Commanding attention

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – From inside the cafeteria at John L. Ory Elementary School, Calvin Berry III commands his troops to attention with stern, military-like instruction.

His crew is arranged on all flanks of the room, ready and armed for the next practice exercise.

But Berry is not a drill sergeant, and his commands don’t invoke stern discipline. His troops are not even men – they are boys and girls preparing for an upcoming performance as the drumline for the New Orleans Hornets.

“Cymbals!” yells Berry. “If I don’t see you having fun, you are going to do push-ups!”

With a quick command, the group springs into action. The snare drummers kick off the routine, followed by the bass drums, cymbals and quints. The final product is a smooth, rhythmic beat that is boisterous and beautiful at the same time.

Berry, a Destrehan native, is the director of The Master’s Touch Drumline, an endeavor he embarked on over seven years ago as a way to get area kids off the street and get them interested in something that could benefit them in the future.

“I started with younger kids, usually first- through eighth-graders” said Berry. “The schools had no solid music class, so I felt like I was filling a void in these kids’ lives.”

Berry’s idea eventually evolved from a school-oriented program to a full-fledged drum institution with different levels of acceleration for students who stick with it.

“We have it broken down into two basic levels,” Berry said. “We start with the ‘mini-me’ drumline, which is composed of kids ages 3 to 12. Then there is the ‘All Star’ drumline, which are high schoolers and high school grads. This is the group that performs for the Hornets.”

Although the kids are learning the ins and outs of percussion, drumming is not the only skill Berry imposes on his students. One of the requirements of participation is satisfactory marks in school.

“I deal with discipline and grades too,” said Berry. “I check report cards and make sure the kids stay on track in all of their classes. If they need help, I tutor them. The motto of my program is ‘guaranteed to succeed’ and I stand by that.”

Berry also helps some of the older students decide on their future education. He assists his high school grads with college applications and takes them on tours of his alma mater, Jackson State University.

“They get the chance to see what college life is all about,” said Berry. “They get one-on-one time with drummers in the school’s band. It motivates these kids to want to advance to the next level.”

If there is one thing that Calvin Berry III knows from inside out, it is percussion and drumming – he has had sticks in his hand since the age of three.

“My father is a professional drummer and my grandmother made it clear to me that I was born to play in the Southern University band,” Berry said. “Drums have been a part of my life for quite some time.”

Berry graduated from Destrehan High School in 1996 and eventually moved on to Southern University. Although he spent about a year at Southern, staying a member of the band was harder than he thought.

“Southern has a strict code about height,” said Berry. “I wanted to play snare drum, but I was too tall, so I ended up with the cymbals. Eventually, I was pushed to the bass drum, where I was really unhappy.”

Berry said he became so fed up that he decided to quit the band completely. As it turned out, however, it would end up being one of the better decisions he ever made.

“The week I quit, Southern was playing Jackson State in football,” said Berry. “When I saw their band perform, my passion was re-ignited.”

Berry said he filed his transfer to Jackson State, where he got to reunite with the snare he loved so much.

“Jackson State is still my home,” said Berry. “I can still go up there whenever I want and all my drum instructors are still there.”

Berry said the Master’s Touch name comes from his close relationship with God.

“His hand is on this program,” said Berry. “He gave me the calling to teach these kids, and I accept my role in his world.”

In addition to performing for Hornets’ games, Berry said his school has received calls from Xavier University and University of New Orleans.

“The word is out,” said Berry. “They all want us to perform.”