PMAC Teaching Artist Brian Shankar Adler leading the Creative Aging program “A World of Percussion” (photo by David J. Murray)

Having joined the PMAC faculty in fall 2020, I was thrilled to learn that there was an opportunity to adapt my global rhythms program for a seed grant from the National Guild of Community Arts Education,, to pilot a creative aging program in the Seacoast community. In 2006, funded by an arts grant in New York, I created A World of Percussion, which was offered to children and turned into a workbook. The partnership between PMAC and the Portsmouth Senior Activity Center marked the first time A World of Percussion curriculum was adapted and offered to creative agers, 55+.

A World of Percussion connects language, mathematics, geography, history, culture and environment through an interactive rhythmic study of musical concepts from around the globe. Participants travel around the world (metaphorically speaking), encountering and exploring various rhythmic perspectives. 

For 8 weeks, we met on Monday mornings: ten participants in a community room at PMAC with our assistant, Rex, present. I zoomed in via projector, conducting the group, despite the inherent zoom latency. 

PMAC Teaching Artist Brian Shankar Adler leading the Creative Aging program “A World of Percussion” (photo by David J. Murray)

Participants entered the space with varying perspectives, many not sure what to expect. One participant had several years of drumming experience, some students were eager to play, expecting a free-form drum circle, one came to support a partner who was curious about drumming, some wanted to try something brand new and others expressed fear of the unknown and a hesitation of socializing after a difficult year of covid distancing. 

We began by getting to know each other, our backgrounds and expectations, then quickly jumped into the deep end by making our first percussive sounds on various drums, shakers, scrapers and auxiliary percussion instruments. We attempted to play a single boom all together (surprisingly tricky especially over zoom) before exploring techniques required to play long tones, short tones, high pitched sounds and low pitched sounds.
“A World of Percussion” with Brian Adler at Portsmouth Music and Arts Center

The format of the class was relatively simple: each day we focused on a rhythm and/or concept from a particular country or geographic region. This included rhythms coming directly from daily routines in Ghana, drones and heterophonic metal sounds inspired by Indonesian Gamelan, celebratory harvest rhythms from Guinea, vocalized percussion from India, polyrhythmic clave from Cuba and more.. To develop a unifying language, a sense of trust in the group and a sense of personal expression, we also played improvisational games and built short pieces of music inspired by that week’s topic. 

PMAC Teaching Artist Brian Shankar Adler leading the Creative Aging program “A World of Percussion” (photo by David J. Murray)

Besides a general eagerness to try virtually anything, participants had many beautiful ideas that we worked into the process. For example, we were working on a challenging tongue twister-like phrase from India and one participant who had experience teaching foreign language suggested that we learn it backwards. We tried it and it was an instant success!

Throughout the week, participants emailed me and the others sharing their adventures and how they were discovering new rhythms in their daily lives. One heard a groove in the chopping of carrots, another found rhythm in an art exhibition. Several other participants mentioned that their listening and awareness were actually changing as the program developed. 

Another surprise came in the penultimate class, which focused on rhythms from the United States. I had a curriculum planned that would bring together New Orleans jazz rhythms, but we took a turn based on the group’s interest in connecting language (specifically poetry) and rhythm. Ultimately, each participant chose a stanza of poetry that was personal to them and we created a “beat poetry slam” over a deconstructed jazz ride cymbal pattern, reconstructed on various membranophones. It was so beautiful to hear the group shape the poems around the groove and shape groove around the poems. Natural swells emerged and each participant was able to really express themselves. The piece became a melting pot of language and rhythm and was the perfect way to tie the whole experience together- ending the voyage around the world back where we all began. 

PMAC Teaching Artist Brian Shankar Adler leading the Creative Aging program “A World of Percussion” (photo by David J. Murray)

The program concluded with a heartwarming sharing where we all met, in person, with friends, loved ones and other invited guests. We informally played through the various pieces that we had created and then shared about our experiences over the eight weeks. Here are some of reflections that the participants shared:

“I’m a very reserved (shy) person and this has been a great experience for me. I gained so much in all areas of my life.” ~Dennie

“It was such a wonderful program. There wasn’t a thing suggested that we didn’t try” ~Mo 

“Greatly hoping we’ll do more…” ~Ann

It was a beautiful experience to share A World of Percussion with these participants. I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to continue building from where we left off. 

-Brian Shankar Adler (PMAC Teaching Artist)

Read Part 1 of this blog series

The Catalyzing Creative Aging seed grant is provided by the National Guild for Community Arts Education and made possible, in part, by generous support from Aroha Philanthropies and the NAMM Foundation. The Catalyzing Creative Aging Program is presented by the National Guild for Community Arts Education in partnership with Lifetime Arts, and includes group training, one-on-one coaching, and funding.