Many drums, one circle: E3 Academy workshop shows what unity looks like

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NORTH ADAMS — Drumming to get along? To make a difference? To tell a story?

The idea "sounded weird," according to a few students in the E3 Academy when asked about their response to their latest project, learning to drum with local musician and educator, Otha Day.

E3 (Effort, Essential Skills and Employability) Academy is an alternative program of Drury High School, based at the Windsor Mill, that serves students who are at risk of not completing high school. The goal of the projects-based curriculum is to provide students with real world experiences and community connections to help prepare them for life, college and careers.

Teacher Abby Reifsnyder said E3 Academy received a grant from the Pauline Young Music Fund to bring in Day on Tuesdays to lead eight drum circle sessions.

At the start, some students said, the group wasn't sure what to do, and wasn't entirely coordinated. But by the end of the sessions, they opened up, relaxed and had a new repertoire of songs and rhythms to sing and play respectively.

"[Day] would talk to all of us in a group about what we were doing," said student Tonilee Therrien. "It was really fun. It's therapeutic."

Day's approach includes asking students to make drumming personal, for example, using a rhythm to express a sentiment towards a loved one.

Concurrently, as part of their explorations into art and history, the students visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Building 5 with senior museum educator, Amanda Tobin, to see Nick Cave's exhibition, "Until," which is inspired, in part by the weighty question of, "Is there racism in heaven?"

"They got so much out of it. They saw things in it that I didn't think of," said Reifsnyder.

When asked to craft a response to the exhibit for a project, the students decided to put their drumming experience to use, by coordinating a community drum circle with Otha Day at the center of the exhibit on the morning of Dec. 21.

"When we drum, it's like everyone is smiling," said student Kiera Boucher, "I think everyone should be able to do this."

In a way, last Wednesday's event was sort of a reenactment of what happened in the E3 Academy drumming class. Some 25 North Adams Public School administrators and teachers, students' family members and friends, and some Mass MoCA patrons all took about 40 minutes out of their day to sit down and face each other in a circle. Most had no drumming experience. But after being given a hand drum, they listened, and followed and practiced, with minimal talking. The focus instead was on watching, listening, body movement and facial expressions.

"Image your family members here and hold them in your heart," Day prompted. "Make up whatever you feel in your heart. It will all sound good."

And, surprisingly, it did, causing people to start to smile, while the vibrations in the room caused the thousands of strings of crystals and beads and metallic spinners to gently move and sway in the sunlight.

Day urged them on.

"Imagine all the rhythms here matter, that all the sounds we make together here matter, and that your voice matters the same way all these beautiful students matter," he said.

They percussion never faltered, only grew stronger, louder, steadier. When Day prompted them to increase the tempo, the drummers only seemed more engaged and determined, muscles moving and arms and hands and fingertips faster, with urgency.

Even museum patrons walking through who chose not to participate couldn't help by stop, watch and smile, mesmerized by the sound echoing through the football field-sized space.

E3 student, Austin Dean, who has some musical experience, said it was clear to him the effects of learning to drum. "It leaves people feeling more confident that they can do something."

"You learn to cooperate and it creates more energy," said his classmate, Joey Butler.

Reifsnyder said the experience can translate into what's known as a "life skill."

"I think it will help them in terms of their lives after graduation, to know how to connect with others, to be a leader and to be assertive without having a negative impact on others," she said.

Day reminded the group that, "We all have at our hearts a strong center and a strong core," but showed them that despite that individual and unique core, each person was capable of existing and playing alongside other people.

Said E3 student Evan Myers of drumming together, "It gives you confidence and courage ... It brings a smile to your face and opens hearts. It's also really fun."


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