“I’m good at music!” exclaimed the young boy, following his first percussion lesson at the Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County. Robin Tolleson, drummer and director of Hendersonville Community Music Center, says that until that experience, the boy had been shy about playing. Other teachers have similar stories to tell.
HCMC got its start seven years ago when Trinity Presbyterian Church was given a substantial memorial gift from the family of the late Peggy and Ray Hannan, long-time parishioners. The Hannans had requested that, if at all possible, their gift be used to promote music.
Among its goals, HCMC (originally called the Trinity Presbyterian Community Music Center) was “to actively bring music to the entire community by providing diverse music education programs and public performances.” To help accomplish this, the organization began offering music classes and purchased instruments students could borrow at no charge.
Tolleson first became involved in HCMC in 2013, teaching the drum set and hand percussion. What attracted him, he says, was the opportunity “to share some of what I’ve learned about music, as well as the stories and the inspiring music of the people I’ve heard and interviewed over the years.”
His background is rich and varied. “I think my early interest was in the whole communal music experience — going to free concerts in Golden Gate Park as a boy,” says Tolleson, “as well as watching my dad arrange music and rehearse with his musicians at our house in San Francisco.” He says his father probably wanted him to pursue some other vocation than music because it can be such a hard life. “But in the end, I think he was happy about it. He actually got me a ticket to see The Beatles at the Cow Palace, so he’s definitely partly to blame.”
A lifelong percussionist, Tolleson early in his career also began writing about musicians and their art. The concerts at Golden Gate Park attracted the up-and-coming musical acts; one time, he ventured behind the band shell and saw “a cluster of shaggy musicians,” and asked them what they were doing. Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, looked at him and replied, “Oh, we’re just sitting around smoking bananas.”
From that unexpected but auspicious beginning, Tolleson went on to become a jazz drummer at night, often playing with three or four groups at a time, and by day writing profiles about some of the greatest musicians of our time. (In addition to writing for Bold Life for about 10 years, his pieces have appeared in Downbeat, Modern Drummer, Bass Player, Guitar Player, Wind Player, Strings, and Mix.)
He still plays in four bands — Hip Bones, a trio he started in San Francisco in 1993; Hendersonville-based group Big Block Dodge, another trio, begun in 2000 with Bill Altman and Jeff Hinkle; Latin-jazz outfit Cabo Verde; and soul-funk party band The Secret B-Sides, veterans of the festival circuit. For the past three years, Tolleson has also played drums at Trinity Presbyterian Church, where he and multi-instrumentalist/choir director Stephen Klein are basically a two-piece band that welcomes guest soloists and accompanists for service and concerts.
This past January, Tolleson accepted a position as director of HCMC — and quickly took the organization in a new direction. “My vision was that it become more [about] outreach; that is, taking the music out into the community to where the people are, rather than solely focusing on music lessons at Trinity Presbyterian Church,” he explains.
His first week on the job, Tolleson called the Boys & Girls Club — the local chapter of the national after-school program — and asked how HCMC might help them. (Grant money from the Community Foundation of Henderson County helps the cause.) Just two weeks later, he and his colleagues were offering the kids classes in guitar, drums, and band. He says the staff is “terrific” and that the kids have been inquisitive and energetic. “It’s been a great fit.”
HCMC now holds a different class each day of the week: guitar on Mondays; voice on Tuesdays; a rotating cast of singer/songwriters, poets, and rappers teaching a lyricism class on Wednesdays; music theory on Thursdays; and percussion and music history on Fridays. “The larger lessons [the students] encounter through their musical experiences are important, too — things like performance etiquette, improvisation, creativity, and personal expression,” says Julia Hockenberry, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. (Tolleson adds patience and teamwork to the list.)
To further expand HCMC’s outreach capabilities, Tolleson came up with the idea for the Mobile Music Lab. Fortified with a specially assembled crew of teachers, he can “swoop into any situation and demonstrate music-making,” as he puts it. The Mobile Music Lab helps those from beginners to band directors, bringing instruments so that an entire class can get hands-on experience. (The fully loaded lab numbers a dozen acoustic guitars, three electric guitars, electric and acoustic bass, three drum sets, five djembes and five doumbek (respectively African and Asian hand drums), eight electronic keyboards, hand percussion, a trumpet, a trombone, a saxophone, and a flute.) “I think of it as a ‘musical rapid-response team,’” says Tolleson.
Last spring, the Mobile Music Lab did a weeklong clinic at a local elementary school, and also spent a Saturday working on improvisation, dynamics, and phrasing with the Hendersonville High School jazz band, culminating in the First Annual Middle and High School Joy of Jazz Festival, held in May.
“Children should be nurtured in the arts as well as the sciences,” says Tolleson, “and what they see too often today are more and more programs being taken away. I think we’ve hit a critical point in our arts education where we can’t wait for them to come to us for lessons. We’ve got to take the music to where they are.”
Boys & Girls Club member Brixson Parker, 11, who learned to play “Smoke on the Water” on guitar, describes his experience with HCMC: “I think this class is awesome because it helps kids understand different cultures and instruments. And the teachers are great because if you don’t catch onto something the first time, they’ll slow down and let you try again.”
Tolleson envisions more growth for HCMC, including contacting the public schools in the county. He’s begun work on a program to present music at St. Gerard House, a Hendersonville facility that serves families whose lives are affected by autism.
“Getting to know and work with kids in the schools and at the Boys & Girls Club has shown me how important even one hour can be in someone’s day,” he says.
For more information about Hendersonville Community Music Center, see hvlmusic.com, check out the group’s Facebook page, or call 828-692-6114.