ST. PAUL – Several years ago, Pao Yang started taking students from his St. Paul charter school on field trips to the Minnesota State Fair. They visited the animals and the crop art and they always finished up by watching the high school marching bands in the daily parade.
For Yang, who came to this country as a child in 1979 with the first wave of Hmong refugees, nothing summed up the United States quite like the military precision of a parade and a band in uniform.
"It's part of the American dream," said Yang, a former special-education interpreter with Minneapolis public schools, who with his wife, Christianna Hang, founded the charter Hmong College Prep Academy in 2004.
Now, Yang wants to start a Hmong marching band. He's taking it slow, starting with middle school students.
But in four or five years, he plans to see his students march down Dan Patch Avenue at the fairgrounds playing Sousa.
"We are American now and we need to integrate ourselves," Yang said. "One way we can contribute to this great nation is to create a band and be part of the parade. We could be part of the community at large."
There are other ways to join the American mainstream, of course, and as the chief operating officer at Hmong College Prep, Yang is invested in getting his students into college and jobs. But "being part of the parade" holds symbolic meaning. To him, it's a way for the Hmong community to play its part and give something back to the city that welcomed them a generation earlier.
Always close to the Fair
Hmong College Prep Academy was founded as a charter school in Minneapolis for high school students who were falling through the cracks at traditional public schools. In 2006, it moved to St. Paul, near Como and Snelling avenues, and about six blocks from the State Fair. With the addition of an elementary and middle school, it has grown to 1,370 students.
About 90 percent of the students are Hmong, with the remainder made up of Karen refugees, also from Southeast Asia, and a handful of white and African-American students.
The school leadership always intended to create a robust arts and music program and started with choir because it's relatively inexpensive. After a building expansion a couple of years ago, the school finally had a band room and was ready to start a band program.
"Most of our kids come in behind in English and math, but you can't just teach reading all day long to make them proficient," said Danijela Duvnjak, a former high school English teacher who is now director of teaching and learning at the school. "We want to educate a well-rounded child, and music is part of that."
'An American tradition'
The man in charge of executing the marching band vision is Roy Pienaar, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Minnesota and alumnus of the university marching band. When he was hired in the fall of 2013, the energetic trumpet player knew creating a program from scratch was "an opportunity he couldn't pass on."
His marching orders were to create a band, but his first challenge was to get sixth-graders interested in playing instruments most of them knew nothing about.
The school held an open house where Pienaar let students try clarinets and flutes. In the first weeks of school, he visited homeroom classrooms and played band videos of the "Jurassic Park" and "Star Wars" soundtracks and the pop song "Happy" played on saxophone.
"I had to teach not just the students and parents but administration and other staff members what concert band is and what instruments it uses," Pienaar said. "When they think of band, they think of a rock band with electric guitar and a drum set, so this concept of a concert band was brand new."
It's also uniquely American.
"I'm originally from South Africa," Pienaar said. "I moved here when I was 4 years old. We go back every so often, and I can tell you there is no marching band in South Africa. I've studied abroad in Australia and there is no marching band there. It's truly an American tradition."
Thirty-five sixth-graders signed up for band last year, a third of the class. The school received a $10,000 grant from General Mills to help purchase instruments, which are loaned to the students. About 85 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and many parents can't afford to rent or purchase instruments.
At the spring concert in May in the school's new 500-seat auditorium, the band played a popular Hmong folk song called "Sib Pab Ciaj Vaj" that Pienaar and school choir teacher Cindy Pierce arranged for beginner band.
"The parents were so excited," recalled Hang, who is the school superintendent. "They loved it. They were so amazed. They didn't think you could play Hmong music on the American band instruments."
Word of the band spread, and this fall, Pienaar easily recruited 50 sixth-graders, half the class. The nonprofit organization Vega Productions, with help from community volunteers, donated used and refurbished instruments.
'If you faint, we'll catch you'
On a recent morning, Pienaar perched on a stool in front of his seventh-grade band and ran through the half-dozen pieces they had prepared for their winter concert. Under a poster of the Beatles "Abbey Road" album cover and a portrait of saxophonist John Coltrane, several rows of students sat in blue and maroon school uniforms, looking at their teacher with quiet attentiveness that any community band director would envy.
"We're going to start with 'Winter Wonderland,' " Pienaar said. "Can I just hear woodwinds and brass?"
After the first few phrases, he cut them off with a hand gesture.
"Trumpets! Way to play out!" he said encouragingly. "It sounds really good. Now, if you have staccato quarter note, I want you to make them really short. Like this." He grabbed his trumpet from its stand, one of several instruments arranged at his side, and blasted out a series of punchy notes.
They played through "Star Wars" and "Union March." Pienaar asked lots of questions like, "How can we make measure 35 musically more interesting?" He told the brass to get louder at a crescendo.
"I know that's going to take a lot of air," he joked. "But if you faint, we'll catch you. ... I promise."
A musical language
Pienaar says his Hmong students are some of the best he's directed in his short career. He's noticed that in particular, they have a good sense of pitch.
Take Kevin Vang, a slight 12-year-old whose long hair fell into his face as he slouched in his seat. He's the second-oldest of seven children and said he likes trumpet because his dad played it briefly in school.
"(Kevin) literally picked up the instrument and played it," Pienaar said. "He could just hear right away and match notes. Since Hmong is a tonal language, and their hearing is so specific, they can hear pitch. There is a correlation there. It's fascinating. I work with University of Minnesota pep bands and my Hmong kids' recognition of pitch is better than some of the college students I work with.
"When they get to high school, they are going to be amazing," he said.
In the classroom next door, choir teacher Pierce echoed Pienaar's observation. Research has found a correlation between the tonal language Mandarin and perfect pitch, and though it hasn't been studied, Pierce speculates that children growing up hearing and speaking Hmong have a similar aptitude.
"My kids can't sing out of tune," said Pierce, who previously taught in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. "My middle school just cannot sing out of tune – a middle school choir.
"Roy is probably having the time of his life," she added. "Because they can hear these little differences in the pitch. For a new band, they sound really good. Amazing, really."
Parents and students also seem to have bought into the program. Nancy Lee, 12, initially joined the band last year because there wasn't room in choir, but now she says it's her favorite class. She plays clarinet.
"It's pretty hard because you have to hold your lips a certain way," she said. Like other students, she's expected to practice at home 120 minutes a week.
Her classmate New Light, 12, decided to play clarinet after he saw it at the summer open house.
"It was so fragile, but so powerful at the same time. So I picked it," he said. Now that he's played for more than a year, he said he's enjoying teaching himself popular songs by watching them on YouTube, including the hip-hop hit "See You Again."
"We're like one big, happy family playing music to make people happy," he said. "I like the bond band creates with me and my classmates. And it's uplifting. If you're tired and down some morning, it makes you feel better."
Light is one of five children in his family, and sometimes finding a quiet place to practice is a challenge, he said. Pao Yang said that's a challenge for a number of families. He knows one young trombone player who practiced in the hallway because there wasn't room in his family's apartment. When neighbors in the complex complained about the noise, the boy tried practicing in the basement laundry room, but the machines were too loud. Now, he practices at school.
"I have a girl who plays tuba and the parents drop it off every morning because the instrument doesn't fit on the school bus," Yang said. "That's the kind of commitment I want from my parents. They know that it's not just going to be a marching band, it's going to showcase us being integrated into mainstream culture."
Yang has been searching online for marching band uniforms. He favors something traditional in the school colors of navy and maroon. And the parents are talking about raising money for uniforms with a noodle soup fundraiser.