Friday, August 19, 2011

4 Drum Posts at the Brockporter Blog . . .

African Drumming Workshops in Our Area !!

8/5 Utica Street in Brockport

8/12 in Sagawa Park, Brockport, New York

at the Garland Church

"Fam Jam" on 8/14

UPDATE 8/21/11:

  I am very proud of how my day went on 8/5, the Last Day of Summer School for a Special Group of People ~ I'm Re-Posting what I wrote for The Brockporter:

  The early morning air was still, but already heavy with August’s oppressive humidity two Fridays ago. I was excited about the Drumming Workshop I had scheduled for that day, but not looking forward to the stale air inside that old gymnasium on Utica Street. I was invited here two years ago for the same thing, but this time there is no uncertainty about the venue and I knew what to expect from the students and staff.

   As I waited for my turn in the gym, while an awards assembly was finishing up, it felt as if an electric charge was building up all around me. My mind was flashing with images of some of my fonder memories growing up in Brockport. I clearly remember attending roller-skating parties at this school when I was much smaller. Back then this little room seemed gigantic, and now I wonder how we ever navigated those tight corners. I also thought about all the days we spent at the playgrounds along Utica Street during those long-ago-past months of summer vacation.

   I recalled how amazing my first ‘drum’ experience was with these kids in 2009, when the summer theme was “Reaching for Success”. My thoughts quickly came back to the present as the assembly finished and students began filing out of the gym. I recognized some of the faces and felt honored to again be the premier activity for these special students on the very last day of Brockport Migrant Education’s Summer School Program.

Like most events and workshops I don’t prepare what I will say until the time is upon me, and I usually wait for the ‘setting’ to show me how to start. I have learned over the years that, after playing a brief but loud unspoken introduction on my drum, I had better say something powerful to grab their attention or I will lose the audience in a heartbeat.

   The first hour was for the younger children, and as I observed them all coming in and sitting before me it hit me like a V-8 Slap to the Head. They were all speaking to each other in fluent English (two years ago they needed a set of teachers to interpret most of what I said). In a loud and clear voice I said, “Mee Es-pan-yol Es Tair-ee-blay!” (My Spanish is terrible!). I pointed to the room with a sweeping arch and said, “You all know more English than I know Spanish … and that’s a very good thing.” The students all started giggling, which made the teachers crack huge smiles, and then the room exploded with loud expressive laughter and I knew I had them !!

  In that brief moment I had bridged that unseen protective barrier all Migrant Children have learned to erect, and quickly moved right to a place of mutual respect and trust. I knew instantly that they would try anything I asked of them and we were all going to have lots of fun. The theme for this summer term was, “We Do the Math”. I tried to show them how numbers are in all the rhythms we played, but kept things simple on their last day of school.

   Every child had a chance to play in the chorus (bells, shakers and hand drums) in the back row and with the drums in front. The highlight of that morning session was when I had everyone quiet down and told them that I had one very ‘special’ friend in the room. Saying that my wife and I have known this little one and her mother for many years. When I pointed to her and said her name everyone cheered and clapped loudly … and her bright, proud, but humble smile brought a tear to my eye.

   After a Pizza Party Lunch in the cafeteria with the younger ones, I went outside for an hour to get my mind and body ready for the older students. I guessed that it might be harder to bridge the trust barrier with these students. Thinking they would also be at an age where they could strongly hold on to a desire to not appear ‘un-cool’ in front of their friends.

   I turned out to be correct on both counts with these older students but I had an ace-up-my-sleeve. Well, it was the ‘sleeve’ that was my ace. I asked the group, while pulling at my shirt, “Does anyone recognize what this is?” The room exploded with excited voices all screaming together, “It’s MEXICO!!” (I had on my Mexican national team soccer jersey.) I told them that I knew it was definitely a few years old and that I needed to update my jersey. I had again crossed that unseen ‘barrier’ when I loudly stated, while pointing to myself, “Jeff Ess Loco Por Fute-boll (pause) Eee (pause) Mee Tee-key-ay-row May-hee-coh!!” (Jeff is Crazy for Soccer AND I Love Mexico!!)

   Like before, all the students got a chance to play both sets of instruments. But this time I stressed the music more than numbers, and the rhythms were from Africa and Brazil. After twenty minutes I noticed one boy who others looked to for guidance or answers. I asked this boy his name and if he could to do me a big favor. When he nodded yes, I said, “I need someone to play the ‘Heart’ drum in the back/center. But they have to be strong and steady. Can you do that for me?” We both went back and in a few minutes I had shown him what I needed.

  This drum is a ‘Loud & Proud’ bass that can hold a large ensemble together with its punctual sound. Having this handsome young man play it was pure genius !! Our group sound changed right away as everyone put more effort into the rhythms. I motioned to my new bass player several times with great animation (pointing at my heart and doing a thumb’s up) showing the group how much I appreciated what he was doing.

   About fifteen minutes went by when a shy boy came up to me but started to walk away without saying anything. I went to him, put a hand on his shoulder and asked what he wanted. He asked, “Can I play the big drum in back?” I marched him right over to the back and had him switch places with the first bass drummer, who then went over to stand by the wall. He was visibly let down by the change … but my solution was to tell that first drummer that I still needed him for a special secret I had planned. His smile returned when I told him that he was still my number one.

   I sent one of the teachers out to get Miss Betty, the Director of the Program, to come to the gym. Then gathered the students all together and laid out my plan. I asked my number one first bass player to step out front where I was standing to lead the group in singing Happy Birthday to Miss Betty. After a weak Spanish version, we re-grouped and sang a spirited English one that visibly touched the Birthday Girl.

   See more from this day by clicking here.

   When it’s all said and done, this was another tremendous experience for me. These students and their families are an important part of our area for several reasons. Many of their parents have elected to stay here year round because of our good schools and the top shelf Migrant Education Program. The students all know two languages (one girl said to me, “My mom is teaching me Spanish and I am teaching her English.”) and have all been placed in the mainstream classes at the local schools from Brockport to Kendall and Barker to Elba.

  We do welcome these beautiful, hardworking people once a year at the Bienvenidos Farm Workers, but don’t you think we should make them all feel welcome all year long?

  One way you can do this is to call ahead and bring used cloths (that you were going to take to one of those yellow box drop off places) to the Catholic Church on Main Street in Brockport for distribution after their Spanish mass. Another great way is to personally go to the Spanish Service on Sundays at 1:30pm. There is one point in the Catholic service where they all turn to their neighbors and share peace with each other. You could take the time to cross the isle and shake the hands of a few people saying, “Peace!” I am sure that these intentional acts of kindness will come back to you in ways that can’t be measured.

Thanks for Your Support ! ! !

In Rhythm,


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