The Ford E-450 bus is plugged into an outlet just outside a side door at Haut Gap Middle School, the long, red extension cord stretched across the entryway like an odd mechanical tail. The electricity is needed to power seven keyboards inside the bus.
Students are stationed at each keyboard learning where the notes B, C and D are located, and they are reading a rudimentary lesson book that shows them how to position their hands so both thumbs can alternate playing middle C.
Sherry Smalls makes the rounds within the tight space, holding a conductor's baton, encouraging the kids to play through the simple exercises.
Meanwhile, inside the band room, Derrick Hazel sits behind a stripped-down drum kit teaching an assemblage of young students the different forms a backbeat can take.
The after-school lessons are administered by the Smalls Institute for Music and Youth Leadership, run by Smalls and her husband, Nathaniel Smalls Jr., who teaches bass.
The Smalls Institute operates a "mobile classroom," bringing music lessons to students at Title 1 schools who otherwise would get very little exposure to extracurricular arts.
It began in the Smalls family living room in 2008, became a registered nonprofit in 2009 and went mobile soon after that.
The Smalls family is big: Nathaniel and Sherry have six children, the oldest is 26; the youngest is 8.
Sherry, 49, works at the front desk of James Island Elementary School. Nathaniel is a truck driver. They are active as musicians at their church, Graham AME in West Ashley. She's the organist and music director; he plays bass. They're joined by Hazel on drums.
"The three of us also play with a local gospel group, The Joshua Singers," Sherry Smalls said. "Nathaniel has been with (the Mount Pleasant group) three years, I have been with them two and Derrick almost one year. Yes! We are quite busy."
Teaching young people to express themselves musically is a passion, Smalls said. When they started, groups of children would take over the Smalls home, which was equipped with three upright pianos, two electric keyboards, a baby grand and a Hammond organ, plus various guitars.
They'd charge $75 a month to the families who could afford to pay the fee.
A woman at church suggested to Sherry Smalls that if she loved teaching music so much, she should start a nonprofit.
"It's hard to be nonprofit if you're in your house," Smalls said. It's also hard to get grants as a startup. It's one of those Catch-22s: You need a grant to show results, and you need to show results to get a grant.
One day the Smalls dreamed up a plan. They'd find an RV somewhere, fix it up, install musical instruments and take their classroom to underserved rural areas of the state. That idea didn't materialize, so they modified it and started to shop around for an ambulance they could refurbish. But that didn't work out either.
Eventually, Nathaniel Smalls saw a bus for sale at a downtown church. The teachers bought it and prepped it for mobile music lessons. Soon they were working with local schools, Murray-LaSaine Elementary and James Island Elementary, as well as WINGS for Kids.
"The grant money started to come," Sherry Smalls said. They received $2,000 from the Coastal Community Foundation a couple of years ago, and just landed another $10,000 for 2014. The S.C. Arts Commission gave them $1,700.
Center of learning
Kit Fox, a site coordinator for Communities in Schools who is stationed at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island, connected the Smalls Institute with the school.
Haut Gap is a beneficiary of a 21st Century Community Learning Centers multiyear federal grant enabling the school to offer after-hours academic enrichment programs and bus transportation. Participating kids return home around 7 p.m., after a day that begins 12 hours earlier for some of them.
About 40 Haut Gap students qualified for the 21st Century enrichment program, according to coordinator and math teacher Lindsay Lawes.
On Monday, they get to work in a recording studio; Tuesday is devoted to robotics; Wednesday is the day Sherry Smalls shows up in her bus; Thursday is when kids explore the visual arts; and Friday is a less-structured activity day.
Two weeks ago, 24 students were learning about music and rhythm, making the music lessons the most popular of the enrichment programming, Lawes said. The grant-funded activities started last school year, and it's still too early to quantify their impact, but the school has seen some good results, Lawes said. Homework completion rates, attendance, grades and behavior all have improved noticeably.
Since many students enroll in elective math and reading enrichment classes during the day, they have no time for art or music.
