Eastern High Marching’s Capitol Hill rallies delight residents of the capital

The mostly low-income kids in the high school oriental band are loved by the mostly wealthy D.C. homeowners who witness their practice.

Eastern High School Band Director James Perry, right, gives direction to students as they walk the Capitol Hill neighborhood to prepare for homecoming and the school's centenary.
Eastern High School Band Director James Perry, right, gives direction to students as they walk the Capitol Hill neighborhood to prepare for homecoming and the school’s centenary. (Catherine Fry/The Washington Post)

Rush hour traffic came to a standstill as the high school band director walked backwards to a busy Capitol Hill intersection, followed by a row of teens holding trombones, trumpets, French trumpets, and flutes. The thunk-thunk-thunk A thump of bass drums in the humid October air.

“Forward, band, you should look straight ahead,” James Perry, the director of the East High School Orchestra, shouted to the students through his megaphone.

“Hey hey hey hey!” They shouted again.

Eastern High’s comeback and the school’s centenary celebration were just a few days away, and the 65-member band – known as “”blue and white crawling machine– He was rehearsing for a Saturday show that would attract hundreds of Eastern students, parents and alumni.

Now, they followed a familiar route, down Northeast Street toward Lincoln Park, to the delight of neighbors and anyone else who found them.

Practically everyone pulled out their cell phones to record the band as they passed. With four students crossed, they took the entire route.

Eastern High School rehearsed before they returned home on Capitol Hill on October 6. (Video: Lizzie Johnson/The Washington Post)

People cheered and shouted encouragement from their front stands, car windows, and small tables set up outside the local coffee shop, Wine & Butter. Teenage kids chased down the building. Sometimes passing patrol cars would turn on their lights and block oncoming traffic so students could pass safely.

Only the dogs were not impressed. They would lunge at the ends of their leashes or curl up behind their owners, unsure.

But Perry, 41, who also works as an attendance consultant at Eastern, didn’t take it personally. Chalk it on the drums.

As the students descended high on the street, over wet leaves and under a sky of drooping rain clouds, a driver of a black Toyota Camry rolled out of his window and looked outside. A woman smoking a cigarette, a blue handbag hanging over one shoulder, stopped on the sidewalk, staring.

“Oh squad?” Berry shouted.

“EHS!” they shouted.

they passed Million dollar homes rows Decorated for Halloween, with pumpkins piling up on the porch steps and ghosts of hard gauze frozen on lawns. A child pressed the front door of a house, his breath staining the glass.

Nearby, Katie Telegman, 42, put on a warm jacket and went outside to hear the music better.

said Telegman, who works in communications and lives in Capitol Hill Since 2002.

For a while, the pandemic disrupted these impromptu rallies. Now the neighborhood appreciates them even more.

“We’ve watched some kids grow up,” Telegman said. “It is unique and brings joy to people’s lives. They don’t put this on real estate listings on the street, but they should. Where else in the capital can you find this?”

“Pride of Capitol Hill”

In room W01, Perry sought to give his students something they could not always find anywhere else in Eastern High School – a place they dreamed of.

The Eastern School’s 735 students, almost all of them black and mostly from poor families, face obstacles rarely encountered by the wealthy residents surrounding the school. Eastern has long struggled with low test scores, high absenteeism, and constant teacher fatigue.

She and her twins were inseparable. Then a gunman tore up the 15-year-old boys.

But in the band room, the teens felt they had a chance to look forward to more.

“The main thing is family and new opportunities,” explained Markel Hodge, 17, a trombone player. “It’s more than I would get in other programs. I want to get good grades, go to college, get out of my neighborhood. I’m thinking of Texas Southern.”

Berry, who played the alto saxophone in the Norfolk State University band, knows such a thing is possible. Recent graduates of the Eastern program have received full scholarships to Columbia, Florida A&M, Mississippi and other universities—places where he tries to take students to band competitions to show them what’s possible.

What is not covered by the student scholarship is reinforced by sponsorship packages from their music university. Boxes arrive from the squad stuffed with laundry detergent, socks, underwear, towels, deodorant, and other college student essentials.

He said many of Berry’s students “come from difficult backgrounds and deal with a lot at home”. For 15 years, he ran the program, which includes younger students from nearby middle schools that lack music programs.

