Alumnus’ Determination to Bring Music to Kansas City’s Youth

Darryl Chamberlain has helped hundreds of students learn to play instruments
Darryl Chamberlain conducting a group of student musicians

At 10 years old, Darryl Chamberlain (B.A. ’15, ’16) walked to school composing music in his head. Despite having no formal training and no instruments in his home, the music still came to him at an early age. Now, more than 40 years later, Chamberlain is actually composing some of those melodies for the Kansas City children in his A-Flat Youth Orchestra.

Since its creation, Chamberlain has helped more than 200 students learn to play instruments, many of whom wouldn’t have had access to music lessons otherwise.

Chamberlain’s journey from 10-year-old sidewalk composer to volunteer orchestra director is an unlikely one, made possible through remarkable hard work and tenacity.

A winding road to music (and back)

At 17, Chamberlain begin attending a church full of energetic young people like himself. The church had a youth choir Chamberlain longed to join, but he didn’t know how to sing or play an instrument.

Instead, he hung around the choir practices and one day noticed a guitar leaning in a corner. With a few minutes’ instruction from the bass guitarist and the devoted study of a Mel Bay guitar book, Chamberlain taught himself how to play.

Then, another stroke of luck: The church needed a place to store their piano after a storm, and Chamberlain’s house was nearby. A few months later, and Chamberlain had taught himself piano, too.

“There are among us Beethovens and Bachs and Mozarts and Schuberts and Schumanns and so many more. They are among us, and sometimes they get a chance to surface, because they came from a community that supported music and allowed them to grow.” – Chamberlain

Over the next few decades, Chamberlain continued to learn and teach music while he, as he puts it, “created a life.” He got married, worked as an auto mechanic, earned an associate’s degree from the Electronics Institute and got a job at Texas Instruments.

Community need becomes personal mission

In 2004, Chamberlain moved back to Kansas City from Texas and found himself at the American Royal Parade. When he had left Kansas City back in the 1980s, the parade had been full of Kansas City high school bands. By the early 2000s, he was concerned to see none performing. He started talking to educators in the area and discovered the need for music education was great, but funding wasn’t always available.

In 2005, Chamberlain decided to create a youth orchestra for kids who might not have access to music otherwise. He began buying instruments for his project, which has now become as the A-Flat Youth Orchestra.

He purchased most of the instruments out of his own pocket, starting with just the money he earned playing piano at a local church. He was a familiar face at local pawn shops and spent hours searching listings on eBay and newspaper classifieds, looking for any instrument that looked playable (or at least fixable).

Today, the orchestra owns enough instruments to outfit two-and-a-half concert bands. Bassoons, violins, cellos, guitars, flutes, drums and more, are all owned by A-Flat Music Studio, Inc. and loaned or rented to students who want to play music. Recently, a woman saw a Kansas City Star story about the orchestra and donated a harp.

On Saturdays, the instruments show up in places like the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, in the hands of dozens of young people, many of whom wouldn’t have had access to an instrument elsewhere. More than 30 students play in the orchestra, ranging in age from seven to 19. Chamberlain has recruited five other teachers to help instruct various sections.

His motto? “There will not be a child in this city who wants to study music but can’t because money is an issue.”

Chamberlain’s love for teaching is apparent. It’s part of what led him to UMKC in 2009, eventually earning two bachelor’s degrees: one in secondary education–social sciences and another in history. His studies at UMKC were a natural fit, he says, giving him access to formal education in the areas of art, history and teaching that he’s informally enjoyed his entire life.

Darryl Chamberlain with members of the A-Flat Youth Orchestra at a performance at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
Chamberlain with members of the A-Flat Youth Orchestra at a performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The power of giving kids a chance

When asked about the particularly memorable moments from his 14 years directing the orchestra, a few come to mind, Chamberlain says: The day a student who had been struggling blurted out, “I’m doing it! I’m actually reading!” Receiving an invitation to a graduation party for one of his students who had earned her M.D. Seeing the students play at the Kauffman Center in bow ties.

Once, a young man asked him why he “dresses up” for rehearsal. Chamberlain explained to him, “I dress up for you, because it’s the kind of respect I want to extend to you. I want you to know you’re worth it.” The next week, that same student came to class in slacks and shiny dress shoes, looking, as Chamberlain put it, “like a million bucks.”

The important thing, Chamberlain says, is giving kids a chance. Because if we can teach music, we can also teach discipline, character, tenacity, all those little things that make a person — and a community — great. In the process, you might help a child discover a part of themselves they didn’t know existed.

“There are among us Beethovens and Bachs and Mozarts and Schuberts and Schumanns and so many more,” Chamberlain says. "They are among us, and sometimes they get a chance to surface, because they came from a community that supported music and allowed them to grow.”

In 2023, Chamberlain received the Hero Award from Atlas Holdings for the extraordinary impact he is making in the Kansas City community. The award came with $25,000, which Chamberlain put into a savings account as part of his studio’s building fund effort. A-flat studio is outgrowing the space they currently have and are working towards getting a more adequate space.

This story originally appeared in Perspectives magazine, vol. 29. It was updated March 2024 to reflect Chamberlain’s 2023 award.

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