Sitting in the top row of the bleachers at Madison Park’s football stadium two Fridays ago, Dennis Wilson couldn’t believe his ears.
The Boston English High alum and long-time Madison Park boys’ basketball coach was watching the English-O’Bryant football game but he was listening to English High’s new drumline perform in the stands.
The Boston City League’s only drumline was banging out “Dat du Dat Dat du Dat Dat Dat” on their drums before shouting “EHS what.”
“We used to have a drill team … I just want to compliment you on the spirit you are bringing to my Alma mater,” Wilson told the school’s new drumline leader and music teacher, Eytan Wurman. “I thought it was OB till I heard EHS.”
“We say it loud and proud,” Wurman told Wilson.
The performance during Friday’s game was not just the drumline’s first at a football game this season, it was the first time a band has played at a football game for the first public high school in the nation in maybe 40 or 50 years, by Wurman’s estimation.
“I would have to think it’s even longer than that. There was no band in my era and that covered 34, 35 years I was at English,” said Keith Parker, who coached English’s football team from 1974 to 2009.
When the school’s new headmaster, Ligia B. Noriega-Murphy, took over this fall she dropped the GPA requirements for athletes from a city-high 2.5 to the district minimum 1.67 in order to get more participation on the athletic fields and courts. But in doing so, Noriega-Murphy, who helped found the Boston Arts Academy, also said she wanted to get more than just athletes in the school involved in athletics.
The drumline is the first step in that process.
“English High School used to have a huge, huge arts program,” Wurman said. “English High School 50 to 100 years ago had a music program as big as Boston Latin’s; there’s pictures all over the place. There used to be everything, art ,theater, dance, music you name it.”
Jerome Penn, a junior on the drumline said he has played some drums at his church but he’s always wanted to play for his school.
“Everyone is more together with it,” he said. “There’s more of a chemistry that people have. People are really enjoying the school. … [Playing] at the O’Bryant game, it was really fun. We might of messed up a couple times because were are just starting to get it but we will develop it and we’ll get better.”
Wurman, who ran the now defunct drumline at Latin Academy for the last few years, started teaching at English this fall. He started the school’s new choir and drumline on the first day of school with the students assigned to his elective classes.
Most of the 18 members of the drumline have never seriously played a musical instrument before this fall. The drumline also performed at the Columbus Day Parade on Monday.
“I took kids who never thought about playing drums or said ‘Oh yeah that’s cool but I don’t know how to do it’ and now they sound good,” Wurman said. “Now they are marching and doing formations and they are starting to love it.”
Wurman said it’s not hard to teach music to students who are willing to learn and he noted that he's already beginning the process of teaching them to read music.
“Music is like any other school subject in that you can teach it to anybody, you don’t have to have talent in order to get an A in a math class,” he said. “What you need is skill, focus and attention and that’s how you learn the skills necessary to play music.
“When people say ‘Oh your students are so talented' I say ‘Thank you, I appreciate that but what they really are is skilled.' Some of them don’t have talent but they have the skill to make them capable to do what they are doing.”
Nobody was more surprised to hear the band play during that game than English coach Chris Boswell, especially because all of the school’s games are on the road this season after the turf on their home field was deemed unsafe to play games last month.
“I was shocked when that band started playing,” he said after the game. “I heard about it. I knew they were going to start playing but all our games are away so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. And it was very gratifying when they started to play and they only played when good things happen.
“I’m very pleased to have a band. … We’re trying to change the culture and that’s a big part of it. That’s part of the culture and change we’re trying to get.”
The loss to O'Bryant two weeks ago ended a two-game win streak for a team that went winless the two previous seasons. Ruben Pena-Sanchez, who caught an 11-yard touchdown pass to help put his team up 14-8 in the second quarter, said the drumline provided motivation to him and his teammates.
“This really shows that the spirit at English is turning around because of this group of guys,” he said. “We have a special group of guys and I tell them that every day.”
Wurman said the drumline plans to play at the remainder of the football games, including Thanksgiving morning against rival Boston Latin School, which will be the126th edition of the nation’s oldest continuous high school football rivalry.
“Which will be first time in remembered history there is music on both sides of the field at that Thanksgiving game at Harvard Stadium,” Wurman said. “Which will be a lot of fun.”
Latin School not only boasts its own pep band, they also have beaten English in all but one of the meetings meetings between the two teams since 1981.
“We used to beat Latin,” Wilson said after thanking Wurman for starting the drumline, “and we will again this year.”
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