Marcie Chapa in the classroom | David Royal
By Kathryn McKenzie
When you’re in the band room at North Monterey County High School, there are rules that must be followed. They’re on a board at the front of the class, just behind music director Marcie Chapa.
Enter the Room Prepared to Be Great! Always Play in Tone, Tune & Time! No Gum!
At 7:30 a.m., Chapa is leading a drowsy but determined-looking group of high school students, brass instruments and drumsticks in hand, through Souza’s “Gladiator March” and “Pomp and Circumstance,” which they’ll play at North County’s upcoming graduation ceremony.
Beating out the rhythm in the Souza march with her baton, she grows animated when the music doesn’t go the right way.
“Listen to the tuba,” she tells the students during the march. “You’re slowing down.” With passion, she points and waves, even jumping to the back of the room to do a little drumming, showing how she wants the snare drum to sound.
“I love this class — music is kind of my thing,” said Mackenzie Mauro, a sophomore who plays trombone in the band. “We can always depend on Ms. Chapa.”
Although it’s a typical day in the life of the band, the leader of the band is anything but ordinary. Chapa is a music educator by day, and a professional percussionist on weekends and whenever she can make it work with her schedule. Currently the principal percussionist for Stephanie Mills’ band, she’s also played recently with CeeLo Green.
But one of the standout experiences of her career is now coming back around, and it’s all to help the North County band kids.
Twelve years ago, Chapa was selected in national auditions for Beyoncé’s all-female touring band, which was also all women of color. Chapa recalls it as an exciting whirlwind of rehearsals and performances that took them around the world. It was also a period of intense bonding with the other women in the band as they lived and worked together.
Eventually, they all went their separate ways, but the band members remained close. And when Chapa asked them to come here to do a benefit concert to raise money for new NMCHS marching band uniforms, they enthusiastically said yes.
Headlining as Beyoncé’s Original All-Female Band Reunion, they (with Chapa) will perform at the Fox Theater in Salinas on June 21. And not only that, but all of them — Kat Rodriguez, Nikki Glaspie, Brittani Washington, Divinity Roxx and Tia Fuller (last year’s artist in residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival), plus a non-Beyoncé band member, Micki Miller — will teach a music workshop for young people the week before the concert.
Known as the Suga Mamas (or as they also refer to themselves, the OG’s), the All-Female Beyoncé Band first reunited two years ago in a fundraiser for the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston, which got some buzz on social media.
The circle of friendship that encompassed the band members while they were touring still remains strong and vibrant to this day. “Whenever she calls, we answer,” said Glaspie, a professional drummer now based in Austin, Texas, who graduated from Berklee and played alongside Chapa in Beyoncé’s band.
Rodriguez also didn’t hesitate when Chapa asked. “That was easy,” said the Grammy-nominated songwriter, saxophonist and singer, reached by phone in New York state. “We were together for five or six years touring with Beyoncé — we became family. Even though we only see each other occasionally now, it’s like time hasn’t passed at all.”
Rodriguez, like Chapa, is also a music educator when she’s not playing professional gigs with such artists as Nikki Minaj and Missy Elliot. She’s instrumental director for Young at Arts, a nonprofit youth music school in Bronxville, N.Y. and knows full well the challenges of keeping music alive for young people.
Nationally, music education at public schools has been challenged by changing curricula and priorities, and the fact that NCMHS has been able to hang onto its music program has been notable.
It’s also a boost for a school district that serves some of the county’s poorest and most marginalized students. More than 80 percent of the district’s families, who live in Castroville and unincorporated North Monterey County, are low-income, according to Yvette Padilla, administrative assistant to North Monterey County Unified School District superintendent Kari Yeater.
The North Monterey County High School band has long been a source of pride for the community. Directed for several decades by D.L. Johnson, the band played at Clinton’s inauguration in 1997 and traveled numerous times to China, Italy and other places to perform.
When Johnson retired a few years ago, Chapa came on board. She had come to teach in Big Sur at a girls’ leadership camp, and fell in love with the area. Leading the North Monterey County High School music program, which includes marching, concert and jazz bands with about 100 students involved, seemed like a perfect fit.
