After seven years of serving as Kentucky State University’s band director, Alvin Level is finally starting to see his dreams for the program come to life.
“When I first started, we had less than 40 students in the program,” Level said. “To grow like we have and being invited to perform in Battle of the Bands (competitions), some dreams have come true.”
This school year, Level has 170 students in the band program. Last year, he had 138.
Level started his career in music in Saginaw, Michigan, where he was raised.
“My mother (Mary Hall) put an instrument in my hand in sixth grade,” Level said. “I had key instrumental music teachers in my life that really pushed me.”
That instrument was the alto saxophone. He learned to play it from his teacher Timothy Rogers, who he played with until his sophomore year of high school. Then, he went to the Center for the Arts and Sciences in Saginaw, where he said “Dr. William Howell is the man who took me into jazz.”
He played saxophone through high school, and then in college he started playing other instruments. Bass guitar is another of his favorite instruments to play.
Level graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio — a historically black college and university (HBCU) — in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in music education. He studied under Dr. James B. Oliver, who is now the band director at Alabama State University.
After graduating college, he taught for a couple of years in Saginaw before taking a music teaching position in Detroit. He was over the music programs at River Rouge High School, Inkster Public Schools and Oak Park Public Schools. While serving in that position, he returned to college and received his master’s degree in education leadership and became an administrator while still teaching music classes at the schools. He held that position until he was offered the band director position at Kentucky State University in 2015.
“I used to send students (to KSU) out of high school and I had developed a relationship with the professors here in the department,” Level said. “When the position became available, they called me.”
Level said the difference between working with high school students and college students is like night and day.
“(College students) want to be young adults,” Level said, “even though when they make bad decisions, they don’t know how to take responsibility for their bad choices. I have to help them navigate through it. Do I enjoy it? Absolutely.”
Level said he enjoys watching the students find themselves.
“I love watching a student grow,” he said. “They come in one way and leave another. I love helping them get jobs no matter what their profession is.”
Michael Malone, head drum major for the Marching Thorobreds, has studied under Level for four years. He said within the first 72 hours he taught him a major life lesson.
“I wanted to quit band,” Malone said. “I thought it was too much. He pulled me into a meeting and said, ‘if you quit this, you’re going to quit something else. You’ll have a pattern of quitting.'”
Level told Malone that when he starts something, he needs to finish it.
“Every time I’m done talking to him, I feel motivated to do better,” Malone said. “He taught me life lessons without teaching me.”
Other duties of the job
Job placement is a big part of his job duties at KSU.
“Prior to me coming here, we only had one student teaching high school music that graduated from our program,” Level said. “I have three now of who I’m screaming proud.”
Level’s former student Lord Cooper is the band director at Ecorse High School in Ecorse, Michigan. Level also helped John Akis get his first job in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, Akis is the band director at Oak Park High School in Detroit, Michigan, where Level started the music program.
During what Level calls the “off season” — second semester — he spends much of his time traveling and recruiting students to KSU’s music department.
“I’m in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Chicago, Kansas City, Memphis, North and South Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans,’’ he said. “I talk with high school teachers, listen to students play, I speak with parents and get transcripts and test scores.”
Level recruits with scholarships.
“How much you receive, depends on how well you play,” Level said.
Level believes in giving kids a chance.
“I grew up in the ‘hood in Saginaw,” he said. “I have lots of friends either gone or in prison, and I’m one of the ones still out there standing.”
He loves using music to change his students’ lives.
“Students can change the trajectory of their lives,” Level said. “I love music and I love working with students — urban students in particular. I turned out OK and they can see that they can do the same thing.”
Level said 90% of the students in the band program were recruited, however walk-in students are allowed.
Ready to compete
This school year, Level is looking forward to several competitions.
“For the first time in school history, (the KSU marching band) is competing in the National Battle of the Bands competition in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27,” Level said. “Eight of the best HBCU bands in the country will perform.”
On Nov. 6, The Marching Thorobreds will perform at another National Battle of the Bands competition in Charlotte, North Carolina. The band members’ trip is all expenses paid and the band is receiving a $20,000 donation.
On Sept. 16, the band will perform at a high school competition in Cleveland, Ohio. The Alabama State University marching band will also perform at the event.
“That will be a special event because the individual putting that on, we went to college together and the Alabama State band director was our professor,” Level said.
On Sept. 24, the Marching Thorobreds will compete at the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Level is also looking forward to playing the halftime show during KSU’s homecoming game against Miles College on Oct. 15, “where the two bands collide,” he said. They will also perform during the Scenic City Classic against Fort Valley State University.
When Level isn’t busy working with the KSU band, he plays in a band. This past summer, he started playing in Robert Griffin’s band. Griffin is an associate professor in the department.
“I play baritone sax for him,” Level said. “It’s a jazz band. We perform in Georgetown, Louisville and Lexington. We play in clubs and for weddings and other events.
“When you’re with your friends, its total enjoyment. In an education setting, I’m the leader and it’s a business setting.”
He’s also working toward a doctorate in higher education from Morehead State University.
“I’d love to get experience in student affairs or something like that,” he said.
Getting his doctorate is also a way he challenges his students to be the best they can be.
“If I can do it, they can do it too.”
Level said that, although he’s their teacher, he learns a lot from his students.
“Working at this level, I get a better understanding about why they do the things they do,” he said. “They keep me young. It’s a challenge, but I love every minute of it.”