At the Denver Public Schools Citywide Honor Bands Concert Saturday afternoon, bass guitarist and district-renowned music composer Dominic Ellerbee was grateful just to have a music stand.
Eight months ago, the 17-year-old Denver South High School junior was living out of a minivan with his mother, Madonna, and 12-year-old sister, Dejaune.
“It was hard sometimes, but it never really got to me because I had friends and music and stuff,” Dominic said. “It was the little things that got to me more.”
Without a music stand, he said one of the most frustrating parts of being homeless has been finding a place to comfortably practice music.
Dominic’s constant companion through more than a year of his family’s transient housing situation has been his six-string bass guitar.
“He’s a real wonder,” said Hugh Ragin, Dominic’s band teacher.
Dominic had only a year of self-taught guitar skills under his belt when Ragin welcomed him to the high school band in 2012. Since then, Dominic has picked up composition and other instruments, and he has started teaching younger classmates the ropes.
“I’m impressed that he could put a work ethic on it,” Ragin said. “That’s often the big difference.”
Dominic plays bass, acoustic and electric guitars; an assortment of drums; clarinet; piano; vibraphone; and recorder, “if that counts,” he said. He also sings and has performed in musicals throughout his high school career.
With the world of music at his fingertips, Dominic is more interested right now in understanding a range of composition styles than experimenting with new ones.
Dominic said he writes music for the high school drum line, which he will perform with at lacrosse and basketball games. He’s in the middle of writing a musical that he said the school director promised would be performed next year if it’s complete. And Dominic writes music — primarily indie rock and classical arias — for a nonet group he formed with eight of his classmates.
He kept working when the Ellerbees’ three-person family was forced to separate and take shelter in the spare space at friends’ and family’s households. Madonna has stayed at her sister’s, Dejaune at her godmother’s and Dominic at an assortment of friends’ homes.
In the past year, Dominic said he has been most vulnerable in his own music. He’s learned to coax out of his peers’ instrumentals how he intends his pieces to sound by sharing the stories that inspired them — both imaginative and personal.
“It really makes you play differently if you know the background,” Dominic said. “After I tell them the stories, they know the emotions behind it, and you can hear it.”
Before the concert Saturday, Dominic said his mother found a job and that he and his sister will be moving back into an apartment with her in March. Throughout the uncertainty that has defined the past year, Dominic found a life calling in the music composition technique he uses for the nonet group.
“I want to be able to do that to big, professional groups,” he said.
Alison Noon: 303-954-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org