Teaching music in the key of life
Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014

Teaching music in the key of life

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/20/11/16/iRZc1.Em.138.jpeg|421
    Duncan Gray teaches the concert band class at West Charlotte High School, where he’s known as “Granddaddy Gray.”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/20/11/16/14c4dF.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Duncan Gray says his formula for teaching West Charlotte High band students is “Experience + Exposure = Education.” He tries to expand students’ horizons.
  • Want to help?

    If you would like to make a donation, send a check to: Duncan Gray, Director of Bands, West Charlotte High School, 2219 Senior Drive, Charlotte, NC, 28216. Or call 980-343-6060.

Duncan Gray sees his role as director of bands for West Charlotte High School as going beyond music.

He says when students participate in the band they get to broaden their horizons and it can sometimes literally change the course of their life.

Gray has worked with students at West Charlotte for the past seven years and he served as band director at Johnson C. Smith University for 19 years.

“It’s been my life,” he said.

Throughout the school year, Gray teaches a variety of classes and he is responsible for the concert band and the marching band. They travel to compete or perform as much as possible.

“The more I can expose them to, the better,” Gray said. “My formula for students is, Experience + Exposure = Education.”

For some students, the band trips give them their first opportunity to explore colleges and universities.

“I have seen students with no hope or desire to visit institutions of higher learning say, ‘I can do this,’ ” Gray said. “I have heard countless success stories of former students. They will call and say, ‘Thank you for staying on me.’ 

One former drum major worked for the surgeon general under the Clinton administration, he said.

“Another former student is a police officer in Charleston, S.C. He recently stopped by to say thank you,” Gray said.

Right now, the major obstacle facing Gray and his students at West Charlotte is money to pay for travel to competitions and performances.

Cleaning uniforms is another large expense. Some of their instruments need to be updated because they were purchased in 1975 and are now irreparable. A recent donation of instruments was helpful.

“We had to decline an offer to perform at the Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., due to lack of funding,” Gray said.

He is working to prepare for a band fundraiser by inviting other percussion sections to compete for a title and trophies.

In April, Gray said he hopes the West Charlotte concert band will perform in Fayetteville at the Concert Contest Festival.

“Although the students work to raise funds by selling fruit and cookie dough, many of our students are not independently mobile,” he said.

And there are other challenges.

“Some of these students live in neighborhoods that don’t offer a constructive atmosphere.”

Look in Gray’s class and you’ll see the walls lined with band trophies. You also will see group of students working hard. One gets the feeling that, whatever issues the students may face, they leave it at the door because Gray demands focus.

“I stress the importance of harmony of all levels,” Gray said.

Flute player, Alex Singleton, 16, is a member of the beginner band class.

“Being in the band has opened me up to express myself. It’s always interesting and the parades and community service opportunities help me become more well-rounded in concert band and marching band.”

Singleton said he plans to build a career in business and finance.

“Mr. Gray is preparing us for band in college,” he said. “You have to stay balanced and keep your goals. He even prepares us for scholarship interviews.”

Singleton said the band is like a family and they have nicknamed their teacher, “Granddaddy Gray.”

“He teaches through life stories and jokes. We learn from his quotes and wisdom. He expresses his ideas and he is very passionate. He cares about us, deep down, with tough love,” Singleton said.

Gray said he would love to have $15,000 for each of the next three years to take care of the needs of the marching and concert bands. For Gray, it’s not just about teaching notes and marching, no matter what, he will continue to change lives through music.

Charlene Price-Patterson is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Charlene? Email her at CPPCityNews@gmail.com.

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