We’ve got students, instruments, and a room to rehearse. Now what?
As I’d quickly find out, my greatest resource at Winston Middle School would be the unlimited creativity of the children. While the first few practices were dedicated to demonstrations of instrument care, and proper sitting/holding/playing techniques for the African percussion instruments, I knew already that I was sitting in front of a room filled with young composers. Each day, as I came into the classroom, students would be tapping on the desks, and just grooving with whatever happened to be around. When I heard the infectious nature of this, I changed our initial bearing for the class.
Calling to mind an old field recording of Nigerian postal workers happily stamping and processing mail in rhythm, I decided that our first piece would be an organic sound scape using classroom materials. This seemed perfect to me. Rhythms are all around us, inside us, and it doesn’t take fancy drums or instruments to have a good time with music. With this in mind, I proposed to the students that they come up with a piece using things found around them in our music classroom. The students named this piece “Fake-out.”
This piece was performed in front of the student body on the auditorium stage about one month into the program’s start. First, we set the desks up in four rows of four, with 16 students total. From front to back, each row had a common item. Row 1 was set with pens and pencils to groove like drum sticks on the desks. Row two each had a water bottle (with the last student grabbing a large water dispenser bottle as the piece got going for a bass tone.) Row three was my stapler crew, and, in the last row, each had a student dictionary (you’d be amazed at the bass drum sound you can get by slamming open and closed a large Funk and Wagner!)
The performance started with me in front of the “class” teaching. (Interestingly, I asked the students to name the most boring thing that I could be lecturing about and they said it should be a talk on ’the history of the pencil.’) So, that’s what my topic was. Students acted as if they were falling asleep, bored, and generally restless. Then, over then intercom, we arranged for the principal to call me to the office. I told the students that I’d return shortly, and that good behavior was expected. As soon as I was off stage, the pencil crew started a basic funk groove on the desk. Then the water bottles entered with a beat 4 hit. My stapler crew followed with eighth notes on 2 and, and the deep 1 was added with slamming dictionaries.
With the groove in full swing, I re-entered the stage and the students immediately sat up straight like they’d been perfect angels. I informed them that my leave would take longer than expected but for them to continue as they had been, and that I was very proud of their behavior. As you can imagine, the audience of middle schoolers was entranced, hooting and having a ball! The piece concluded with the students grabbing a hidden pair of drum sticks from under their desks and using variations of the same rhythms to produce quite a racket! Unfortunately, we did not video tape this performance, but it was a perfect way to introduce the Winston drummers to the rest of the school. And, it was completely written by the students! I just had to stay out of my own way and let their young energy take over.
In tandem with this piece, we did start to work on some double bell music that I had been interested in from my own work with Jon Seligman. I like the simple idea of everyone on the same sound source, but different pitches creating a melody. I thought it was a wonderful way for the kids to really understand the 6/8 bell pattern, which would be foundational to other drumming we’d be doing during the year. This piece requires a lot of concentration from the students, and we learned it by ear. It was very helpful to combine different parts, layer the groove in differently each time, and create partner rhythms the students could listen for. I’ve added a rehearsal video below.
The first piece we learned with the drums was an old standby called Fanga Alafia. It was an attempt to get the kids singing and playing. I am convinced that drummers need to be full musicians, with the ability to sing, play other instruments, write songs, and understand the language of music. For our version of Fanga, we start with the vocal melody and clapping, but move to just the drums (it was a lot to get just this going.) Another amazing example of student motivation came when some of the 7th grade studentsannounced that they had written a Fanga ’remix’ on their own that they wanted to add to the end of our groove. “Of course you can!” was my response. They came up with a really great djembe/djun combination that is fun to hear and I know they’re always excited to play.
A third piece that we’ve put together for a student program had the kids learning to play drum set. I must say, one of the most popular instruments we work on is the full drum kit. It is understandable. That’s what is in all of the music we hear on the radio and grow up with in this country. So, as a special treat, we worked on the kit once every two weeks. But, how could I put this into a school program? I only had parts of two scrappy sets of drums. And, more kids than I could really use on this idea. What I decided was that the kids could take a short history of R+B/Soul/Rap music. We’d start with some Ray Charles, go to James Brown, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Mary J Blige, and finally Jay-Z. We’d have different kids play to each song (two at a time) and the rest either dance/play added percussion or help with transitions. In my mind, this worked really well because the kids would learn some new songs, learn to play the drums, and play along to songs they already sing and rap to every day. I’ve added a video of our Success Program performance below, and as you’ll see, for about 4 practices, and no prior drumming experience, these middle schoolers really rocked the drum kits. You’ll hear the crowd going crazy a few times as the environment became more and more electric.
For each piece we added one special move, dance step, or prop and the results are below.
I hope that during the first year of this percussion program, the students have gained an understanding of how wonderful music is, and how broad its study can be. From found percussion, to traditional African rhythms, to drum sets jamming along with Jay-Z.
For our final concert of the year, we’re adding in our trumpets and saxophone students to perform a second line New Orleans version of When the Saints Go Marching In. The Winston drummers will be playing marching drums, and they’re already setting the middle tempo groove with a majesty that astounds me.
If you have any questions or comments on this article, I’d love to hear from you. All the best working with your own musical projects, and please support music teachers in your community.