Tabb, wearing a gold chain and a baseball cap, doesn't look the part of a typical band teacher. But every weekday evening in the French Quarter, he beats out the rhythm on his music stand as students play their chosen instruments. In doing so, he gives them an alternative to New Orleans' rough streets.
"I tell everyone I'm competing with the drug dealers," said Tabb, 34. His program, The Roots of Music, offers free tutoring, instruments and music education to more than 100 students.
Reformed class clown Terrence Knockum credits Tabb with changing his life. The 15-year-old tuba player joined the band eight months ago, when he was failing in school and "heading up the wrong road," said Tabb. Today, Knockum is the band captain. He hopes to make music his career and teach it himself one day.
"Before, I was getting in trouble," Knockum said. "Now ... when I come here, I'm learning how to play the horn, be disciplined and, you know, just work hard."
Tabb can relate. During a rebellious phase in junior high, his band teacher became his mentor and helped him get back on track.
"He saved my life," recalled Tabb, a professional drummer with the Rebirth Brass Band, one of the city's most popular acts.
Now Tabb, a New Orleans native, strives to keep young people on the straight and narrow in the city with the nation's highest murder rate, according to FBI statistics.
"When all you've seen is the drug dealers and the killing, you know, they think that's cool," said Tabb, adding that many young people wind up in trouble because they have nothing else to do.
The type of music support systems that helped Tabb years ago have been struggling since Hurricane Katrina; musicians scattered after the storm and budget cuts ended many school music programs. As a result, Tabb chose to target 9- to 14-year-olds with his program.
"That's just the most vulnerable time of your life," he said. "If I catch them now, I can hold onto them for at least four or five years and guide them the way that we want to guide them."
Students meet from 4-7 p.m. every weekday, year-round. They work with tutors on schoolwork, practice their music and eat a hot meal before heading home.
Through funding from donations and sponsors, Tabb's group is able to provide bus transportation, instruments and food for free. He calls it his "no excuse" policy -- "you don't have no excuse why you're not here," Tabb said. With a 90 percent attendance rate, his formula seems to be working.
Tabb attributes the success in part to the nature of music.
"You're constantly learning something new," he said. "That's what keeps the kids coming back every day."
Since getting underway last year, The Roots of Music has already exceeded Tabb's expectations. The band marched in five Mardi Gras parades this season. The program also helped students improve their academic performances, with 85 percent having raised their grades in at least one class; some D and F students have become A students. And there are more than 400 children on the waiting list.
Tabb said he's assembled a "dream team" of musicians to help teach the students, and he personally works with all the beginners. No previous musical experience is necessary -- many students don't even know the names of the instruments when they start -- but youngsters like 9-year-old Lauren Washington, who plays the flute, learn fast.
"It's kind of hard to play, but I sound good," she said proudly. "It's fun!" Watch Washington and other students demonstrate their talents »
But the program isn't only about fun.
"Music is about discipline," said Tabb. He insists on good behavior and keeps kids in order with threats of sit-ups, pushups or tasks like picking up grains of rice -- but these measures aren't just punishment.
"We wear them out so they don't have any time or energy to get mixed up in anything on the street," he said.
Discipline aside, Tabb wants young people to realize that music can help them build a better future.
"I don't say that I'm saving lives," he said. "I say I'm giving life -- a whole different life of music."
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