By Michael Boo
Millions of people saw the hit 2002 20th Century Fox film, “Drumline.” What many probably didn’t realize is that the Atlanta A&T University band in the movie was played by a high school band. That band was the Marching Panthers of Southwest DeKalb High School, Decatur, GA.
Demonstrating the versatility of the program, director James O. Seda brought the school’s Wind Symphony to the Music for All National Concert Band Festival, where it delivered a spirited program of some of the most challenging music heard at the venue.
“As we always do, we rehearsed regularly during classes, after school sectionals and full band and special clinics,” said Seda.
“However the focus and effort from all involved, especially the students, was much more intense [preparing for the festival]. As the students gained more knowledge as to the significance of the event, as well as what it meant to our program, school and community to be invited, they took ownership to insure our success at the festival.”
While the students enjoyed all the aspects of the festival, the master classes were especially impressive and effective. “They had a wonderful experience in the master classes,” said Seda. They also benefitted from the lessons and values communicated at the opening session, and having audience time for the performing groups that ensured mutual respect and appreciation for all. He also said, “Kids being kids, they also enjoyed the student social.”
Seda is a 1998 graduate of Florida A&M, an institution that has been legendary for producing a huge number of band directors who have made their mark in the music world. According to Seda, Dr. William P. Foster was the brains behind the A&M band program; starting it in 1946 and not retiring until 1998. His musical standards came from the likes of University of Michigan’s William D. Revelli, with whom he was a good friend. Dr. Foster’s goal was to just make music, but his standards wore off on generations of band directors.
Seda majored in engineering for two years before realizing he wanted to be a professional musician, adding, “Dr. Foster’s motivation and inspiration and high standards wore off on me.”
After student teaching at Southwest DeKalb, Seda taught band at the school’s middle school feeder program for two years, while also assisting at the high school. The high school band program currently has about 250 members and there are another 200 in the middle school program and more in the four elementary bands that feed into the high school.
According to Seda, “The retention is excellent. We do a lot of activities with the elementary and middle school bands, so by the time they get to us, they know us well. The relationship starts early.”
Participating in the production of “Drumline” was a challenge and a treat. At the time, 20th Century Fox was insistent on using a college band. Someone from Fox came and heard the Southwest DeKalb band and the ensemble ended up portraying a college band. If you have a DVD of the movie, look for Seda in the scene near the beginning of the film, as one of the four musicians playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Along with associate director Nicholas Thomas, Seda did some of the arrangements the band played in the film. The band was on the film set from mid-October 2001 through February of 2002. The school system allowed the band to film early in the day and then go back to class. The members were held responsible for keeping up their grades. While it wasn’t a consistent schedule, maybe two or three weekdays each week would be devoted to filming, plus weekends.
The members wanted to do it and they understood the conditions. According to Seda, “They dug deep to be sure they could remain on the project. I think the experience of being on a movie set and the amount of recognition they got had a lasting impact on the program, helping recruitment. The kids were very proud of the product.”
Nick Cannon, who in real life was not a drummer, performed the role of college drummer Devin Miles. Actor Orlando Jones played the part of Dr. Lee, the motivating band director. Both actors came to the school and attended classes with the Southwest DeKalb band members, training with the band’s drum line. Director Seda put Jones in front of the band and taught him to how to posture himself as band director Dr. Lee, working with him 3-4 weeks before the band started shooting on the set.
The actors imitated the band’s mottos, language, rehearsal mentality, rehearsal statements, behaviors, and as much else as possible to convey atmosphere of the band. Even a couple band slogans made it into the movie. If the actors ran into a problem – like when Jones wanted to know how to cue a band – they would ask the high school directors how to do it.
The movie directors studied several collegiate bands to accurately replicate the mood and characters of a college band. They were quite determined to create an accurate portrayal of a real band director. Seda says all were pleased with the portrayal that made it into the film.
Nick Cannon’s character was based on a hotshot kid who was defiant, and he couldn’t read music. Seda says that not listening to the director and the band’s leadership would not equal success in the real world, and the band would not adjust to him as it did in the movie. “He wouldn’t get that many chances with his attitude.”
Director Seda explains the simple rules to the Southwest DeKalb’s success. “We work hard and practice hard. We have a supportive community. The band is a strong part of the school’s identity. When the name of the school is mentioned, people automatically think of the band. The school and community embrace the band and there’s an expectation of the band to be successful.”
As a final thought, he adds, “Southwest DeKalb is about 98% African-American. The school is in a settled, established community. We’re not here as an African-American band; we’re here as a band, period.”