Chapa recalls being inspired by her high school band teacher and several other instructors when she was young, but says she also had an inner drive that just wouldn’t let her quit.
“When people told me, ‘You play good for a girl,’ well, that really made me want to prove something to them,” she said.
Growing up in Houston, she was ambitious and tenacious from a young age, and began pursuing her career at the tender age of 12, winning school competitions and contests that financed her way to the illustrious New School for Jazz and Contemporary School of Music in New York City. By age 18, she was performing professionally and she’s been at it ever since, performing not only with Beyoncé, but also with Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, Jill Scott, Al Jarreau, Kanye West and Mary J. Blige, among others.
Chapa’s time with Beyoncé was life-changing. She auditioned along with 5,000 other female musicians from across the country, and being selected was a surprise — in fact, as she told Elle magazine a few years ago, she thought it might be some kind of reality show.
“Seeing all girls on the stage was amazing,” said Chapa. “I had to pinch myself” to make sure it was real.
And it was Beyoncé’s intent to make a statement with her 10-piece traveling band.
“When I was younger I wish I had more females who played instruments to look up to. I played piano for like a second but then I stopped,” the superstar told BlogHer a few years ago. “I just wanted to do something which would inspire other young females to get involved in music so I put together an all-woman band.”
Chapa’s time on the road passed by at supersonic speed, in a blur of rehearsals, travel and performing, but all these years later, the bond of friendship and music still holds her and the rest of the band together.
And that’s not all the Suga Mamas have in common — a number of them are also music educators in addition to their work on stage, and they feel it’s their mission to bring music to new generations. “It’s about giving knowledge to the children,” said Glaspie.
There’s no doubt that Chapa’s career has also shown her dedication to young people. She taught music and was director of the drum line at Houston’s MacArthur High School before coming to North Monterey County High. Now living in South Salinas, she also gives her time to Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL) and a CHISPA percussion program for preschool and young elementary school kids. She also, just this month, earned a master’s degree in counseling from Brandman University.
“I don’t think she ever sleeps,” said Padilla, due to be a band parent herself when her son Gabriel enters NMCHS this fall.
Padilla said that Chapa has been “blossoming” in her role at North Monterey County High and also teaching percussion to the district’s middle school students. In fact, Chapa was recently named Educator of the Year by the Arts Council for Monterey County.
Having Beyoncé’s band members reuniting is a powerful statement, said Padilla: “Girls see them, and they say, ‘I could be doing that too.’”
Chapa devotes herself to other types of encouragement as well. On a recent youth leadership excursion to Southern California to attend WE Day, she led a group of North Monterey County High students, some of whom had never traveled outside North Monterey County before, or stayed in a hotel. She also took them to a rehearsal of CeeLo Green’s band: “See, I told you guys I do this.”
“She’s able to introduce them to so much more — there’s a lot of opportunities and a lot of doors to open,” said Padilla.
North Monterey County Unified has committed itself to music in the schools in a big way, and Padilla describes Chapa as “the icing on the cake.” Last year, the district received a $700,000 state grant which supports arts integration from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Arts integration is an enormously powerful strategic resource for improving education, particularly in schools within underserved communities such as North Monterey County,” Yeater remarked in a press release announcing the grant.
This summer, that arts learning experience will be provided in a unique summer school program in the district which blends art, STEM and computer science. Foster youth and students who are homeless, chronically absent, migrant, or lacking academic skills will have priority for summer school participation.
The arts integration program, in partnership with the Sunset Cultural Center and the Kennedy Performing Arts Center, is being implemented to increase student engagement and promote academic achievement.
Still, money is needed for other things as well. Such as those marching band uniforms.
The current uniforms, black with cream and silver accents, are more than 20 years old, and long overdue for an overhaul. Chapa is hoping that the June 21 concert at the Fox Theater will raise enough to buy uniforms for the entire marching band — 80-plus kids — and also help fund the band’s transportation to performances and competitions.
Tickets start at $20 for youth under age 18, $50 for adults and $75 for a special meet-and-greet with the band. It starts at 6 p.m. and includes a silent auction; all proceeds benefit NMC music programs. Sponsorships are also available. To buy tickets, click here.
As for Chapa? She’s looking forward to seeing her old friends again — and making music with them once more.
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