CPHS World Drumming class taps into passion of nontraditional music students

A music teacher at Champlin Park High School (CPHS) for 21 years, Steve Lyons knew something was missing in what the department was offering students. While Lyons loves teaching band, he wanted to reach more students.

A drummer since he was 7 years old and a hopeful future songwriter, Abdul Sesay is enjoying the World Drumming class at Champlin Park High School.
A drummer since he was 7 years old and a hopeful future songwriter, Abdul Sesay is enjoying the World Drumming class at Champlin Park High School.

With the goal of opening the door to share his passion for music and performance with more students, Lyons had an idea: a World Drumming class that would explore the music and culture of African and Caribbean countries. Knowing CPHS has a minority population of 34 percent with many students from African countries, Lyons took his idea to Stephen Cobb, the school’s student learning advocate. Cobb thought it was a great idea, as did Principal Mike George and Assistant Principal Steve Hall.

After these conversations the School Board approved funding to create a new music elective to meet the needs of students who don’t participate in traditional band or orchestra courses, Lyons’s class was a go.

“The class works to break down some of the racial barriers that might exist in our school hallways and to develop an understanding of different cultures,” Lyons said. “The class kind of validates our African American students. They see that others are interested in understanding their culture. For other students, World Drumming is fun and engaging.

“As a teacher it’s been a blessing to get to know untraditional band students – kids who pursue music in different ways. They are every bit as passionate about creating and performing music as students who have been in band for five years.”

In class, the group of 12 students sat in a circle. As they wait for class to being, students randomly tap on the brightly colored drums. The drums, as well as soft shakers and bongos, were paid for by a $4,000 donation to the music department. When time came for class to begin, Lyons plays a beat on his drum and the students answer back with the same beat. One student picks up a rattler from a variety of additional instruments in the middle of the circle and answers back with the drummers.

The students have complete concentration as they mimic Lyons’s quiet, louder, quiet, quite drumming. There is no shuffling of paper or side conversations in this class. It’s about the music.

Once the students are warmed up, Lyons nods to the student next to him who takes over leading the class. The student plays his beat, his peers respond. With a nod from Lyons, each student has an opportunity to put his or her own signature on World Drumming class. One student’s lead is as simple as one slap of the drum head, a strong slap, almost like a statement, while other students lead their peers through complex hand work. One student adds clapping to his sequence of beats. Through the exercise, Lyons taps out the beat with his foot; it’s almost like second nature to the music teacher.

When the exercise comes literally full circle, for the first time since class began, Lyons speaks verbally rather than musically. He tells the students the key words for the day are “listen and watch.” The students are working on patterns from the Republic of Guyana and Lyons has a specific set up for the low, medium and high drums. This is not only a class in music and culture, it’s an exercise in cooperation.

“I want you to be able to play your part, but to see how it fits with others,” Lyons tells the students. “Get your ears and eyes into what others are doing.”

As the students think with their hands and work on a question and answer with their drumming – one set of drums musically asks a question while the other drums answer back – Lyons says the students are doing things that are delighting his soul.

“We have students who are going out on a limb and doing things that are more challenging,” he said. “That’s really cool.”

Toward the end of class, Lyons praises the students for their work.

“Why are we doing a better job today?” Lyons asks the group. “Because we are listening.”

The class flies by and before the students know it, it’s time to put away the drums. As they shuffle off the CPHS auditorium stage where class was held, Lyons yells out “we are dancing tomorrow!”

In addition to drumming and dancing, Lyons also added a little geography to class lessons. As they explore different music and cultures, they also learn about countries in Africa and Latin America. For some students these are far off lands; for others they are part of the students’ family history.

Lyons also enjoys the class because students aren’t just playing music, they are creating it. Through their work, students are becoming music composers, improvisational musicians and acute listeners. It also honors nontraditional music students.

“Trained musicians depend on (music) literacy and reading (music),” Lyons said. “This class honors a different tradition of listening, watching and mimicking. That’s the way most of the world has worked.

“World Drumming has opened my eyes and ears as a teacher and I’ve incorporated listening and oral literacy into my band classes.”

With an interest in playing guitar, Alex McDonald thought his music elective was a rock ‘n roll class and was surprised to find out he had signed up for World Drumming. His disappointment quickly turned around.

“As soon as we started drumming, I fell in love with the class,” McDonald said. “This is one of my favorite classes because you can be very creative with your hands. We also get to learn about other cultures.”

Abdul Sesay took the class because he is a “drummer by heart.” The senior, who has played drums since he was seven years old, loves coming to the World Drumming class. The class has been very helpful to Sesay, who plans to attend McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.

“I’ve had Mr. Lyons as a teacher since freshman year,” he said. “I’m not so good with reading music; I usually learn by ear. This drumming class is opening my ears to composition. I’ve learned to fill in spaces, to listen and to respond. I want to be a songwriter and this class will help me do that.”

The class is scheduled to be offered for two trimesters this year. If there is interest from students, another trimester could be added.