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Interactive Percussion Programs

Mike Lawson • Performance • November 1, 2002

Rhythm can strike a person where sometimes words and pictures fail. Like the pulse of the heart, that thump on the skin of a drum pulsates through the body’s senses, which can stimulate the brain. Of course, stimulating the brain is what all good teachers are looking to help their students do.

And virtually anyone can whack a drum. Because it’s so accessible, so fun, and so easy, kids respond quickly to it. They pay attention. They focus. It is one of the reasons that percussion programs seem to have struck a chord in the classroom over the last 10 years. And a variety of programs, to fit many circumstances, are available virtually everywhere.

“The reason percussion works so well is that it captures everyone’s imagination,” says Ruth Cahn, chair of the education committee for the Percussive Arts Society (PAS). “Everyone wants to do it. When a violinist plays, you see them and think that’s wonderful, but you don’t necessarily want to try it. You see a drum and you want to hit it.”

Percussion in the Classroom

“If you can say it you can play it!” Bob Bloom bellows systematically throughout his sessions. For Bloom, who for the past decade has facilitated a program throughout New England called Drumming About You (www.drumming-about-you.com), the saying has become a mantra.

At the beginning of his “show” – he conducts both drum circles and educational programs – Bloom unbuckles the latches on big cases full of drum frames, as well as full size congas and bongos, “fruit” shakers and other hand-held instruments. Like pigeons to scattered seed, wide-eyed kids flock to them and snatch the instruments, and wait for Bloom’s direction from behind his conga and bass drum set-up.

Using a series of mnemonic phrases, Bloom is a puppeteer of rhythms, yanking the strings of his attentive audiences by asking them to hit their drums to lines like “Jim-mi-ny Cri-cket, Jim-mi-ny Cri-cket….I’m the best….doo wacka doo.”

“I teach classes using the oral tradition concept of identifying the sounds of instruments,” says Bloom. “The concept was developed by Babatunde Olatunji, and is called his ‘gun go do pa ta’ method. In my classes, students are given a workbook that demonstrates this method. There is no need for musical notation like quarter notes, which makes it accessible for people with little or no formal musical training.”

And over on the West Coast, Kip Hubbard operates his programs under the umbrella Rhythm Planet (www.rhythmplanet.org), a name that is soon to be changed to Project Drum. Stemming from a class that started eight years ago in Washington as a world rhythms class, Hubbard now holds youth enrichment programs and two-week drum camps, forms ensembles, facilitates elementary school programs, and teaches adult education courses at a local college for teachers who want to teach percussion in their classes.

“I was a middle school teacher myself at one time,” says Hubbard. “What I really saw is kids need to find a way to connect to their peers and to adults. For two reasons, I think percussion works. I believe it’s really primal.”

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