Perry raises money for the band’s program by charging a reservation fee for their performance In the community. It costs $750—plus transportation—to pop from the cylinder line. The entire band costs $1,500.

It takes two shows to pay for the competition, he said, usually in the Washington area but sometimes as far away as Atlanta. Buses are the most expensive part.

In 2019, Perry said he donated his own money to the band by selling his car so the teens could travel and buy new warm-up costumes. He said he is now walking to work.

Capitol Hill Community Foundation He also gave the band Grant of $20,000 To repair and replace devices, and announced plans to raise an additional $90,000.

The kids of the band have always been stumped. They used to play in metro stations to raise money. They washed their tattered clothes in the laundry because they couldn’t afford to dry clean, and manually repaired them as needed. But the band’s motto – “Pride of Capitol Hill” – has proven true time and time again.

“It was just embraced by society,” Berry said. In 2008, when The band needs $3,000 Neighbors raised money to ride the bus to a show in Ohio. And in 2015, when The band needs another $4,000 To reach Virginia, the community climbed again.

Students rehearse three times a day, before, during and after school, and usually finish at 7 p.m. Berry often reminds them that their reputation as the “first band in town” means it all.

The band’s room reflects their success. Pianos and cabinets are topped with colorful trophies and other prizes. They have performed in four NFL halftime break shows, three presidential inauguration shows and the FIFA World Cup Games Opening Ceremony. When the Washington Post walked out of its old building in northwest D.C., Al Sharqiya Squad walked through the editing room.

Berry tells the kids that anything but excellence is “bad for the brand.” When students talk to each other or fail to listen, it causes them to do push-ups, called “character building”. He does not tolerate misconduct.

“It’s Homecoming Week!” Berry shouted into his megaphone on Tuesday afternoon as they began training.

The students were assembled on the football field – blankets were placed around their faces to keep out the rain – in preparation for their invasion around Capitol Hill.

“The show is on Saturday, all of you,” he continued. “Do we give up? Or do we conserve our energy? Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” They shouted again.

Davon Richardson, a 15-year-old sophomore playing the trumpet, has thrown Berry questions, eager to move on. He wore a thin shirt, despite the 53-degree weather, and would jump from foot to foot to stay warm.

He said he liked to walk around the neighborhood.

The residential streets they walked down reflected a different reality from their school—the homeowners were mostly white—but the students loved it.

“People cheer in their homes and listen to us and have fun with us,” Richardson said. “I love hearing them scream.”

“Yes, I feel like I’m making people’s day,” added Tobias Johnson, 16, a young trumpeter. “I see them smiling, and it makes me so happy.”

Their tools may be old and their uniforms worn out. Their oath may have short horns. But they knew they had an unparalleled ability to arouse joy.

The strains of “Just Got Paid” by Johnny Kemp were resounding in the street. It was one of the band’s favorites, along with the song “I Would Die 4 U” by singer Prince.

The teens continued their long walks – all squished knees and curled drumsticks – while venturing deeper into the neighbourhood. In house after house, heads popped out of the front doors. Music was the only temptation that could drive them outside on a rainy afternoon.

“Get the band off, go with the band!” Adrienne Marsh, 44, the political advisor, swayed with her two young daughters.

On the sidewalk, a blonde girl in a schoolbag shrugs her shoulders. Her younger brother leaned in their mother’s arms for a better view.

Just then, two girls in pink shoes passed, holding hands, chasing the band.

One of these was Bahman Kosha’s 6-year-old daughter, Niki Kosha, who said your favorite instrument is the drum because it makes her “feel happy.”

“I like that the band is loud,” she said.

“We come almost every day and watch,” said Kosha, 41, an engineer.

“As soon as the kids hear them, we have to get out,” agrees Philip Medec, 42, a director at a nonprofit.

He pauses, watching his daughter, 3-year-old Tessa Medik, run again with Nikki.

At the end of the block, the band paused.

Perry blew his whistle. The teenagers calmed down, and gave some pointers over the megaphone.

“My fingers are freezing,” whispered the flautist to her colleague. “They will fall.”

Moments later, they turned around and resumed the march. The trombons went first, dancing as they progressed, followed by the rest of the band, in crashing cymbals, banging drums, and hitting a sousaphone.

“Eastern!” they shouted.

In their wake, the music slowly faded away and calm returned to the neighborhood.

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