Teacher still on the mobile music bus after three decades

Richard Schermer plays the tuba with intermediate band students during an end-of-the-year concert at Nogales High School in Rowland Heights on June2, 2011.
Richard Schermer plays the tuba with intermediate band students during an end-of-the-year concert at Nogales High School in Rowland Heights on June2, 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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It’s the middle of the day. It’s hot. East San Gabriel Valley hot. On a curb outside Blandford Elementary School a parked bus, painted sky-blue, seems to pulsate as you open the door and walk up the steps.

About two-dozen fourth- and fifth-graders crowd around music stands. Most sit. Some stand as they play clarinets, trumpets and other wind instruments. No one’s complaining.

On a bus that also serves as a mobile music classroom, Richard Schermer leads the lesson with a tuba on his lap and earplugs firmly in place. He’s been doing this for 30 years, and he’s not done.

“I have earplugs in for my sanity, so I don’t lose my hearing. After you’ve been doing this for 30-something years you want to be able to hear,” he said.

After about an hour, the students leave the bus and walk back to campus. Sixth grader Joseph Llamoca is new to music lessons. He plays alto saxophone and, like his classmates, says he likes all kinds of music.

“I hear Aerosmith … Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, any hip-hop songs.”

What about composers? “Beethoven, Mozart any kind.”

Those last two names are music to Schermer’s ears. He grew up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx. The family was humble, but it scraped together enough money to buy his mother the piano that would lead her to a professional career. Before he finished high school, Schermer played trumpet for the Bronx Symphony Orchestra and for Tito Puente’s salsa band. Observing Louis Armstrong’s mastery of the trumpet convinced him that he wanted a life in music. Conversations with professional musicians made him consider teaching.

He still remembers their advice, "‘Kid, it ain’t cracked up to what it really is, let me tell ya, one day you’re in Chicago, and the next day you’re in Atlanta and let me tell ya, you’re going to grow to hate it.’ And these are fabulous players who are telling me this,” Schermer said.

He's generous with his stories and endless one-liners. That’s endeared him to generations of music students and helped make the music bus a landmark in this eastern corner of the San Gabriel Valley.

“A lot of people wave, because we know everybody here,” he says.

Schermer’s already teaching the kids of former students. The Rowland Unified School District inaugurated the fleet of mobile music buses decades ago because crowded campuses didn’t allow room for music lessons. These days the fleet is down to two buses, with Schermer as the senior driver.

“In my ideal world there would be a fleet of these things moving around from school to school that might serve seven or eight school districts,” he says.

Rowland Unified’s split between upper-middle class, mostly Asian neighborhoods in the hills, and more ethnically and economically mixed areas in the valleys. Some students are the children of Tiger Mothers. Others’ parents are less engaged in their education. The biggest challenge in his job, Schermer says, is teaching to such wide disparities in skill.

“I guess what I’m most proud of is to see the fruition of this program and that it is a staple in this school district. So far, it has been much a staple as math and English and all the other of what they call the core subjects,” he says.

Fifth grader Nina Foyabo likes listening to Selena Gomez, Lil Wayne, and Eminem. Will Schermer let her play any of that music on her saxophone? She laughs. He's a taskmaster, she says, and that’s good.

“He teaches me a lot of the notes I don’t know, and these songs. These are new. There’s, like, big notes. I don’t get them so he explains it to me and I suddenly get it,” she says.

Soon after, Schermer picks up the saxophone, earplugs still in, and begins another lesson inside the mobile music bus, still behind the wheel after 30 years.