Upon walking into Ypsilanti Community High School and seeing Adam Collins, you’d probably think he was a student. Even in his second year as band director at the school, he still gets mistaken for a high schooler. At approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall, with clean-cut blonde hair and a very boyishly mousey yet-undeniably good-looking face, wearing a maroon pullover and khakis, Collins doesn’t really look like he belongs at the head of a classroom.
But when he stands on his platform, baton in hand, ready to conduct his students, it’s undeniable that he does, indeed, belong exactly there.
At approximately 8 a.m., Collins stands in front of his first-hour symphony band class and tells them that they sound like they are trying to run a mile after eating a bunch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“Sound like you’re trying to run a mile after eating a salad,” he pleads with them half-jokingly.
Analogies are a special talent for Collins, as his students seem to understand exactly what to do whenever he uses them, whether they’re about doughnuts or something as simple as pronouncing sounds to make. Earlier in the class, he told them to play an “ah” sound to elongate their sound, something I had never witnessed before in non-vocal performance.
Sitting in the back left of Collins’ classroom, I’m right next to the tuba player. There are only three, two of whom seem to be putting in a good deal of effort, and one of whom seems to be pretending to play, as half the time he gets his instrument up to his mouth several beats late.
However, that’s not really what’s remarkable about this third tuba player. What’s worth mentioning is that his instrument has a giant dent in it. From several feet away, it looks like I could probably fit my entire fist in it.
According to Collins, only about 150 of more than 600 instruments in the school district work. And due to the socioeconomic status of many of the families in Ypsilanti — 75 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch plans, which means that, as a family of four, their combined annual income is less than $33,000 — most students can’t afford to rent their own instruments.
“I’m making a little more than that on my own, and I feel like I’m struggling,” Collins said. “To quadruple the responsibility of that and actually take away some of the money I’m making is insane to me.”
When the district got a quote for how much it would take to get the instruments up to working condition it was $34,000, which is at least $1,000 more than the annual salary for that typical family of four. Over the past year, Collins said they sent in about $10,000 worth of repairs — though he wasn’t sure where exactly that money came from — but it still wasn’t enough. For the first six weeks of school, his sixth graders didn’t have any instruments at all.
“It was kind of a daily improvisation of what we were going to do that day,” Collins said. “Like, ‘Oh we don’t have instruments again today; let’s work on rhythm.’ That’s actually caused some issues now: because they were so accustomed to that, they’re still getting used to daily procedures and rules.”
Consequently, Collins has learned how to do a lot of repairs himself, even though his budget for this year was only $350, which is “$350 more than I had last year.”
To combat this, Collins spends a lot of his free time fundraising: He’s currently working on writing a letter to businesses to ask for money. He set up a website to fund donations for things like instrument repairs and sponsorship for students’ trips to Boston (while the district doesn’t currently have the money for this, Collins said he has committed to the trip), and he has organized other fundraisers like selling reeds, discount cards and cheesecake.
“Cheesecake is a big one,” he said. “A lot of people really like cheesecake.”
It’s been fated that Collins would become a teacher since before he was even born. His parents met at Eastern Michigan University’s music school — the same school he would later graduate from — when his mom accompanied a performance done by his dad. He grew up in a musical household and described himself as the band geek of his high school. Though he said he always knew he wanted to teach music, this idea really became cemented for him during his sophomore year of college.
On a skiing trip during Spring Break, Collins fell headfirst into a patch of ice. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
He suffered a broken vertebrae and a traumatic head injury that was so severe he had to be put into a medically-induced coma in order to stop his brain from swelling. When he woke up, his control of the right side of his body was minimal, and he couldn’t remember the previous nine days.
“What mainly got me through that was music,” he said. “My parents told me that I was humming before I was talking after the injury.”
While it took him only about six months to physically recover, Collins said it took him three to four years to reach mental and emotional stability again.
“I had to relearn everything,” he said. “My left hand would go straight up and down and my right hand would go in a circle, so I spent like two weeks just working on this (up and down) motion,” he said. “Because of that, I have a good understanding of how to start from step one. I mean, it sucked. It was awful. But in the long run, I feel like it’s actually made me a better teacher because it gives me some compassion and empathy for students who are going through other things.”
