On a Sunday afternoon in October, more than 50 expectant musicians have filled a gymnasium in Cambridge. They stand in a wide circle around trombonist Kevin Leppmann, clutching their instruments.
“We’re here to have fun,” says Leppmann, looking around at the eager group of artists both young and old, novice and experienced. “And you can’t have fun while worrying about playing the wrong notes.”
Leppmann tries to communicate this sentiment weekly at School of HONK, a free and open street band gathering that’s part rehearsal, part performance and part party. Open to everyone—from those who have never played a single note to seasoned musicians—the school originated from the much-loved HONK! Festival, where spectators are encouraged to join the parade and sing along to familiar tunes.
More than a decade old, the annual event brings together bands who perform with their horns and drums while dancing through city streets, drawing from a wide variety of musical inspirations.
“People kept asking about participating,” Duffy explains. Realizing that there was a desire for a broader community around HONK!, Leppmann and saxophonist Shaunalynn Duffy co-founded School of HONK with trumpet player Maggie McClellan and percussionist Paul Gregory in 2014.
Today, participants filter into the sun-filled gym at the rear of the Community Arts Center building, drop their backpacks and cases on a small set of bleachers and get ready to play. They assemble and clean their own instruments or pick one up from HONK’s available selection. Some chat with each other, but many are focused on warming up, rehearsing familiar melodies or tooting random notes. A few reference sheet music scrawled with handwritten comments—they’ve been practicing the arrangements at home—while others are here for the first time.
School of HONK leadership assign greeters at each week’s meeting to welcome attendees, make sure newcomers feel comfortable and provide instruments to anyone who’s without. Participants gather in the gym, generally sorting themselves by instrument type, and joyfully deploy their skills (or, in the case of some newcomers, their enthusiasm) to crowd-pleasing songs like “Billie Jean” or the Ghostbusters theme. The group then breaks into smaller circles, with designated section leaders teaching basic notes or more advanced arrangements, before reconvening to play the song again—this time, on surer footing. After rehearsing a few songs, the group meets outside to parade around the block, with spectators and performers alike moving to the beat through the neighborhood.
“It’s the only time in the U.S. you can be dancing in the streets,” says Hugo Angeles, a Northeastern University student who was drawn in by the school’s energizing, street festival atmosphere. The Central Square resident is holding a HONK-provided plastic trumpet, which he says he might actually play next time—this is his first visit to the class, and today, he just wants to watch.
Hilary Lahan joined School of HONK in 2015 after graduating from college. She was looking for a way to continue playing music without becoming a professional musician, but it wasn’t just the opportunity to play that drew her in. The school teaches choreographed dances on selected Sundays alongside musical arrangements, and on those days, Lahan sets down her trumpet. “If there’s an opportunity to dance, I usually choose that over my instrument,” she smiles.
School of HONK has a broad organizational structure, with experienced musicians or longtime attendees serving as mentors or section leaders, taking on the responsibilities of promoting inclusiveness, ensuring safety and encouraging and coaching participants from all backgrounds and experience levels.
With its stash of instruments for those who don’t have their own, Leppmann says, the school provides curious musicians with “the opportunity to take that first step.” There are plastic trombones and trumpets as well as brass and percussion instruments, not to mention instructors on hand and a supportive group all around. Leppmann says people usually end up buying their own instrument after a while, a process instructors at the school can help with as well.
School of HONK strives to put a variety of instruments in people’s hands—especially wind and brass instruments, which have been largely exiled from popular music—and show them how to play and have fun. And, Leppmann says, it’s working.
“It brings out the musician in everyone,” he effuses. “It’s not a trick. It’s a process we see, week after week.” There are 50 or 60 people who attend School of HONK on a weekly basis. On some weeks, more than 100 show up. Some participants are in elementary school while others are retirees, and the band is almost equally divided between men and women, Leppmann says, with a broad range of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds represented.
“The music is what holds all that together,” he says. “Who doesn’t want to dance?”
School of HONK meets every Sunday, and newcomers are always welcome. Find the full schedule and more info at schoolofhonk.org.