With the pull of a pied piper, at the Forest Preserve of Cook County’s “Forest Jam” event in early September, one of Steckman Studio of Music’s Out Loud After School drumming instructors, Andrew Elbert, was circling up a half dozen or so aspiring musicians for his annual “drum petting zoo” experience.
With their legs hugging an African djembe drum, and taking their rhythmic cues from Elbert, the 4, 5 and 6-year-olds caught on quickly.
“Mmmm, mmmm…tastes like chicken” (the beat), and “Get a haircut and tie your shoes” (the break), is how Elbert motivated 12 open palms to energetically slap the rope-tuned skin covered goblet-shaped drum, a djembe, an instrument Elbert told them was from West Africa.
This Out Loud facilitated drum circle was a taste of the 8-week long mentoring program that with African drumming, touches the musical souls of about 30 elementary and middle school age kids who are either referred to it by Oak Park Township Youth Services, or a school counselor.
“Probably the number one thing about African drumming and children of all abilities doing it is the instrument’s immediate accessibility, especially the djembe, which is the kind of hand drum I teach,” says Elbert, a Chicago-based musician and composer, who is a contracting artist with Steckman Studio.
Right away kids have the ability to bang away, creating sound, and expelling pent up energy, says Elbert, who on behalf of Steckman Studio also conducts African drum classes for cognitively challenged adults, and after-school for the children residing at Hephzibah House, a foster home in Oak Park.
“Drumming is very therapeutic in that way, so if they have a bit of anxiety, or anger built up, or have something going on that was bothering them earlier in the day, oftentimes drumming is an excellent way to not forget about your troubles, but leave them alone for a while. It is hard not to feel good when you are done,” Elbert says.
Where the beat goes on
Over the run of the Out Loud After School drum ensembles, Harry Steckman, the non-profit’s founder, says its young performers have played around town, including at Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, and on the stage at Scoville Park during “A Day in our Village.”
Last year, African drum instructor Kevin Swanson did a series of 8-week-long Out Loud After School sessions at three District 97 schools.
“Every study that has been done about learning music talks about how it helps you understand emotions, plus making music makes you smarter,” Swanson smiles. “Girls, boys, it doesn’t matter. Of course not. At one school I had almost all girls. They either love it, or hate it. That’s middle school.”
As Steckman Studio of Music celebrates 40 years of offering piano, guitar, violin and drum instruction in Oak Park, Steckman says this reach out is to school age children who do not fit in anywhere else.
Contracted artists, such as Elbert and Swanson, are fostering self esteem, and leadership skills while developing discipline through the development of learning an instrument during this mentoring program.
“Most of the kids we serve are either experiencing social problems, parental problems, or economic problems. The hope is we can help get them get back on track,” Steckman said.