Without the Smalls Institute and Haut Gap's "extended day," the school children would get practically no music at all, Lawes said.
Nathaniel Smalls played violin and cello when he was a student at James Island Middle School, an experience that helped set the stage for what he's doing now. In high school, he played football and "forgot all about music," he said.
Eleven years in the military and then 21 years on the road driving 18-wheelers hasn't made it easy for him to re-engage with music, but in recent years, the hauls have become regional and his determination to improve his bass playing has increased.
Soon after the Smalls married in 2000, a gospel music program lit the fire, Nathaniel Smalls said. He took a few lessons then started teaching himself, supplementing practice sessions with instruction from Sherry on how to read music.
Now the 51-year-old is planning to take online courses in jazz improvisation "to become a better instructor," he said.
Hazel, too, is advancing his musical training. The 26-year-old percussionist will enroll at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media this summer, he said.
"We are excited about this because the more folks we have on board certified in this discipline will increase our credibility," Sherry Smalls said.
She started playing piano when she was 8 and continued through high school, she said. In 1987, she earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from Grand Canyon University. Her first real job was with the city of Charleston Police Department, where she was computer system supervisor.
Then things changed, and that mathematics minor she had pursued in college came in handy.
Thirteen years ago, there was a shortage of math teachers, so she signed up for an alternative teacher certification program and landed a job at the Clark Academy, where she also taught music appreciation once in a while. Her career in education had begun.
In 2011, Nick Skover and Mark Slater, co-owners of Paisano's Pizza Grill, heard about the Smalls' mobile music classroom and expressed interest in supporting the endeavor. A young woman they had hired was making the rounds among local schools, dropping off menus and coupons, Slater said. At James Island Elementary, she met Sherry Smalls, who described the Smalls Institute. The young woman shared the information with Skover and Slater who extended an invitation to the Smalls.
Once a month, the music students gather at the pizzeria on James Island or in West Ashley to perform. It's a fundraiser hosted by Paisano's that generates some real money for the Smalls Institute: 30 percent of sales. "What they're doing is such a good thing," Slater said.
The relationship between Paisano's and the Smalls has flourished. In September, the musical couple played at Slater's wedding.
In the summer, the Smalls will drive to Hampton Park to offer children a chance to learn some music. It's as if the ice cream truck were passing through, Sherry Smalls said.
"Their faces light up and they're running toward the bus." Interest is high; sometimes there are too many for the seven seats. But the reward is great. "Some may have never touched an instrument before," Smalls said.
Now the Smalls are thinking about expanding what they do by starting a Children's Handbell Chorus.
The idea is for the kids to learn to play the instruments and work up a repertoire at their various schools, then congregate once or twice a year for a big rehearsal and concert, Smalls said.
She and her husband would divide the initiative into three stages: The first would put numbered bells into the hands of the children, making it easy to follow direction and understand the general sound that's supposed to emerge; the second stage would involve teaching the kids to read music and use unmarked bells; and the third stage would be for advanced players.
Such music education is certainly fun, Smalls said, but it's also empowering. Children who have few options for productive and educational after-school experiences are discovering that they have an interest in music and a chance to discover their talent.
This, in turn, improves their general school experience, Smalls said, an observation underlined by Lawes at Haut Gap Middle School. Music may be the Smalls' passion, but it is the children's great opportunity.
"If they're not getting it where they are, you've got to take it to them," Smalls said.
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Sherry Smalls of the Smalls Institute quizzes students on the different symbols used in sheet music before getting started with their music lessons at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island.×
Derrick Hazel, percussionist teacher, instructs students about different beats during music lessons at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island.×
Sherry Smalls of the Smalls Institute teaches students on the Smalls Music Lab bus during music lessons at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island.×
Students learn aboard the Smalls Music Lab bus at Haut Gap.×
Sherry Smalls, Smalls Institute, shows Kylia Marsland, 11, 6th grader, proper placement for her fingers on the keyboard during music lessons Wednesday at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island. Paul Zoeller/Staff×