“Instead of a class, he wanted us to be a family.” How a high school bandleader teaches community through music

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If you hear kids making music anywhere in Yuma, Colorado, you probably have Robert Zahllerr to thank. He’s the only instrumental music teacher in the school district, which means he spends his days running between the only middle and high schools in town, helping neighborhood kids learn their scales.

But he is more than a music teacher: he is an event. Zahllerr is an energetic optimist. He uses the influence that comes with charisma to spread his passion for collective music.

Yuma is a small town of about 3,500 people located in the far eastern plains of Colorado, smack in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the state. Downtown is an island surrounded by miles of farmland, pasture and feedlots.

But amid those endless cornfields, Robert Zahllerr has carved out such a special place for his high school music program that teenagers are flocking to the music room.

Robert Zahllerr conducts his introductory guitar class at Yuma High School.  Photo: KUNC

Robert Zahllerr conducts his introductory guitar class at Yuma High School. Photo: KUNC

“[Zahllerr] is the main reason most people get into a band,” explained Sam Wells. And she would know. Wells learned trumpet with Mr. Zahllerr from fifth grade until she graduated from Yuma High School last spring. They always stay in touch.

“He had a great personality. It was always fun,” Wells said. “When we walked into his room, the whole school knew him. So a lot of the kids were like, like, maybe the band ain’t that bad since [Zahllerr’s] A good guy.

Zahllerr is 40, with a youthful energy that makes him appear more like a peer than a parent. He has strong ties to Yuma, the town where he grew up. He is a proud graduate of the high school where he now teaches. When his own children grow up, they will follow. He credits the music teachers he had there as a teenager with inspiring his teaching style and philosophy.

“Being in a group and having the teachers that I had has shaped me and transformed me into what I hope to be for other kids,” he said.

Today, the high school orchestra is not only one of the most popular classes in the school, it is an institution. But this has not always been the case. When Zahllerr first returned to Yuma 15 years ago to take on the role of group leader, the program was anemic.

“I think there were 16 in that group…that was barely enough to fill the first two rows of the music room.” he says, consulting the photo he keeps on his desk of this very first generation of students in the group. “And I had this moment of ‘oh, no! It might not work.

Anna Chapman plays trumpet in the Yuma High School Orchestra.  Photo: KUNC

Anna Chapman plays trumpet in the Yuma High School Orchestra. Photo: KUNC

He spent the summer before that first school year going door to door, making a personal connection with each student.

“I was nervous when I saw the list, ‘oh man, if they know it’s another new teacher, they might bail’,” he said, referring to a revolving door of group teachers that the school had just seen. “So I tried to talk to everyone over the summer and say, ‘maybe if you’re on the fence, let me tell you about one more year. I tried to throw a net over them.

And it worked. Within a few years, he had created so much enthusiasm for the high school band that with 80 band members, the small band room was packed. He must have started to discourage children from joining.

“I never turned anyone down,” Zahllerr said, “but I encouraged them, because they were in eighth grade, to make sure they did it for the musicality and not just the environment.”

This year, he has 46 students in the group.

“Forty-six feels really comfortable,” he said. “I think I at least hit everyone with a hello or something personal every time they come to class.” It helps that he has a sense of humor – teenagers love that. But he’s so successful with kids because he doesn’t really see his role as making music with them. As a music teacher, he says his job is to build community.

“It’s a place, and it’s a group that kids need and some kids need more than others,” he said.

Several years ago, Ann Godfrey’s children needed Mr. Zahllerr’s group. They moved to Yuma as teenagers – a tough time to join a tight-knit school in a small town. Godfrey’s daughter, Libby, was in 10th grade.

“She started with beginner guitar, and I’m like, that’s an easy A, Libby, just have fun,” Godfrey recently recalled.

She says Libby was not particularly musical. But “she fell in love with Mr. Zahllerr. And the next thing you know, she’s in a band playing the cowbell. He just brought her in with open arms and brought her up to speed and really helped her bond with the school and with all her friends. It was amazing.”

Zahllerr emphasizes community first. He says that once those social connections are made, the music follows. “Sometimes it’s almost more important for you to be in this group with us than for us to beat you if you don’t get every note right.”

High school student Javier Duran is in Zahllerr’s popular introductory guitar class.

“He tries to teach us to stick together,” Duran said, explaining his teacher’s philosophy. “Instead of a class, he wants us to be more like a family.”

Anna Chapman began playing trumpet with Mr. Zahllerr in fifth grade. Now she is a junior and plays in the high school orchestra.

“While it can be difficult, it’s usually like a stress reliever for me,” she said, explaining how Zahllerr’s charismatic personality anchors the band’s community he works so hard to foster. “He’s probably always cracking a joke that I find hilarious. And it’s always kind of like the calm in the storm.

But that’s not all about Zahllerr. Senior Forest Rutledge plays baritone. He says he learned a lot from how Zahllerr encourages students to rely on each other.

“He always helps everyone,” Rutledge said. “And so you kind of just watch it, and then you do the same.”

In music class, Zahller reinforces mutual aid by giving the most advanced students a job: reaching out and helping their peers grow.

“You can select a talented kid” and surround them with developing musicians, he explained, “I’m going to find five kids who are maybe a little less confident…and I’m going to put them next to a person who they can hear the melody, they can hear what they’re supposed to do. It’s a very safe way for a child to say to themselves, “Okay, now I can know what it must be like.”

Every Zahllerr band practice goes through this ritual that demonstrates its band-centric philosophy: as the band practices its scales, it orders each class of musicians to be quiet, one by one, starting with the most experienced musicians: terminal students. As each grade level retreats, the remaining group becomes a little quieter, a little less confident, and a little less skilled.

All the while, you can just see the freshmen eyes getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Zahllerr said. “Like, ‘oh no, we’re next, and we’re going to have to play alone.'”

Eventually, it’s just the ninth graders, playing alone, unsure of their position. They start playing the scale, but they miss a few notes. Then a few others. As the tones fall flat, the musicians become discouraged and the musical progression falters with all the grace of an awkward-faced plant.

Zahllerr does not scold. Instead, he encourages the freshmen, reminding them that the whole group is stronger together.

The most important part of the demonstration comes next: Zahllerr brings everyone back into the fold, bringing the group together in full force.

“It wouldn’t work if you didn’t do it at the end,” he said. “Get everyone together and make everyone feel like ‘okay. Now listen to us. It’s so much bigger and better when everyone’s back.

As the more experienced students return, the progression soars. Music fills the room. The grades are strong and precise and the students are proud. The group’s community ties are strengthened; they are now ready to make music.

Zahllerr knows that in a community that works, people need to feel connected, like they belong somewhere. They need to feel a purpose and an obligation to each other. Every morning, he stands in front of the Yuma High School Band and teaches them to practice these skills.

He hopes his students will take away an important lesson from their time in the music room: if you can be someone’s light, you must.

This story is part of a collaboration of public radio stations across the country, including NCPR, called America Amplified. America Amplified is a CPB-funded initiative to support community-engaged journalism in public media.

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