South Charlotte

Marching to the beat of their own drums

These men in black do anything but fade into the background.

In fact, their music will make you want to grab the nearest water bottle, pen or chair and join in.

Quail Hollow Middle School's "recycled percussion" group, Men in Black, pounds out rhythms on whatever they can get their hands on.

Inspired by artists such as Blue Man Group and the "recycled percussion" dance troupe-turned-theater-group STOMP, Men in Black can make music with nothing more than drumsticks, ladders, upturned buckets, trashcans, pots and name it.

Quail Hollow Middle School band director Barb Tobin, 52, started the group 12 years ago, when Quail Hollow's feeder school, Smithfield Elementary, sent Tobin 22 percussionists. (At the time, all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools elementary schools had a fifth-grade band program.)

"The easiest way to tame the beast was to start an afternoon percussion ensemble," said Tobin.

Tobin hand-picks seventh- and eighth-graders based on their work ethic - which matters more than innate percussion skills, she said. In fact, most of the members play other instruments.

"If I could teach them the rhythms, they could do the rest," said Tobin.

Thus, Men in Black was born.

The group is called Men in Black because percussionists always wear black when performing, and at the time, all the members were males.

A number of girls joined the group over the years, though, so Tobin began to re-think the group's name.

But the students wouldn't hear of it - in those parts, the name "Men in Black" carries a lot of weight.

"It's such a status symbol," said Tobin.

The name Men in Black is also well-known across Charlotte and the state.

Men in Black has been asked to play at venues all over North Carolina - for the North Carolina Teacher's Convention, Habitat for Humanity events, 24 Hours of Booty (the Lance Armstrong Foundation's annual bike race), Presbyterian Hospital, and at a number of CMS schools.

Proceeds from these gigs fund Quail Hollow Middle's entire band program.

On New Year's Eve, the group of 11 played for a crowd at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's McGlohan Theatre on South Tryon Street. Leading up to the performance, Men in Black had several 10-hour practices.

"Some people think it looks easy, but it's not," said seventh-grader Sean Cameron, 13.

In the spring, the students put on a two-hour Café Concert, where attendees can eat while they watch the performance. They performed several of the pieces under black lights, with neon drumsticks and props. They had huge water-cooler bottles full of water and highlighter fluid. When they hit the bottles, the highlighter-water made a big splash inside.

"(Later that week) I went to Laser Tag, and my skin was still glowing," said eighth-grader Bryce Mauldin, 14.

Some of the pieces were written by Tobin, but at least one is the brainchild of the students.

At the end of last year, students spent a couple days writing a spoof on standardized testing, called "NCEOGMIB3RBT" - short for "North Carolina End of Grade Men in Black Three-Ring-Binder Test."

They performed it with desks and chairs, staplers, pencils and pencil sharpeners, and whatever classroom supplies they could get their hands on.

"It doesn't take any sound equipment," said Tobin.

Years ago, Tobin made a few non-negotiable rules that the students know well:

No. 1: Members must maintain an A/B average.

No. 2: Members cannot participate in afterschool sports at Quail Hollow because the practices would conflict.

No. 3: Members cannot date within the group.

And lastly, says 14-year-old Caleb Whitlock, grinning: "What happens in Men in Black, stays in Men in Black."

"(Mrs. Tobin) is very strict, and that's definitely one of the reasons Men in Black and the band program have grown so much," said eighth-grader Justin Giles, 14.

"But she's also really fun," said Mauldin. "She's got a poster in her room that says, 'When I get to heaven, can I play a drum instead of a harp?' "

JoAnn Cameron, mother of Men In Black members Harrison and Sean, said the group has had a great effect on her boys.

"It makes them better kids because it makes them better students," she said. "It's a sensible longing that is rare for middle-school students to have."

In addition to all of the after-school hours Tobin spends with Men in Black, she also spends four mornings a week at Smithfield Elementary. Due to budget cuts, all elementary schools in CMS had to dissolve their band and orchestra programs.

"They've cut music and everything in elementary school; it's just bare bones," said Tobin. "I firmly believe that band should start in fifth grade."

So Tobin created one. Four days a week, she and the fifth-grade students meet before school, 6:30-7:30 a.m.

"Parents are bringing them before school for this...and it's full," said Tobin. "That shows you the desire is there."

Tobin said students need more opportunities like Men in Black.

"How often do (middle-schoolers) get to feel like they've accomplished something and they're productive?" said Tobin. "Every once in a while, I think it's time not to do this anymore. And then I go to rehearsal and I'm like, 'I can't stop this.' "