ImageI would watch as Granger, a normally gregarious student, would sit quietly for long stretches, listening to the others and adding his own contributions sparingly. This provided room for the more reticent students like Robert, Isaac, and Joss to lead the performances. Joss liked to establish the foundation, a regular beat over which others could play. Robert, true to his personality, waited for holes in the sound, which he would fill with subtle touches. Isaac loved to experiment with different sounds and instruments.

These exchanges were the heart the weeklong “intensive” class that Dan Lederer and I co-taught in April at Four Rivers. The course was part a study in drumming improvisation and part a survey of different musics from around the world. Dan and I wanted to expose our students to different types of music, stuff they had probably never heard before, and to give them the space to experiment, at times imitating the odd meters and different forms we studied from different cultures. We prepared curriculum on various musical traditions—music from eastern Europe, India, Cambodia, and Africa—but the drumming performances provided the most learning. That was when students could play and discover within the safety of our group, something that seems to be missing in much of traditional music education, where a student quickly learns the sharp distinction between correct and incorrect.

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Being able to explore and make mistakes is essential, I think, to developing an innate musicianship, a quality that my organ teacher Stephen Best said is “something that cannot be taught.” This approach favors feeling and emotion over knowledge, and it values an emergent product over one that is pre-planned. Knowledge and planning are certainly important, but they seem to be over-emphasized in today’s American society. The freedom to take risks and see where they go is something I have found more prevalent in other cultures, so it makes for an important lesson for American youth.

By the end, Dan and I seemed to have succeeded in instilling a sense of adventure in our students, and through it a high level of musicianship. The drums leveled the playing field, as they don’t require refined technique, so everyone could contribute. Even when students began to experiment with other instruments, their sense of discovery prevailed. In a matter of days, students learned to listen to and play off of each other; how to respond to a piece’s mood; and how to begin and end a piece collectively, without a leader. They also came to take pride in their new status as improvisers. After our final performance at the school’s assembly, Robert commented to me that, “We should have told them that the whole thing was improvised. We made it all up right then!” When a self-declared “non-musician” conveys a sentiment like that, a sense of musical adventure has clearly taken root and reaped benefits.

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