Robinson Gardens Youth Group
Drummer shares his beat with SHA teens
He’s traveled the world playing drums and teaching music. He’s written two books, and cut a few CDs. He’s been recognized and awarded near and far.
And recently, Billy Arnold paid a visit to Springfield Housing Authority’s Robinson Gardens Youth Group, where he shared his optimistic views on life and his insatiable curiosity, with teens eager to hear his message.
Now 77, Arnold began drumming at the age of 15 and hasn’t missed a beat since. He’s played in countries around the world – the Netherlands is his next stop – and performed and recorded with artists and bands including Junior Walker and the All Stars, Ray Bryant, Kenny Burrell and more. He’s even played with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.
He now plays with the Young@Heart Chorus, along with at area clubs and events with jazz and blues musicians, and in his church.
His 2018 book, ‘So, You Want to Be a Musician?’ details his life story with a focus on lessons for anyone ready to pick up the percussion instrument, or just to live a good life. His life story is also documented in a video library of the National Association of Music Merchants.
At Robinson Gardens, Arnold went around the room, asking teens about their plans for the future and giving each his best advice on how to reach their goals.
“Be consistent, be persistent,” he said. “Remember, nothing in life is free. You’ve got to keep at it, even if you think you don’t like it. Eventually, you may like it.”
SHA Executive Director Denise Jordan welcomed Arnold, saying he brought a measure of jazz and good advice to the youth.
“Mr. Arnold has had an amazing life, and we’re grateful he took the time out to share that with our teens at Robinson Gardens,” Jordan said.
Arnold grew up one of eight children in a public housing project in South Bend, Indiana, quitting school at age 15 after his mother died and family funds were short. Drawn to the bongo drums and steered to a regular drum set as a teen, he remembers playing in segregated clubs and for little pay.
Being drafted in 1973 into the U.S. Army at the age of 19 steered his young life in a new direction. He was fortunate to win a spot on the U.S. Army Band, a move that launched a lifelong penchant for combining travel and music.
Another thing he did was earn his General Education Diploma, a step that he said “was like a key to a better life. It didn’t guarantee me a job, but it gave me the ability to apply for a job, and do a lot more with my life.”
After the army, he married, moved to Springfield and began a day career at Mass Mutual for many years. Always, there was music. He now teaches at Community Music School and at other area schools and colleges, including Suffield Academy, Springfield College, Holyoke Community College and Amherst College, in addition to his touring schedule.
Arnold showed the Robinson Gardens teens his seemingly boundless energy and curiosity. He connected with each of the Youth Group members, asking about their education and plans for the future. He even shared advice, telling them to try something out before making up their minds, to be sure they will actually enjoy the work.
“You’ve got to look and listen and learn before you act. And remember, nothing’s free,” he said. “If they tell you it’s free, there’s usually something that goes along with it.”
For their part, teens appreciated the talk, feeling inspired by Arnold.
“He gave us good, insightful information into what is coming in our future,” said Christian Davis, who is 16 and a junior at the Roger Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, where he studies Information Technology.
“A lot of young people don’t really think about their futures. Making a plan and then doing it is a good thing to think about,” he added.
Kayshawn Lenior, 17, agreed.
“He made us think about studying in school now and thinking about what we want to do,” said Lenior, a sophomore at the High School of Science and Technology.
“He was good. He was funny. He’s had a really interesting life,” Lenoir said.
Keishla Caldero, 17, loved hearing the details of Arnold’s life, adding, “He got us all thinking about what we want to do and how to stick with it.”
Arnold’s visit came courtesy of SHA Youth Engagement Coordinator Jimmie Mitchell, who brings speakers in monthly to show the teens local success stories, especially among those who rose up from poverty.
Mitchell said Arnold was “excellent.
“He’s so talented, and he has a lot to show and tell about his life. He’s exactly what we want our youth to see and hear from – someone who has succeeded in life.”
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