If you’re talking artistic opportunity for island youth, Dionne Donadelle is a one-woman marching band.
The St. Thomas musician has been teaching at Eudora Kean High School for more than 10 years, nurturing young talent and introducing her charges to the wider world of performance.
“They can compete with anybody in the world,” she said. “We are people of pride. We are people of determination. That, mixed with talent – the universe will be ours.”
It will take more than positive talk, however.
“I’ve been to the States and I know what they offer,” Donadelle said. “We have to change our perception” about music and arts education and begin grooming students much earlier and with more intensity.
Donadelle began her own music career in third grade, when she took up the trumpet, which she says is still her “main” instrument, though she also plays electric bass. Some of her family members were with Milo’s Kings; her mother, Lillian Garfield, played bass clarinet with the Community Band and her godmother is the esteemed music director Georgia Francis.
Despite a background heavily laced with music, when Donadelle headed off to college, her first thought was to earn a degree in physical therapy. It took only a year at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., for her to realize her true nature: She had to dance to the piper. She switched course and in 2002 she earned her bachelor’s degree in music education. Two years later, she had a master’s degree in music theory and composition from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“I would say classical is my main genre,” Donadelle said, although she is at home with jazz, pop, and an array of Caribbean styles and can hold her own with virtually any type of music.
“I wrote a composition for my thesis,” she said. Titled “Island Reflections,” the work represents a year on St. Thomas, starting in January with the calm and tranquility of island life, revving up in the spirited springtime rhythms of Carnival, then thundering into a storm season that crescendos into a hurricane, and finally easing into the rebuilding.
Donadelle said she drew on her roots for “Island Reflections,” weaving in portions of the Virgin Islands March and various folk tunes.
“It’s never been performed yet,” she said – although some of her other works have been. “I’m trying to get it performed actually this year.”
Her ideal orchestra would be comprised of students from many V.I. schools as well as adult musicians. Not all will need to be at a professional level, she said with a smile – somebody’s going to have to bang the garbage lids to represent galvanized sheeting flying through the storm.
At Kean High, Donadelle teaches music appreciation and Advanced Placement music theory. She directs the jazz band and the marching band. And she used to direct the concert band.
This past year she formed a new singing group, tapping male musicians from the school bands, bringing them together and dubbing them the Maroon Men (after the predominant school color.) Every musician should also be a singer, she believes.
“It teaches you to open up your mind to the whole music experience,” she said. “The earlier you do it, the better for you.”
The group won gold at a recent competition in New Orleans, she reported. In fact, most of the school’s entrants at the competition won either gold or silver.
While her primary focus is on the high school, Donadelle also has worked with a summer band camp at her church, the Cathedral Church of All Saints, and she is the assistant director of the V.I. Youth Ensemble.
Started just two years ago, the Ensemble is “the best of the best” of young musicians from throughout the territory, she said. They come together for rehearsals every other Saturday on the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands and are taught and mentored by some of the territory’s most respected musicians, including drummer Dion Parson, and others from the 21st Century band movement, Virgin Islanders who have attained success stateside and want to share their experience.
The idea is not only to teach the youth music, but also to teach them the music business, including such things as “how to price a gig” and general communications, Donadelle explained. The Ensemble also performs at commercial venues; the group just wrapped up a series at the Old Stone Farmhouse. Last week five of its 12 members were in New York “getting a feel for the life of a jazz musician.”
Travel is important to development and Donadelle says she wishes she could give all her students more opportunity for it – not only to the mainland but also to the wider world.
“I got a lot of support growing up,” she said. “I do live by (the motto) ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ …At minimum, I should be giving my students what I got.”
While she’s helping prepare young people for careers, Donadelle is also focused on her own growth.
“Collegiate level is where I see myself going,” she said. “But right now I’m here and I love what I do.”
She credits her son with what she considers one of her biggest accomplishments – establishing the “Battle of the Bands” competition for high school musicians. Now 6, Christopher was born the same year the event started. “He’s my inspiration,” she said.
Is he going to be a musician?
“He’s starting to mess around – ironically – on the drums,” she said, laughing. “Ironically” because Parson’s son has picked up the trumpet.
Everyone must listen to the voice within.