He’s no John Lennon, but for a few hours on May 5, 15-year-old drummer and aspiring musician Julian Chavez-Talley got a taste of what life as the world’s most celebrated rock-and-roll icon must have been like.

You may say Julian’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.

The freshman from Duke Ellington High School in Washington, D.C., was one of eight lucky students (complete list below) who were selected to spend the day living out their dreams of rock stardom–minus the late-night hotel suite, of course–aboard the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a $3 million traveling recording studio and multimedia lab complete with musical instruments, synthesizers, and state-of-the-art computer hardware and software.

“This was a first for me,” said Chavez, whose favorite musicians include Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell, and Elvin Jones, who made a name for himself in the ’60s while playing with saxophonist John Coltrane. “It was a great experience.”

The mobile music factory rolled into Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., as part of the National Education Association’s (NEA’s) Read Across America Program, a nationwide initiative to promote learning and literacy among students of all ages.

Marsha Smith, a teacher with the Montgomery County Public Schools and executive committee member of NEA–the nation’s largest teachers union, with more than 2.7 million members–said the bus was intended to reach out to older students in particular.

Washington-area students Julian Chavez-Talley, left, Dominic D’Eustachio, center, and Will Timpson enjoy a jam session aboard the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus on May 5.
(Photo courtesy of NEA)

“When people think about Read Across America, they often think about Dr. Seuss and literacy for elementary-age students,” Smith said. “What they don’t often think about is its connection with high school students.”

Smith said the studio’s marriage of music and technology provided the perfect environment–not only to promote literacy, but also as a means of expression–for students to make observations about the society in which they live.

As part of the program, high school students from across the Washington, D.C., metro area were invited to submit applications that included original song lyrics, poems, or an essay addressing the challenges of modern racism and the importance of unity. The theme of the event was created in partnership with OneNess, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to defeating racism through music, the arts, and education.

The winners–all eight of whom hail from local high schools–were invited to Montgomery Blair to spend the day aboard the visiting tour bus mixing sounds, recording songs, and creating and producing their very own music videos. Chavez-Talley was selected as the resident drummer and percussionist.

Aside from its own sound studio–complete with a full assembly of instruments, including everything from drums to electric guitars–the giant tour bus also houses a state-of-the-art electronic multimedia lab outfitted with the same computers and digital-mixing equipment used by chart-topping musicians from John Mayer to Alicia Keys.

“My eyes were as big as the students’ when they walked onto the bus,” said Smith about the vast array of recording technologies on board.

The interior is divided into two separate recording environments. The front studio offers the opportunity to participate in the creation of multimedia projects. Here, students learn about the different audio and video components and assist in the recording, mixing, and editing of music and videos. The back studio is a more traditional setup for bands and the remote recording of concerts and special events.

Powered by Apple Computer’s audio and video solutions, the studios feature a full range of instruments and equipment, including guitars, basses, keyboards, drums, digital workstations, DVD/CD duplicators, video cameras, two turntables, and a new software-based DJ station.

Three on-staff recording engineers work with students to help them turn their artistic visions into reality.

Having spent a full day on board the bus mixing tracks and collaborating with his fellow musicians, Chavez-Talley said the experience provided him with a pretty clear picture of what life as a recording artist must be like. “If I ever do become a professional musician,” he said, “it’s going to be good to have something like this under my belt.”

John Legend gave a special performance for students visiting the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus in Anaheim, Calif., earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of jlsc.com)

The bus, an extension of the nine-year-old John Lennon Songwriting Contest, tours the country year-round making stops at schools, music festivals, concerts, community centers, and conferences, hosting hands-on workshops intended to underscore the importance of music and arts in education.

Smith said the NEA chose Montgomery Blair to host the event for its reputation as one of the region’s leading performing-arts schools. “Montgomery Blair is one of the premiere arts high schools in the country,” she said. With more than 3,000 students, Montgomery Blair also is one of the area’s largest high schools and boasts an award-winning music department celebrated nationally for its music technology, jazz, and choral programs.

On May 6, the bus will be parked outside the NEA’s headquarters building in downtown Washington, where education leaders and policy makers will have a chance to tour the mobile facility and see and hear the program’s results firsthand.

Given the national emphasis on accountability and student test scores ushered in under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Smith said she hoped the bus would serve as a reminder to educators that not everything a student learns can be measured by responses on a bubble-style scoring sheet.

“It’s not a pencil-and-paper test,” explained Smith about the program. “It’s simply another way that [students] can show their achievement.”

For students–especially at-risk kids and children from poorer communities–music is an outlet of expression that is all too often overlooked during the school day, she said.

“What we’re really trying to do is create a love of learning and of poetry that students can link to the everyday world … and at the end of the day, walk away with a product that promotes racial and social harmony,” she said.

Given the tough fiscal climate, Smith realizes it’s unlikely that many schools could afford the pricey collection of high-end instruments and digital equipment found on board the bus. But that doesn’t mean students and teachers can’t benefit from the experience.

In the words of John Lennon, Smith said, the goal is to “Imagine” what’s possible.

Complete list of contest winners:
On May 5, the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus was visited by Washington-area students (clockwise from top left) Jeffrey Holliday, Ginny Blair, Jasmine Martin, Tamea Stover, Julian Chavez-Talley, Rebecca Elias, Eddie Byrd, Will Timpson, and Dominic D’Eustachio.
(Photo courtesy of NEA)

Jeffrey Holiday, 17, is a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. He is a singer and guitarist whose favored musical genre is rock and acoustic.

Edward Byrd, 16, is a junior at Montgomery Blair High School. He has written more than 20 rap songs but his real love is music production. He has shown great talent as a music technician.

Julian Chavez-Talley, 15, is a freshman at Duke Ellington High School in Washington, D.C. Originally from New Mexico, he made it through the rigorous entry process and is now sharpening his skills as a drummer and percussionist.

Dominic d’Eustachio, 19, is a senior at Montgomery Blair High School and plays both acoustic and electric guitar. He is also a singer and has written more than 20 songs of his own and loves rock and folk music.

Jasmine Martin, 15, is a junior at Friends Central High School in Havre de Grace, Md. She loves singing and songwriting and backs up her performances with equally strong skills as a pianist. She is a poet and songwriter and loves to sing Rhythm and Blues.

Tamra Stover, 17, is a senior at Montgomery Blair High School whose favorite music is pop and R&B. She has written more than a dozen songs in these genres.

Will Timpson, 18, is a senior at Montgomery Blair High School who plays both folk and blues guitar. He is also a singer and songwriter.

Virginia Blair, 14, will be entering Loudon Valley High School in Purcellville, Va. A singer and songwriter, she’s also an accomplished pianist and guitarist.

Date City Event Site
5/6 Washington, DC NEA/OneNess National Education Assoc.
5/9 Freehold, NJ Video Shoot Barkalow Middle School
5/13 Fairfax, VA School Battle of Bands Robinson Secondary
5/14 Fairfax, VA School Battle
Winner Video Shoot
Guitar Center Fairfax
5/24 Columbus, OH Video Shoot Capacity Youth Arts Program
5/25 Columbus, OH Video Shoot Capacity Youth Arts Program
5/26 Columbus, OH Fatty Koo Day TBA
Complete schedule


National Education Association

John Lennon Educational Tour Bus

Tour Bus Gear List

Montgomery Blair High School