Singing and dancing to the beat of West African drumming, third graders at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey, are exploring world music in a partnership with Montclair State University.
The classes are part of the grant-funded Arts Institute that partners the University’s John J. Cali School of Music with the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The program is supported by the Frank and Lydia Bergen Foundation, which connects students in grades K-12 to quality music education.
Throughout the spring, Monika Szumski ’16, a graduate of the Cali School, and Cesar Mejia, a current student, led the drumming experience. The elementary children play on traditional West African instruments, learning the music by ear and repetition, call and response, body percussion and movement. They groove. They move. They layer rhythms. The beat – and the fun – goes on and on.
“It was magical to be able to teach that to the students at a younger age and to see them come together as a community in drumming, dancing and singing,” Szumski says. “One of the biggest lessons they picked up is that everyone absorbs information differently and adds their own creative flair to the dance moves, to how they say the drum language, and how they sing along.”
The artists in residence hit all the right notes in providing meaningful musical experiences. “Thanks to the support from the grant and our partnership with Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music, the residencies enriched the lives of our students and the school community,” says James Manno, Supervisor of Fine Arts.
The grant provided for clinics conducted by Cali School musicians and faculty for the orchestras and bands at the district’s middle schools and Columbia High School. Those included the Arctic 5 Woodwind Quintet, the graduate quintet-in-residence at Montclair State, which performed for the high school band classes, an experience that Bands Director Peter Bauer says was especially meaningful as the teens grow in their own musical lives.
Artic 5’s energetic and engaging repertoire of classical and popular music moved students to see beyond their own struggles as they learn and practice to the rewards in the joy of playing and sharing music, Bauer says.
At the elementary school, Szumski spent 10 weeks in the African drumming artist-in-residency. “The beautiful thing about this music is that nothing is written down – you learn everything by ear and through repetition,” she says. “So, when people tell me they’re ‘not musical’ or ‘have no rhythm,’ I remind them that you don’t need any of those ‘things’ to be a musician, to love music, to feel music. Especially West African drumming!”