Hear them go boom!

How a one-of-a-kind teacher hopes to take Grant Union High School's drum line all the way to the White House

Grant Union High School’s drum line students call James Van Buren “Mr. V.” The group was recently the only drum line in the state selected to play for the president in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., next year.

Grant Union High School’s drum line students call James Van Buren “Mr. V.” The group was recently the only drum line in the state selected to play for the president in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., next year.

photo by lisa baetz

Grant Union High School's drum line is crowdsourcing funds to pay for its trip to Washington, D.C. Donations may be made online at www.youcaring.com/other/drumline-to-the-d-c-/192707.

This music room is a portal to a low-tech world. The TV isn’t flat. There are no iPads or digital projectors. But there is a VCR, and you don’t see those often anymore. Broken window blinds reveal blasts of sunshine. In the middle of the room, Grant Union High School teacher James Van Buren hunches over a drum, trying to tune it.

“They really have to be anchored down,” he utters. It’s recently purchased. In fact, it’s probably the only new thing in the room.

After a minute, he pops up off the ground, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a pressed white T-shirt extending nearly to his knees. “All right, let’s get cracking,” he announces, his voice light but electric. A dozen or so students obey with immediacy: pulling snares over their necks, hoisting tubby bass drums up to their chests, falling in line like boot-camp cadets.

It’s almost 5 p.m. on a ridiculously scorching Friday in July. Most kids around this time are probably trying to find a swimming pool. But the drum line and its leader, who the kids call Mr. V, rehearse:

“Drum line!” Mr. V yells.

“Yeah?” all the kids answer.

“What’s up?” he asks.

“You know,” they respond.

“Hit me!” he blasts.

Boom-boom, tak. Boom, tak. Boom-boom-boom, tak. Boom, tak. Roaring thuds and rickety taps crank up the room’s blood pressure. The kids swing and sway in unison. Some even juggle their sticks. Cheerleaders run into the room, pumping their arms and shaking their butts. The scene is magnetic.

Grant’s drum line has emerged in a matter of years as one of the premier music programs not just in Sacramento, but the entire state. It did this not by winning competitions—Mr. V refuses to let his kids compete—but by performing in the community. It’s played at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s events and major union fundraisers, NASCAR races and Sacramento Kings games.

Founded in 2008 with a zero-dollar budget, “the line” makes enough money from these gigs to be self-sustaining. The drum line once earned $2,800 for a six-minute performance.

They’re going to need to do a lot more to meet their latest goal, though: Playing for President Barack Obama at the next Fourth of July parade.

Grant was recently picked to go to Washington, D.C., the only drum line chosen in the entire state. “We have to raise $100,000. It’s extremely difficult. That’s a lot of money,” Mr. V says. Drumsticks already cost $10 a pair, and mallets go for $50, and they go through those like the school goes through toilet paper. The first payment is due next month.

It’s a challenge for a high school and a community that desperately needs a positive image boost. Lately, Grant and its neighborhood, Del Paso Heights, get more attention for things like shootings and tuberculosis outbreaks. These inner-city kids from “the Heights,” “the Flats” and “the Manors” probably never grew up thinking about playing drums, let alone for the president. It could be a life-defining moment.

But this story isn’t some cheesy after-school special about a tough-as-nails school, thug kids and a down-to-earth teacher who changes their lives. Michelle Pfeiffer isn’t gonna pop through that music-room door with Coolio. Yeah, it’s true that Mr. V loses drummers every year to crime. He even has a drummer in jail right now, he says. But he also has kids studying music at universities. These students aren’t that different from rich kids in Rocklin or Elk Grove. They’re everyday kids with dreams and cellphone bills.

The difference is Mr. V, a 59-year-old special-ed and music teacher with an inimitable passion. His Grant Drumline will go to Washington, he promises.

“I’m driven now to take this to the ultimate.”

You can’t fake it

Grant High drummers rehearse.

photo by lisa baetz

The drum line’s shoulders hang low. Kids file out of the well-worn Grant auditorium, with its old-timey theater chairs and dim lighting, on a cool Tuesday morning in August. No one’s feeling that after-performance high. “That wasn’t our best,” says Michael Turner, a senior who plays the snare drum.

