It’s a little after 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening and in the cramped, windowless and already sweaty room at the Summit Academy Middle School on Mogadore Road in Akron, the student musicians are standing in front of their steel drums in “performance position.”
The leader of this group, music teacher Angel Lawrie, waits briefly for the children to quiet down before asking them an important question.
“Who are you?!” she asks loudly.
“We are the Summit Academy Steel Dragons!” the bulk of the young musicians shout back, mallets at the ready.
“We are the Summit Academy Steel Spartans!” yell the older kids holding shakers and other percussion instruments.
“Together we are the pride of Akron!” the entire room shouts, before Lawrie counts off a steel drum arrangement of ABBA’s Dancing Queen with a bouncy samba groove.
While steel drum groups are wildly popular in Northeast Ohio, these 48 young musicians, ranging from elementary to high school age, are no ordinary group of drum beaters. Like all of the alternative school’s students, they have ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, learning disabilities or social anxieties that have made living and learning successfully in public schools difficult, and that often bleed over into their home lives.
For two hours every week, these students — some of whom were unable to sit through a class without crying, others (most of the band, actually) who were bullied by former schoolmates, and even some who were suicidal — become a unified musical force with a single goal to perform that lifts all of their spirits and most importantly their belief in themselves.
On Saturday, the Steel Dragons will headline the Summit Academy Steel Pan Festival at the Akron Civic Theatre at 2 p.m. The group will perform with the band from Archbishop Hoban High School, the Divine Steel Band from Fairfield, the Lawries’ community band Pan Harmonix from Akron, and two special guests: businessman and former baseball player Andre Thornton, steel pan artist Tracy Thornton (no relation to Andre), and activist/actor/singer Harry Belafonte.
The Steel Dragons started in 2010 in a lunchroom with only a few buckets, some sticks and maracas, a rickety drum set, some industrial-sized oil drums and a few students. But Lawrie knew she had found a fun way to help her students connect with music, other students and ultimately themselves. So, she enlisted her husband and partner in the duo Steelin’ Hearts, Steve Lawrie, to help her teach the students as well as build and tune all of the band’s instruments. He’s a former steel pan developer and tuner for Akron-based Panyard Inc. and like his wife an accomplished player.
Though only in their third year, the Steel Dragons have already done some touring, having been invited to perform twice at the Charter School Alliance Convention in Columbus, and they were a big hit at the Ohio Valley Festival of Steel in Steubenville in May.
“You just have to work with them. You can’t put a child with ADHD in a classroom for 45 minutes and tell them to sit and expect to have anything happen,” said Lawrie, who also founded the band’s subset of high schoolers, the Steel Spartans (“the tall people” as one musician called them) two years ago.
“You have to learn how they learn, and this do-it-yourself thing at their own pace is great for them. And that left brain/right brain pattern stuff on the steel drum seems to have a magical effect on the autism,” Lawrie added, noting that one of her autistic musicians absorbs the music in mathematical equations rather than traditional letter notation.
The music teacher and her energetic husband keep the two-hour practice on track with a combination of patience, constant and constructive correction, a dash of tough love and the kids’ own desire to succeed. Throughout the rehearsal, Lawrie takes care to remind the kids that everything they have accomplished is a result of their hard work.
“ADHD kids do what?” Lawrie asks the room when attention wanders.
“Talk too much,” the kids say and then quickly quiet down before once again taking their performance positions (which includes absolute silence) and working on Steve Lawrie’s peppy arrangement of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
The members, who must maintain a B average to stay in the band, are all genuine fans of the instrument, with several joining up after they heard rehearsals between other classes. Others got the bug for mallet-mashing after seeing one of the many steel drum bands in the area, and a few just heard it was fun.
Savannah Bartlett, a seventh-grader from Akron, saw her brother Dominic playing the steel pan, decided it sounded cool and joined the class.
“I’m nervous as heck and Ms. Lawrie says, ‘You’re gonna do fine,’ and the first day you walk out you feel like you’re going to cry, and you walk in the next day and it just clicks, and from that day I fell in love with pans and any instrument in here,” she said.
Dominic is a two-year veteran of the band and he joined for very personal reasons.
“I started because my mom has depression and I wanted to show her that I’m not very lazy and I’m not always sitting on my butt all the time,” he said.
“It’s a way to actually have fun at school,” Trevyr Willy, a 10th-grader from Akron, said. “Once we start playing and get into a groove and Ms. Lawrie starts directing us … it just feels great, especially when you play in front of a crowd, just seeing those people out there hearing their cheers, it’s great.”
All of the kids have found that being in the band has made their lives outside of it better.
When asked what being a Steel Dragon has done for them, the kids started a round-robin of comments, most of which began with “I’d like to thank Ms. Lawrie for …”
“If it wasn’t for her I’d have nothing to live for,” Elijah Sommerville, a jovial sophomore, said.
“I wasn’t a bad kid but I’d get into trouble a lot. But I’d be good in class just so I could get on the set. It made me realize that if you be good you get rewarded, and you get to play [the drum] set. You get things and I’ve come a long way … just the feeling of when you get something done you haven’t done before, it’s just like a rush,” eighth-grade drummer James Knotts said.
“Before I met you I really hated living life,” Brendan Spencer, a shaggy-haired freshman, said. “So thank you for making my life better,” he added, breaking down into tears.
“We know they love us,” Lawrie said later of the kids. “But when they say ‘Ms. Lawrie,’ what they really mean is they like feeling good about themselves. So that’s like a synonym for that, and I take that as a big compliment, but really it’s about them feeling good about themselves for the first time.” She said several students who came to the class socially paralyzed are now social butterflies.
The parents and loved ones of the musicians say the positive change in their kids was immediate.
Alain Wuelff, grandfather of Savannah and Dominic, who hangs out and listens to rehearsals with several others, said when the pair joined the Steel Dragons, their lives simply got better.
“They entered an environment to address their challenges [ADHD] and help them solve their problems, and when they joined the steel band program, the changes were incredible,” Bartlett said while the kids ran through Oh, Pretty Woman.
“It gives them an outlet for their ‘bad hair days’ and it’s a controlled outlet,” he said, adding that Summit Academy’s zero-tolerance bullying policy has been particularly helpful to the diminutive, bespectacled Dominic.
Charles Arnette of Akron, father of first-year students Aubriey, a seventh-grader, and Kelsae, an eighth-grader, said he used to have to fight his daughters daily to get them to go to public school. Arnette eventually pulled them out, and he and his wife homeschooled the girls for a while, which he admitted was so difficult at times that he “wanted to jump off a building.”
But now when he wakes up on school days, the girls are usually waiting impatiently on the family couch, fed, dressed and asking him “Are you ready to go yet?”
“The change was immediate after the first day of practice. It’s amazing and they can’t wait for practice. They love it.”