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Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.

Today, meet baritonist and all-around brass aficionado Marico Ray! As an MMI Fellow, Marico works with band students at Memphis Business Academy (MBA) Middle School and Treadwell Middle School. He recently chatted with MMI about how he's been staying productive during the pandemic, why educators need to meet students in their own time, and why it's time to bring back Memphis' marching bands. 

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My main instrument is baritone, but I'm a low brass musician in general. I’ve been playing for maybe 20 years at this point. 

My goal in the beginning was not necessarily to play an instrument at all. I was playing football at the time, in middle school, and I tore my shoulder up. I thought, “I don't want to just keep going home every day after school,” so I ended up taking a band class. Initially I wanted to play bass drum, but the band director put me on saxophone instead. I was like, "I don't want to do this, I think I might not even come back." But I ended up switching to trombone. I stuck with trombone after that, and went from there to baritone to tuba to percussion, and back to baritone. Baritone stuck.

What I loved about playing the baritone was that I could take my aggression out on the instrument, when I was angry. I could go outside and just play until I got tired, and then I'd be too tired to even be upset anymore. I would sit down and just mellow out, and play some stuff. It would relax me and calm me down. 

On Pursuing What You Love 

 I didn’t really see music as a career option until 11th grade, when I started to learn theory. That's also when I was admitted to Jackson State. I knew then that I wanted to be a music educator.

When I was growing up in Memphis, we had an All Star band and alumni band. And the band directors there were really inspiring to me. They would show us how interesting life can be if you do what you really want to do, or what you're really interested in doing. I would see them having so much fun working with the band. And even though it was summertime, and they could have been at home with their families, away from schoolchildren and all of that, they were still there interacting with us. That kind of led me to think, “Hey, I want to keep this thing going.” 

On the Importance of Band in Memphis

Back in the day, every school in the city had a band. That’s not true today, but we’re trying to bring it back to schools that are open to it. MMI is not in every school in the city, of course, and many schools need a little assistance to implement band programs. 

In order for that to happen, we would have to go back in time a little bit. It's really not hard. It will take more of what MMI offers, but we have to broaden what’s available. Because a lot of students just want to play music, and enjoy each other’s time, and get to get away from real life for a moment. Or, like me, just to be able to take their emotions out in a healthy way. That can save lives. I've seen some of the most hardcore people join a band, and redirect their lives. 

We just have to provide the support for schools to offer it. Then, students would see bands out there in the city doing different events, and marching in parades. Memphis used to have a lot of parades, and now there are far fewer. It used to mean a lot to the communities here.  

Of course, there’s the administration hurdle. Often, the music department gets pushed to the back burner when it comes to budget decisions, and instruments are expensive. But they don't have to always be expensive. If you can provide a school with 10 new instruments every school year, that can help with a lot.

On Working With Young People  

This year we had a young lady get full scholarships to three different colleges. She was actually part of MMI Works this past summer—Andrea D.  She got scholarships to Tennessee State, Lane College, and Alcorn State. She doesn’t have to pay a dime. 

I remember telling her, “If you want to be an educator, start teaching your peers now. When you become an educator, you’ll know how to deal with their age bracket already. 

It's all about interacting in students’ lives—meeting them where they are now. You can't teach them from your time, you have to teach them in their time. As a teacher, I have to understand what's going on today. How do they talk? What gets them to actually become interactive? What causes them to want to be motivated to do things? My own children tell me what's going on, and I keep up with them. That helps. We kind of hold each other's hand. With school being virtual it's a bit more difficult, but we're making it happen. 

Recently, I was able to do a college tour for the students. I went down to Jackson State, did a tour of the campus, and talked with the band director there so that students could get a sense for the campus and experience it virtually. Because it’s something completely different from Memphis, and shows them there are so many places they can go. 

Now, do we love our city? Yes. But do we want our children to stay here in this city only, forever? No. We want them to get out and go and see different things, see different places, you know? 

On Making the Most of Now—and Planning for Later

For me, quarantine has been all about taking advantage of what you have. Give me a situation where I'm stuck at home and can't really do anything, and I’ll make the most of it. So what can I do while I'm at home? Well, I'm a musician. So, I'm going to take advantage of the free time. 

I’ve been arranging lots of music so that the band I work with can get their music and have different songs to play. My compositions have gotten a lot better. The students like them! 

In general, I’ve just been trying to think and get different ways to get students involved. I’m very ready to get things up and moving. Right now we’re trying to see if we can get something to happen here at MBA. We had a small performance before the new year for Christmas. I kind of speed-taught the students, but they learned seven songs in two days!

Even though some schools are back to in-person learning, MMI has told the Fellows that we don't have to go back to the building. However, I'm here. And even though I’m here, the students are still virtual. We're about 30% back to where we were. It's slow getting back, but some progress is better than no progress. 

I'm currently working with a former MMI Fellow on a music project featuring  a couple of different instruments—no lyrics. And then looking even further into the future, I want to open a complete school for marching band. I want to open a school where people can come and do their marching band for a long time. You know, we have jazz and classical organizations like that in Memphis. But nothing really for band. 

I think that would be something really different.