Drums are, without a doubt, the coolest instrument you can play in a middle school band. At an age when kids want to make as much noise as possible and bang on whatever makes their mom craziest, drums fit the bill. Kris Manning and Braeden Kershner want to harness that urge and use it for good, not evil. A former marketer and Marine Corps drummer, respectively, the duo takes music's power to transform lives seriously, which is why they founded The Music Battery, a charity offering school tutoring and music programing for middle school students.
At 4 p.m. every day, Manning and Kershner go over to North Charleston's Morningside Middle School and march 40 students, ages eight to 14, to the Ferndale Community Center. Once they arrive, they get straight down to business for the next three hours. The goal is to keep the kids focused on self-improvement and out of trouble.
"We start with doing homework. We sit down with them and figure out what they need to do," Manning says. "Then we do calisthenics, get everyone jumping around. Only then do we start to play music. We want to educate their mind, body, and spirit."
Kershner agrees. "School comes first, no exceptions," he says. When we visited, the kids had just put away their textbooks and were doing wind sprints and pushups before getting into neat lines and starting to show off their musical know-how.
So far, the kids have just been tapping out beats on paint buckets, but The Music Battery is offering more than just percussion lessons. They're also getting instruction in singing and dancing, with end-of-day gospel sing-alongs and weekly dance classes by Peace, Love, and Hip-Hop. "Right now, they are learning about drum cadences," explains Manning. "A cadence or a street beat is played by the drumline to keep the beat while marching. Each drum part (cymbals, snares, bass drums and quad drums) will have a different part and they all fit together to create the beat. They're learning specific rudiments, different drumming techniques, to play their parts."
But Manning is quick to point out that group activities like this have another benefit: "Drumlines are unique in the way they teach kids to be disciplined and work as a team," she says.
The duo's efforts have already begun to take hold in the way the kids see themselves — they're confident in their abilities and responsible to one another. "I'm a musician now," says Deontre Steward, who is getting his first formal instruction in drumming through The Music Battery. "I can't wait to have my own drum and be a leader," he adds, before running off to practice fat crushes and dry crushes on his makeshift snare.
The road that led to The Music Battery was an unusual one. When Manning moved to Charleston three years ago from Connecticut, she started teaching classes at Kershner's Black Tie Music Academy on Daniel Island.
"We were hanging out one day, and we were talking about how we could help kids. We knew we wanted it to be musical," recalls Manning. "Braeden was the band director at Stall High School, and he had started a drumline there. This drumline turned out to be phenomenal and was featured on the Today show. It kept kids in an activity, out of trouble. We realized we can do this for kids as young as eight and up to college, so we got started from there."
Kershner's Today experience not only gave his students the spotlight, but showcased the teacher's dogged determination. When he was 18, Kershner learned every job in the orchestra and worked 11 jobs to raise enough money to bid on a chance to conduct the Boston Symphony. The Goose Creek native credits the effort to persistence, something he passes along to all his students.
Current Music Battery instructor DeAndre Lee is one of Kershner's early success stories; he was in the Stall High School drumline. Today, he works as both a security guard at the Francis Marion Hotel and as a head instructor with The Music Battery. "Since high school, the drumline changed my life mentally and physically by [making me] understand that when it's all said and done, no matter what, we need each other," he says.
A lot of the students from the original Stall drumline are involved in some form or fashion with the new program, and they hope that some of their current kids will want to emulate Lee and help out with newer students to teach them in the years to come.
These days, Kershner has earned a bit of a reputation as a miracle worker. "I heard that being in Mr. Kershner's drumline will help you be successful, and I want to be successful," says 11-year-old section leader Maliyeh-Day Sanders. She points to the emphasis on discipline and focus, but also musical skills like rhythm, timing, and movement she's picking up. "One day I want to be a professional dancer, so I'm learning a lot from him," she adds.
What Manning and Kershner are hoping to impart on their young corp is a sense of community, fun, discipline, and above all, a love of music. "These kids come in, and they have no expectations — they just want to do something fun," says Kershner. "I started drumming in seventh grade. They tried to hand me a flute, and I said, 'No. I want to play the drums.' From there, I joined any kind of music group I could. That's what I want to give to them."
The Music Battery will perform a free concert on Nov. 14 at the Ferndale Community Center (1925 Iron St., N. Charleston) at 6:30 p.m.