A real ‘hands on’ education

by Beth Stafford

A “World Music Drumming Curriculum” pilot project, launched during the 1996-97 school year in five Milwaukee Public Schools middle schools, continues this semester at Andrew Douglas Community Academy, Grand Avenue Middle School, Lincoln Middle School of the Arts, John Muir Middle School, and Walker Middle School.

Truly a “hands-on” experience, students learn about the drumming traditions of several cultures by actually playing their own drums, bells, and shakers.

“This fall, the Milwaukee pilot schools were joined by 15 other schools in the U.S. and Canada for phase two of the project,” says Will Schmid, professor of music at UWM and immediate past president of the 70,000-member Music Educators National Conference.

“The good news for parents, administrators, and the community is that students are learning valuable life and workforce skills through the project,” says Schmid.

“Students involved in the project practice cooperative teamwork, focus, listening, sharing, respect, and creative problem-solving.”

And another benefit has been reported by the MPS schools involved in the first-year pilot project.

“Due to the high interest students have in this subject,” Schmid says, “these schools recorded a lessening of discipline problems, tardiness, and absenteeism.” With a smile, he shares remarks from a Racine teacher of “at-risk” students who reports: “The boys at this school are not an easy crowd to please, but many of them left the music room saying things like `I’m going to love this class!’ and `I actually had fun today.’”

During the 1996-97 school year, MPS teachers working with the program met every week with Schmid to create a “field-tested curriculum.” As Schmid says, “We had to learn what worked – and what didn’t. The goal was to create a curriculum that wasn’t `pie in the sky,’ but did what we said it would.”

Schmid describes the “World Music Drumming Curriculum” as an active, hands-on approach to teaching students about African, Caribbean, and other drumming traditions throughout the world.

In addition to drumming, students fulfill the Wisconsin Music Standards through singing, improvising, listening, learning about other cultures, and connecting music to their other school subjects.

The drums, which Schmid describes as “incredibly colorful,” are provided by a $140,000 grant from REMO Inc., a leader in the field of world percussion based in Los Angeles.

Each participating school has received 23 new congas and other types of drums as well as auxiliary percussion instruments such as African rattles and bells, and Caribbean claves, guiros, and maracas.

Last summer, the MPS pilot teachers received a scholarship to attend a workshop in Williams Bay, where they worked with Schmid and Ghanaian master drummer Sowah Mensah of the University of Minnesota. The goal of the workshop was to show the pilot teachers how to instruct other teachers in playing the instruments and teaching the new curriculum.

“The drumming curriculum helps teachers mesh lessons about culture with music instruction,” Schmid says. Following African music traditions, teachers teach orally using echo, question and answer, and call and response patterns.

Gradually, students learn to play complementary parts in seven-part ensembles.

It’s not a coincidence that the “World Music Drumming Curriculum” is designed for students in general music classes who are not involved in band, orchestra, or chorus. “The curriculum engages these kids, the other 85 percent, in active music-making – the heart of the music experience,” Schmid says.

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