Some of those things, Collins said, are pretty heavy.
“I have students who watched their dad get murdered,” he said. “I have one student who doesn’t have parents. He’s being raised by his brother, and he’s one of the best kids. To see these kids come in every day from that chaos that is their life, it’s just absolutely incredible.”
It’s obvious Collins cares for these kids, and he does everything in his power to make sure they get a valuable learning experience. When he was in college, he told himself his teaching philosophy would be to have his students start from a place of passion, but he quickly realized that not everyone has passion for music. Instead, now he tries to find any passion his students might have and connect that to what they’re playing.
“We did a piece at the beginning of the year, and I compared it to ‘The Notebook,’ ” Collins said with emphatic arm gestures. “The scene in ‘The Notebook’ where Allie and Noah are on the rowboat and it’s raining and Allie’s like, ‘Why didn’t you write me?’ and Noah’s like, ‘I wrote you a letter every day for a year.’ It’s almost self-sabotage because they’re making fun of me for the fact that I know ‘The Notebook’ so well, but at the same time, we go to play this again and they have that image in their minds.”
And every once in a while, for a student or two, that really clicks. Collins had a student last year, David, who Collins said was rather unsure of himself. Throughout the year, though, David came in to work with and help Collins. He became more invested in music, and now he’s majoring in music education at EMU.
“At the beginning of this year, there was a woman who came up to me who turned out to be (David’s) aunt, and she came up to me and gave me a giant hug,” Collins said. “She said, ‘At the beginning of last year, David didn’t have any idea where he was going. He didn’t have any direction, and I wanted to let you know that because of the work you did with him and the direction you gave him, he has a purpose now.’ And like, what!? I don’t know how to react to that. Being told that I basically changed someone’s life, that’s heavy. It’s almost nerve-wracking to know that I have that potential, for good and bad. I could ruin somebody’s life. That’s terrifying.”
Toward the end of class, Collins brings up the YCHS trip to Boston. He asks students who can afford to go on the trip for $0. Everyone raises his or her hand. He tells them to drop their hands once he reaches a number that they don’t think they can afford.
$50: A few hands go down, but most remain.
$100: A few more go down, but still a lot in the air.
$200: Quite a few drop out.
$300: Only about 10 hands remain in the air.
He goes down to $250, and about 15 more hands shoot up in the air; he’s trying to find the highest number he can charge where at least 35 students can come, as that’s the minimum. It looks like the number will probably hover around $250, even though it costs about $600 per student for the trip, plus another $10,000 for transportation.
“It’s really challenging to balance opportunities with their current socioeconomic status,” Collins said.
But you can tell these kids really want to go. All the kids in Ypsi are excited (except for maybe dented-tuba kid), even when it’s just money talk.
“There are many times that I just can’t have my full ensemble (in class), so I have to do it after school,” Collins said. “I do that mainly for their benefit. It’s a lot of extra time, but at the end of the day, they’re excited about it, and the culture is changing. They’re getting excited about playing music; they want to go out of their way to get better.”
These kids practice up to twice a week after school, and Collins wants to reward that hard work with this Boston trip. They will get to take a master class with members of the Boston Symphony and see the symphony perform, among other smaller events like a tour of Harvard.
“I feel like the reward is relative to the effort that they put in, and to say ‘You put this much effort in, but we’re just gonna go to festival’ — I don’t feel like that is representative of how much effort they’ve put into it,” he said.
But even more than that, Collins wants to inspire these kids. He wants to push them out of their comfort zones, and to change their lives for the better, even though he’s terrified of ruining one.
“The big one I think is really that master class because they get to see what you can do with what you have … to see where you can end up if you really apply yourself in music,” he said.
He wants to teach them how to funnel their emotions into music, how to make the best of the situations they’re in.
“This trip to Boston we’re taking, most of them can’t afford it,” Collins said. “But they just take that and they say ‘OK, so what are we going to do next?’ ”
So what are they going to do next? They’re going to fight. They’re going to stuff envelopes with letters to send to businesses, they’re going to apply for grants, they’re going to sell those cheesecakes.
What are they going to do next?
Well, they’re going to go to Boston.
To donate to YCHS for their trip to Boston, click the link in the story above or go to http://ychsbands.org/how-you-can-help/ and click “donate.”