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Posted at 6:08 PM ET, 02/23/2011

Earth, Wind and Fire at D.C. school

By Hamil Harris

After three weeks of practice, the young musicians at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts sounded ready to accompany the legendary R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire Thursday at a benefit for the school Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

But on Wednesday afternoon, three members of the group walked into the Ellington theater, took over the instruments and offered the students a lesson they won't soon forget.

"It would be really cool ... if the strings and the horns clap their hands," said falsetto soloist Phillip Bailey. "You just need a little more emotion."

Drummer Ralph Johnson struck much the same tone. "Smile -- you got to sell it," he said, emphasizing that a show is about more than the music. "Hit them hard, but smile!"

Bass player Verdine White's message was clear. "Have fun with this project," he said. "We are in the feel-good business. Our job is to make people feel good."

In an interview before the rehearsal, Johnson talked about the difference between musicians today and those of his generation.

"We come from a time when ... there was nothing digital going on," he said. "You couldn't use pro tools; you had to know how to play."

White, who along with his brother, Maurice White, founded the group in Chicago in 1969, said one reason why the group has been able to last four decades is simple. "We have a lot of fun doing what we do and that has a lot to do with your vitality."

Rory Pullens, head of school at Ellington, said Earth, Wind & Fire's appearance was part of the school's Performance Series of Legends.

"It is all about giving back to this generation," Pullens said. "It inspires and motivates our students and gives them a model that they can aspire to be."

By Hamil Harris  | February 23, 2011; 6:08 PM ET
 
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