Turner is upset with Mr. V, saying that everyone was late. Or didn’t even bother to show up. He says that Mr. V was late, too.

“Now hold on,” Mr. V interjects. But he doesn’t reprimand, or tell the kids to shut it. He explains his world: how he got up before 4 a.m., picked drummers up at their homes, drove all the gear to the auditorium. And then how he went back to pick up more gear, again, before the 9 a.m. show.

He treats the kids like adults. And Turner and the others buy into it. “We’ve been doing this for four years,” he says after the discussion. “We’re all a big family.”

Turner first got hooked on banging drums during an eighth-grade assembly, when the drum line visited his junior high. “It was the first line I ever saw play,” he remembers. “That was all it took.”

His story is a lot like 15-year-old Adriana Sepulbeda, who just signed up three months ago and now plays a bass drum almost larger than her. The shy sophomore says she practiced three days a week all summer, for three hours at a time, plus at home every day.

James Mayor, also a sophomore, is on the football team, but he makes time to be on drum line, too, when football season is over. “Mr. V is always cool,” he says. “He’s not like all the other teachers here; he can relate to anything we do because he’s been through it.”

It’s true that Mr. V, whose friends just call him V, can empathize with north Sacramento life. He grew up in a hard-nosed Kansas neighborhood—gangs, poverty, even segregation—in the ’50s and ’60s. His dad was a touring musician, a drummer, playing with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and others. “My father wasn’t around, he wasn’t involved in my life. He was trying to make it happen,” he says.

At 14, though, his dad came back and V moved with his parents in Colorado. He started dabbling with the drums, but that didn’t stick, and he moved on to the saxophone. After a few years, he too was traveling the United States, playing, starting his own bands, and finally even moving to England, gigging with guys who played with Tangerine Dream, Alice Cooper and Paul McCartney. For a while, he lived in Sir Richard Branson’s home. He says you could make up to 100 pounds a day in England, playing the streets by day and the clubs at night.

But that life didn’t last. V’s wife is “a very smart woman,” and he felt the urge to get his degree, too. It took more than 10 years, while working as a cop in Southern California, but he entered his 40s a political-science grad.

The family moved to Elk Grove, where V started teaching at South Point Academy, an alternate school for kids with emotional and behavioral issues. At-risk kids. “One thing I learned was that these kids, they really liked music,” V says. He turned his drum set into the centerpiece of the classroom. He taught all subjects—English, math, science—and he incorporated music into his lesson plans. “And before I knew it, it started defining me as a teacher.”

That school was a place where kids would sometimes attack the adults. Under 6 feet, V is barely taller than his students. “It was very intimidating. You have to come up with strategies right away where the students connect with you. Because they’re not afraid of you.”

Mr. V seems like a father to his students. They respect and admire him—but they also kind of see him as one of them, too.

V smiles and laughs. “You know, I’m a big kid at heart.” Then he’s serious. “I have values, I understand what’s right and wrong, but for some reason, I have this uncanny ability to connect with what’s current, with what’s happening out there. I absorb it like a sponge. And the kids read that.

“They understand what’s genuine and what’s fake.”

Mr. V came to Grant in 2007. He started an after-school unofficial music club where Polynesian kids who wanted to freestyle on drums, and football and basketball players who wanted to rap would hang. In time, they were calling this music crew the Glee of Sacramento. “It was incredible,” he says.

Then one day, the principals asked him: Why not be our drum instructor?

Sacramento’s flagship band

Seven musicians and V squeeze into the living room of a north Sacramento home on a muggy Monday night. The walls are plastered with movie posters and dozens of egg crates—so many eggs!—and it smells of hot amplifiers. The occasion is jazz-band practice for one of V’s side projects, a group called Elements. Funk is first on the agenda. “You’ll feel it,” V says as they kick off “Thank You” by Sly & the Family Stone. He drives the song with a fluttering saxophone melody. Later, he puts the sax down and plays R&B on the flute.

