me more and more like my dad.”

Forrest joined the band for leisure and wanted to better himself as a scholar. He says being in the band helped “me to become more disciplined and focus on what is important” — education and self-efficacy.

Jackson has also benefited from the music program. He said with Brooks’ motivation and discipline, he’s been encouraged to go the extra mile.

“I hold myself to a certain standard and what he does is take that standard and lengthen it  because he knows what I can do as a player and he wants me to be the best player that I can,” Jackson said. 

Terry Fryson, assistant band director and color guard instructor, said playing in the band is an escape tool that has the potential to turn negative energy into something positive. 

“Most kids do not see a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but music can be that therapy,” said Fryson. “They can blow that pain through their horn or they can beat their pain away through their drum.” 

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...