Story by Julia Baca. Photos by Kirsten Chilstrom.
Deon Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of Urban Dreams has always been passionate about music, education, and band. “I always knew I wanted to be in the band,” says Deon. “I always knew I wanted to play an instrument,” but growing up in Jackson, Tennessee had its challenges. Outside of school band, there were no community programs for young musicians. One day he saw an MTV special on the Jackie Robinson Steppers, now known as the Brooklyn Steppers, who serve young musicians in New York by providing performance arts education and practical experience in the arts. After seeing that special, Deon knew he wanted to be a part of an organization like that. Years later, Deon reached out to the organization searching for an internship and found a mentor in Tyrone Brown. “I was really considering moving to New York to be a part of their program,” Deon says. “But Tyrone told me I should consider starting my own program in Texas.” So, after completing his master’s degree in higher education and working six years in student affairs and academic advising, Deon founded Urban Dreams in 2018.
Urban Dreams is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping underserved, young musicians achieve their dreams by focusing on college readiness, skill enhancement, and performance opportunities. Urban Dreams is committed to increasing college readiness by teaching students important skills to achieve success as college musicians. College readiness is an important issue for young musicians preparing for college auditions. Deon says, “when I went to college, I got in and everyone was playing circles around me. There were scales and marches that I’d never played in band.” He really wanted Urban Dreams to be a place where kids could develop their skills and not have the same experience he had. “You can be a musician and you can sight read or play by ear, but if you don’t know ear training or theory, you’re going to struggle as a music major and you’re going to struggle to be a band director,” Deon emphasizes.
Deon played alto and tenor saxophone during his college years in the World Famed Tiger Marching Band at Grambling State University. But Deon also plays the rest of the marching and concert band instruments including Clarinet, Saxophone, Trumpet, Mellophone, and Trombone. If there is a student in the Urban Dreams program who needs more advanced instruction for their instrument, Deon call on his wide range of volunteers to help provide private instruction.
The program is tailored to each student and focuses on filling in gaps in their education. Students have the opportunity to improve their skills in ear training, music theory, composition, ensemble experience, private lessons, and so much more. Urban Dreams also provides space for students who need it. Deon said that their building was donated to them and they’ve been able to provide spaces for students to record auditions and take lessons. Primarily, students specialize in percussion, woodwind, and brass instruments, but if they are seeking other skills Urban Dreams connects them with resources to meet their needs, including peer instruction. Urban Dreams is run by a dedicated group of volunteer music teachers, volunteer administrators, interns, and teaching artists. All work together to ensure students develop the skills they need in the area they’re passionate about.
Urban Dreams also runs a community-focused drum line program, community band program, and summer hydration initiative. Urban Dreams partners with schools whose band programs are often under-funded to put on Battle of the Bands. Last year, they partnered with Lincoln High School to put on the 2019 Battle of the Bands that showcased five bands and hosted more than 600 spectators. A popular component of the event was the college fair. At the college fair, band directors were taking live auditions and eight students from Lincoln High School were awarded full band scholarships. Urban Dreams is truly committed to giving back to the community. Through an initiative called “Hydrate your High Step,” they were able to provide free water bottles at summer band camps. Deon said, “there’s a big problem with marching band students passing away or getting sick from heat stroke and dehydration.” This initiative works to keep students safe and healthy.
Urban Dreams continues to make an impact in the face of COVID-19. Deon mentioned that springtime is typically when their team would recruit for summer programs and fall bands. With all the schools shut down, Urban Dreams volunteers haven’t been able to attend any back-to-school events, which are their primary recruitment events, so Deon is hoping to add more students soon. Additionally, all of the students involved with Urban Dreams are able to watch guest lectures from college and university band directors this summer, including conversations with Mr. Cozbia Smith of The Lane College Quiet Storm Marching Band and Mr. Ricardo Davis, the percussion instructor at Grambling State University. Deon knows that forming partnerships with college-level directors will help his students grow their networks and help introduce a school and music program. The directors are also able to provide tips about the scholarship audition process.
Another challenge for the organization is their limited ability to fundraise. Urban Dreams has previously built strong support from local businesses, however with the pandemic, many of those businesses are closed. Another byproduct of the pandemic is the cancellation of the 2020 Battle of the Bands.
Nevertheless, Deon proudly says two previous students have been accepted to college, and one student was able to use the Urban Dreams dance space to record her audition for a college dance line. Her story was so impactful because she is the first Hispanic woman to make the all-Black dance line. Deon also values his ongoing partnership with Lincoln High School. “They went through several band directors in one year,” he explains. “They had issues with funding and were struggling. Due to the turnover in directors, they didn’t have the funds to go on a school trip.” Deon wanted Urban Dreams to support their band program and their students, so they split the funds raised from the 2019 Battle of the Bands. Deon shared, “By the end of the event, Lincoln was able to pay for their senior trip and have extra money to pay for instrument repairs.”
Above all, Urban Dreams is committed to helping underserved students succeed. Deon said that right now there are a lot of urban schools at a disadvantage. They don’t have the same funding programs as larger schools, they lose out on talented players, the students are lacking skills and resources, and their students are hindered by zoning structures. “Urban Dreams comes in and provides training and resources to level the playing field,”Deon says. Like many nonprofits, Urban Dreams relies on the community for support. All of their programs are low-cost to students, just paying for the team t-shirt. If you’d like to support Urban Dreams by making a donation, or becoming a volunteer, visit urbandreamsmusicandarts.org or check out their Facebook page or Instagram.