How have you found the workshops so far?
It’s been really rewarding. It’s a lot of work and there is a lot of chaos. The space I am working in with the kids from Sandy Hill Community Health Centre is not ideal because there are a whole bunch of distractions for the kids but the work itself has been really great. I think it has unfolded in a way that works. Throughout the workshops I prepped them with activities such as doing the names as rhythm so that they understand the drumming-language concept.
I noticed that your group grew quite a bit. How did that change go?
About two-thirds of the way into the workshops we ended up with extra four or five kids. It was great to have a bigger group, and I think the fact that the first group of kids had some grounding in the stuff that we were doing made it possible for me to add the other kids. Plus, in this kind of drumming and Ghanaian music, you can bring people in at different levels of experience and skill, so adding new people from week to week is fairly easy to accommodate because it allows for a wider range. It’s a participatory style of music and that makes it inviting for new people to come in.
How did the kids come up with the phrases for the final piece?
We began with a brainstorm session where we talked about the things they loved about Canada and the things they thought that needed improvement. They took those ideas and, put them down in writing and created their messages. I didn’t assign them stuff; they came up with phrases they wanted to own and then paired off into groups naturally. Sometimes it had to do with who was there at rehearsal. In fact, leading up to the performance there were quite a few kids who were away, so we had small rehearsals and we had some really good work done. So when the other kids who were there got to share with the kids who were away it gave them ownership of the process. It really was their piece.
They looked so comfortable performing at the showcase event.
That is the beautiful thing about performance, kids rise to the occasion. I did a good job prepping them in the sense that we arranged our workshop in the last couple of weeks to reflect more of a performance style space and we moved out of the part of the room where we did all the brainstorming so that they could feel it a bit differently. You can talk all you want to adults and kids about what is going to happen, but if they physically go through the process of being in a performance setting then they will remember that, their bodies will remember that on the day of the show. And that is what happened. It was really like herding cats those last few weeks to try and get them to line up and sit in the right chairs and transition from one piece to the next piece, and they did a beautiful job.
Did you get a sense of what they preferred in the workshop?
It’s interesting, I think with this group of kids isn’t really sure what they want. One of the challenges has been that each week they want something different. It’s very hard to get them to stick with something. So I had them do a mix of drums and some other small African percussion instruments. I tried to get them to stick with one of the small instruments so that the rhythm would always be the same and we would have a nice mix of stuff. But of course they like to shift things around a bit. I do think a few of them got attached to things, but there is also a feeling that there’s not enough and they just want to grab as much stuff as possible. When they have access to something new they just want to try it out.
What did you learn from the kids you were working with?
I am a big admirer of the community they have built. They live in a neighbourhood where they see each other a lot; whether they go to the same school or other programs at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, and you can really feel that sense of community. They seriously look out for each other, I mean it’s very beautiful to watch and see that if someone is missing they will make mention of it, and I didn’t really see any issues between the kids, they were all very supportive of each other. It was so different because often I have to build a lot of that community. We also had great support from Gerald Dragon, the community developer at Sandy Hill CHC. He would call the parents to remind them, and walk the kids from one program to another in the evening. They are already attached to Gerald and they got attached to me. The day of the showcase as I was setting up ahead and they all ran up and hugged me. That was a community that existed already before I was honoured to become a part of that.
At the beginning of this project you said you hoped it would help their communication skills. Do you think it did?
I think so. They all liked to play the rhythms with the Ghanaian music but when they started to take their own word phrases about Canada and put them into rhythms you could see that they were really attached to those. They tried to do them the same all the time; they really tried to finesse it. What I found was the kids who couldn’t speak up much or were shy played beautifully and were able to express through the music in a way they might not have been able to through dialogue.
It was really fascinating to hear all of their sounds and rhythms come together. I really enjoyed that the scratching of the drum made it into the piece.
Well it is so interesting, because we did some exploring at the beginning of the sessions. The girl who was into the scratching thing, it was so different. At a few points she wanted to leave it and I said it’s up to you, but no one else is doing that and it has such an interesting sound, it really has your name on it, it’s your expression. So she did keep it, she kept it the whole way through, and it was unique.
Do you think the kids will continue with drumming?
Who knows! These kids have access to different kinds of arts programming and some other really good programming, so I think it all goes into the pot and makes them who they are. Certainly they talked to me about a dance program they were in and it fed into the dace workshop we did last week. I think that’s the thing about being an educator, you don’t totally know where the work you have done with people is going to end up, or how it will inform the person. It usually does, but it happens gradually and throughout the rest of their lives. But that is what you do. You just put it out there and they take what is important to them. I am confident it will have its mark on them in some way.
Learn more about Kathy Armstrong’s Art Place workshops with Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.