Two observations: V spends a ridiculous amount of time each week playing music, but that’s not why he was at first apprehensive about starting a drum line at Grant.

Mr. V leads the Grant Drumline during a recent practice at the Twin Rivers Unified School District headquarters. This was on a summer weeknight around 7 p.m., probably when other kids were cooling off in the pool.

photos by nick miller

He just didn’t want the drum line to be boring. To be the same old. He’d seen what other schools were doing with their marching bands and drum corps. It was “really strict, military, straight and rigid,” he says. “That’s cool, but that’s not music.”

Mr. V wanted his classroom to be more like a jazz club. A place where students come in, ask “What key is that song in?” and then jam. “I want my kids to be able to sit down and play with any musician.”

That’s one of the reasons why he lets the kids pick out a lot of the songs. Today, they play Drake, T.I., Outkast, Lil Wayne, even Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper with the summer hit “Fancy.” You know, the one with the hook “I’m so fancy.” They want to push it even more and play stuff like YZ, too. Most drum lines just pitter-patter. Grant incorporates electric keyboards and bass, and the campus hip-hop hopefuls get a time to shine on the mic, too.

“We decided to not follow the mold. We’re setting trends. We’re changing what a drum line looks like,” V says.

The drum line first started turning heads during half-time at football games. Then, it started playing political events, 5k runs and even at the Crocker Art Museum. And with the Sacramento Philharmonic. It, at one time, was even the official drum line of the Sacramento Mountain Lions football team.

V explains it like this: “When muscular dystrophy calls, they don’t call your choir or your band. They call Grant Drumline. When Make-A-Wish calls, they call us. When the churches call. When the politicians call. Grant High School is the flagship school for music in the community. We are the flagship band for the whole of Sacramento.”

Ego much? “But that doesn’t mean we’re the best. There are plenty of other good drum lines. We just happen to be the busiest.”

The drum line doesn’t have a bus or shuttle, and most of the kids don’t have cars. Mr. V picks kids up in his wisteria-colored Honda Odyssey. “I am the school bus,” he says. He doesn’t look like he’s about to turn 60. Clean-shaven, no gray hair, physically fit—he doesn’t look a day over 40.

To play at the California State Fair this year, V made three trips each way delivering gear and students. On his day off, during the summer, paying gas with his own money. It’s a dedication unequaled. And it’s contagious.

“He makes his students want to work,” says Tamara Eugene, who coaches Grant’s dance team, the Pacerettes, and collaborates with Mr. V often. His strategy is almost like a trick, Eugene says. “The way he teaches, it’s like putting on a show. But there’s substance, there’s learning behind it. He’s one of those teachers you wish that everyone could have what he has.”

Samuel Timoti is a drum line alumni who returns often to his alma mater to volunteer. He says he likes to help Mr. V because it’s all about “pushing kids up, not down.”

V, who has two kids of his own from a previous marriage, keeps it simple: “If you lower the bar, I think all human beings will take the path of least resistance.

“But if you raise the bar …”

Cellphones and $100 shoes

It’s a Wednesday morning in downtown Sacramento, and the drum line’s just finished performing in front of a few thousand teachers for a union conference at the Convention Center. Gov. Jerry Brown will speak on the same stage the next day. It’s one of those paid gigs that keeps the line afloat. The kids are sacrificing their summer vacation, again, but they don’t seem to care. They hang backstage, peeking through the curtains at the choir group performing. Afterward, in the loading dock area, they bounce and smile and chat with each other. This is fun. This isn’t work.

Mr. V has a few ground rules that keep drum line juju on the up. He doesn’t allow negative attitudes. You can’t use the N-word or curse. When he’s not instructing the drum line, he also a full-time teacher of at-risk kids, students who’ve gotten into trouble in the past. And just like putting a drum kit in the middle of the classroom when he taught in Elk Grove, he goes about things differently at Grant, too.

“I have a points system in my classroom,” V explains. Kids get grades, but they also acquire points throughout the school year. You get positive points for doing everything you need to, like studying for tests and paying attention. You lose points for being rude to your classmates or if you don’t participate. And at the end of the year, students can cash in points for prizes, like iPods or just money. All this comes out of V’s pocket.

