Melissa Gleason and Nishitha Edupuganti have been playing in drum circles at Skyblue Mesa Elementary School in Canyon Country all school year as part of a music-in-education program called "Beat the Odds."
Now, the sixth-graders and about 70 of their classmates are looking forward to taking a field trip to College of the Canyons' Cougar Stadium in Valencia on Friday morning, May 18, to be in a drumming session called "Rock the Rhythm" with a hoped-for crowd of 10,000-plus other locals, led by at least a couple world-famous drummers.
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"College of the Canyons has invited all of the (school) districts in the Santa Clarita Valley to come to their stadium, and we're going to have the largest drum circle ever, trying to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records," said Dr. Debbie Bohn, Skyblue Mesa principal.
The current world record for largest percussion ensemble, set in Hong Kong in 2002, stands at 10,102.
"They're going to bus all the children over there and provide them with little drums, and we will just have this enormous drum circle," Bohn said. "The students are very excited about it."
"It's going to be really cool because we'll get a break from school and have some fun," Gleason said.
Skyblue Mesa Elementary School Principal Dr. Debbie Bohn.
"It'll be nice because you know people from the other schools, and we get to meet new people, too," Edupaganti added.
The girls will join the other 7,200-plus SCV students and 3,000-plus parents, teachers, community groups and other local residents expected to "Rock the Rhythm" at Cougar Stadium starting at 10 a.m. on May 18.
"Rock the Rhythm" the culminating event of the 2011-2012 school year's "Beat the Odds" program, a research-based curriculum designed to help kids maximize creative expression as they build social and emotional skills.
The COC Performing Arts Center's K-12 Arts Education Outreach Program is producing "Rock the Rhythm" with major support from Remo Inc., the Valencia-based drum and percussion instruments manufacturer that has supported music-in-education programs for more than half a century, and "Beat the Odds" curriculum in local schools for the last three years.
Skyblue Mesa sixth-graders in a drum circle follow the lead of the student "director" in the middle.
"The final event is the celebration of a year-long outreach program that used a hybrid 'Beat the Odd' training and celebrates what the PAC K-12 outreach program has been able to achieve with support from the five school districts, the college, the city of Santa Clarita and local businesses," said Adam Philipson, the PAC's managing director.
Emphasizing the process of learning over performance, "Beat the Odds" programs have shown to significantly improve a variety of behavior problems in children.
Philipson, COC supporter Rita Garasi and Remo founder Remo Belli created the "Rock the Rhythm" event to focus attention on and increase awareness of the importance and value of arts in education, especially music, and how the "Beat the Odds" program provides an easy way to get this education into schools.
As part of this school year's "Beat the Odds" curriculum, sixth- and seventh-graders throughout the SCV received hybrid lessons of music and rhythm instruction. The rhythm sessions were especially designed to help each student’s creative expression as they build social and emotional skills, not necessarily to make them great drummers.
At Skyblue Mesa, fifth-graders also joined the sixth-graders for the full eight-week "Beat the Odds" program, which began there in early spring.
Bohn introduced "Beat the Odds" to her staff in the fall, after she had seen how positively kids responded to drum circles in other schools, and joined one herself at one of Remo's Health Rhythms training sessions for drum circle facilitators.
"Drumming, just like most of the arts, is non-verbal, so it's good not only for our English-language learners, but also for our special-ed population," she said. "On my campus, I have three groups of special day-class students and resource students. So when you do drum circles, it evens out the playing field. All children can participate and feel empowered. I really liked that idea."
Figuring out how to pay for the percussion equipment was Bohn's biggest challenge, but she made a deal with Remo to buy all the facilitators' used drums, then leveraged Skyblue Mesa's Parent Teacher Organization to help pay for the hardware and the necessary teacher training, which took place in February.
"I got my PTO involved, I got a (school) board member involved," she said. "The PTO raised funds to buy the big djembe drums, and I have four teachers and my music specialist trained as drum facilitators. We've been slowly but surely training the children on how to do drum circles. The students absolutely love (going to) drum circle. I have not seen children encompass something so readily."
Bohn sees "Beat the Odds" as part of her effort to keep arts in education alive and thriving at Skyblue Mesa — no matter what.
"It is absolutely essential that children have access to music and to the arts, and unfortunately when you have budget crises, that's one of the first programs that gets cut out of the school environment," she said. "I have really insisted we keep (arts) alive at Skyblue Mesa because these are the things children can excel in. They may not excel academically in the classroom, but if you give them an instrument, let them do a drum circle, give them some art to do — most children can be highly successful at that. And when I have success in those programs, it transfers into my academic programs. Giving children that experience is just absolutely essential to the foundation of education."
Bohn explained how she has seen the drum circles help her students academically. "Children who have had attention issues are more attentive in the classrooms. It increases their focus," she said, adding that the students are also learning invaluable social skills. "We're training the kids as a classroom unit, and they learn to work collaboratively as a group, they learn empathy and respect for one another. "Those things are going to transfer into lifelong skills. That is really the base that's going to make them good citizens, and I think that's what we all want in our community."
Bohn has observed drum circle camaraderie outside the classroom, too. "When those children go out on the playground, they all become one unit. So it's really nice how it is bridging all of those little groups within the classrooms and creating this inclusivity, which is very valuable for education because it really helps facilitate in the classroom when we're trying to teach.
"With the drum circles, the children are learning all sorts of things, all happening together in one place, and that's a byproduct we've really enjoyed," Bohn said.
She emphasized how instrumental (pun intended) Remo has been as she's implemented "Beat the Odds" at Skyblue Mesa. "It's a partnership," she said. "I don't think I could have done it without Remo's support. This is a vision they have, and they want to see this vision come alive, especially for children. It's very, very exciting."
Speaking of excitement, anticipation continues to build for the "Rock the Rhythm" world record attempt at COC on May 18, and the event has attracted some major star power, as Mickey Hart and John Densmore have signed on to direct the huge assembly.
Hart, the renowned world music drummer and percussionist who first earned fame as a member of rock band The Grateful Dead, is an author and active instructor and proponent of music in education in schools. Densmore, who came to fame as drummer of The Doors, is a writer, singer, composer, actor, author and lecturer with deep knowledge of ethnic music (see separate story ).
Remo founder Remo Belli holds one of the "sound shapes" the company has produced for the "Rock the Rhythm" event at COC's Cougar Stadium the morning of May 18.
Cougar Stadium's gates will open at 10 a.m. and Remo representatives will provide percussive "sound shapes" and sticks to everyone who enters. An introductory ceremony will begin at 11, and the world record attempt is set to start at 11:30. Guinness representatives will verify the numbers and certify the success or failure within 36 hours.
For more information, visit www.rocktherhythm.org , and check out the "Rock the Rhythm" promo video. Find out more about the PAC's K-12 Arts Education Outreach Program at www.canyons.edu/Offices/PIO/CanyonsPAC/k12arts.html .
Photos: Stephen K. Peeples.