Visiting artist drums up energy at Orwell School

ORWELL — Outside of the Orwell Village School last week, a dull gray sky and patchy spots of February slush and snow signaled midwinter doldrums.
But drifting out from the Orwell town hall, where the town’s schoolchildren congregate for assemblies and gym classes, came a sound decidedly more cheerful than February’s chill might typically inspire.
Rhythmic drumming rang out across the schoolyard, and stepping into the town hall, a visitor to the school last week would have found the space transformed. African fabric and school art projects covered the walls of the gymnasium, and heaped in the center of the room was a herd of drums of all different shapes and sizes.
There, gathered in a tight drum circle, eighth-graders at the school tapped out a rhythm in unison. Their leader, drummer Julie Corey, led the way through a complicated pattern of thumps and taps, and cheered along with the students when the group ended with one last, heroic bang.
Corey was on hand every day last week as an artist in residence at the Orwell school, bringing her expertise as a drum circle leader to the school.
“This truly has been the most uplifting thing,” said Maureen Reardon, a kindergarten teacher at the Orwell school.
Reardon applied for the wellness grant that brought Corey to the school, and said she’s been eager to bring a drumming program to Orwell for years.  
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As the eighth-graders filed out of the gym, they were replaced by an excited gaggle of second- and third-graders, led by teachers Susan Young and Doreen Sweeney-Dodge. They took their seats in the drumming circle, and listened as Corey explained the day’s lesson.
In addition to banging out a song of their own — a tune Corey called “Power of the Drums,” which the students sang out and augmented with rhythmic shakers — they also gathered around the Native American “mother drum,” where they led their classmates in dance to a song called “Blessings of the Animals.”
As Reardon took up her seat at the mother drum, Corey sang and played her own djembe drum, and the students threw themselves wholeheartedly into their impressions of ravens and hawks, the “flying ones” and “hunting ones” and “swimming ones.”
This, Reardon said, is exactly what the drumming grant was all about.
“To me it’s truly the mind, the heart and the spirit, in a fun way,” she said, pointing out that the students’ inhibitions melted away when the drumming started up. “Everyone can succeed at some level.”
At the school, drumming last week stood in for art classes, P.E. instruction and music lessons — but managed to blend all three, Corey said. She said she sees it as a wellness activity, and that group drumming provides exercise, intellectual stimulation, creative expression, social support and stress reduction.
Corey has been drumming professionally for 11 years, and has worked with groups ranging from the corporate to the collegiate. She’s also specialized in bringing therapeutic drumming to groups like the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fund-raisers and breast cancer survivors’ groups.
The best part of working in schools?
“Oh, the energy,” said Corey, “and the excitement, and (the kids’) willingness to try new things.”
That enthusiasm was in abundance as Orwell’s second- and third-graders gathered around individual drums and picked up their “shakers” to play along with Corey in the “Power of the Drums.”
It was the song they’d debut for their classmates at the Orwell Village School on Friday, in an assembly that marked the culmination of the weeklong residency. Also a highlight of the week was a Wednesday night community concert, attended by dozens of Orwell families.
“You weren’t watching a performance,” said Orwell School Principal Sue DeCarolis. “You were part of it.”
The kids, for their part, had trouble articulating just what it was they enjoyed about the drumming. Most agreed with third-grader Rhiana Carr’s succinct assertion.
“I just like it all,” Carr said.
But after all, over the thumping of the drums and the twinkling of dance bells, there wasn’t much time for chit-chat to be had.
For more photographs from the Orwell Village School drumming residency, and to hear one of Corey’s songs, check out an audio slideshow at our Web site,

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