And he lets the kids adjudicate the points. Did a student disrespect you? Well, then how many of their points do you want? “That’s what keeps them in check,” V says.

“And it is worth it, because I have a group of kids that listen.” It’s so popular, in fact, that a few other Grant teachers have adopted the system.

Kadhir “Raja” Rajagopal has been a vice principal at Grant for eight years. He calls Mr. V’s approach amazing. “He’s recruited students with behavior and academic challenges. He realizes that kids are hungry to engage things. He’s the real deal. He takes in students who have nothing going for them,” Raja says.

Mr. V says people used to call his drumline wannabes. Now, other schools copy his unique approach.


But what impresses Raja more is V’s passion. “I’ve never seen a day where Mr. V doesn’t have energy.”

Grant Union High School is tucked away in one of Sacramento’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The gumbo spot across the street makes a killer stew, but it’s an eyesore shack. Illegal dumping, slummy apartment complexes and gangs, and the temptation to join, are very real.

V says the drum line can be hard to maintain. “You have drummers, and they get in trouble,” V explains. But they’re not bad kids. “They want money. They end up going to jail. Burglary type stuff. They’re smart kids, and they can make the grades, but they want money.”

Drum line works because it fills a void. It’s an option that didn’t exist for the kids. Oftentimes during summer drum line practices, there are more girls banging beats than boys. And it’s cool for football players, like Amir Reams, who plays bass drum but is also on the junior-varsity team. That’s not normal at most high schools, jocks hanging with the “band nerds.”

The kids, most of them from the surrounding neighborhood, where the average wages are lower than most of the city, seem unfazed by the school’s lack of money or the modern facilities you might see at a school in a wealthier neighborhood, such as Granite Bay. Is there a chip on their shoulder? Does inequality motivate?

“Kids, for the most part, don’t think about it,” V says. “Rich kids have $100 shoes. Our kids have them. Our kids have cellphones. Other kids have cellphones.”

He says that when he grew up, it was obvious that the world was lopsided: It was segregated. “Kids today, they have access to everything. In fact, they waste a lot. They don’t compare themselves to some student in Granite Bay. They compare themselves to someone on TV.”

But still, they are sometimes wowed. Mr. V remembers a show a few years ago at the Mondavi Center, where students from other schools arrived in Mercedes-Benz cars and carried their instruments in leather cases. His drum line kids were like, “’Dang,’” he says. But he told them not to front.

“You come as you are. We are Grant.”

Hit me!

DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s classic jam “Summertime” can be heard across Foothill High School campus on this Tuesday morning at 7:30. It’s the first training day of the school year for teachers and administrators throughout the entire Twin Rivers Unified School District. Women in slip-on shoes and shorts and men in golf shirts clutching coffee cups march toward the football field. You wouldn’t blame them for interpreting the choice of music as a kind of cruel joke: Summer is breathing its final breaths. Time to get to work.

The packed bleachers are full of color and chatter and life. Cheerleaders chant. Mr. V stands near the end zone, behind him a few feet are 14 drummers, all sporting matching blue jumpsuits and spotless white sneakers. The kids play a game where they sneak each others’ phones, snap selfies, then return them.

V takes the moment to reflect. “Six years ago, when we first started, we had 28 drummers, but only six of them could play,” he says. Their equipment was busted: snares ready to break at any minute, drum harnesses rigged together with shoestrings and coat hangers.

“I remember people calling us ’drum line wannabes’” after a show, V says. This upset the squad; he had five drummers quit the next day. “But now, I look around and every other high-school drum line has dancers, has keyboards and is trying to play hip-hop.”

At 8 a.m. sharp, the line throws on its gear and takes formation. The rally begins, and, of course, the Grant Drumline is the first order of business. Perhaps as it should be. The crew marches out to the 50-yard line, in front of the new Twin Rivers superintendent and a couple-thousand staffers.

V stands tall in front of them, his face uncharacteristically stern, focused:

“Drum line!”


“What’s up?”

“You know.”

“Hit me!”

The first show of the school year begins. Boom-boom, tak.