And the Beat Goes On

By Chojnacky, Debra | School Arts, April 2002 | Go to article overview

And the Beat Goes On


Chojnacky, Debra, School Arts


I teach creative craft and art courses in a junior high school with multigrade level art classes. Three years ago, I started teaching the art of drum making to my creative crafts students. It has become a signature project and very popular for the eighth and ninth graders who sign up for the crafts program. Separate from the Art I classes that I teach, many of these students take a semester of creative crafts as a way to escape daily academic stress, as well as to learn about artistic, cultural, and historical purposes.

Our school's philosophy is based on team teaching and thematic coursework within each grade level. This is a great opportunity to teach cultural, historical, and interrelated art themes within a project such as drum making because drums are found throughout the world, in practically every culture. Drums are known to have existed since at least 6000 BC. I have students create images on drums based on a period in history or cultural movement. Many times this coincides with what they are learning in History, Language Arts, and units in Science or Math.

Beating Around the World ...

Drums have strong ceremonial, sacred, or symbolic associations almost everywhere. Students create drums depicting representations from Asian, African, Celtic, Native American, and Australian Aborigines cultures. With the Aboriginal arts, students paint Papunya Dot Dreamings onto handmade drums. Each semester that I teach drum making becomes a personal journey for students and me because we learn so much about the cultural aspects of people around the world. Within hundreds of American Indian tribes, drum making and ceremonies are regarded as very sacred and distinct. Teachers need to be sensitive with the religious symbolism, never generalize, and be advised by an elder or shaman of the Native American Council or Nation closest to their geographic location.

The Spirit of Drumming

Students learn that the drum is a musical instrument. Drum shells are commonly made of wood, metal, or pottery. I gather various sizes of broken PVC pipe that irrigation businesses have available in piles for recycling. They usually donate them and invite students to display their drums in their office. My husband has been a wonderful supporter of this project in that he will cut and drill the holes, as middle school students are not allowed to use skill saws and drill presses. The drum heads are made of animal skin and fastened to the shell wet, with cord lacing that overlaps the shell. Thin duck decoy cord, purchased at a sporting goods store, works well and is cost effective. I purchase full-size rawhide from a local leather company. The drum shell holds the skin taut and also acts as a resonator--the larger the width and depth of a drum, the deeper resonance; the narrower and higher the drum, the higher the pitch.

In addition to teaching elements of design connections into the principles, I integrate cultural music into the two-week project. To enrich and personalize the drum-making journey, I incorporate films on dance and drumming. I show students drums made from many countries, tribes and cultures. In the past I have invited a Native American drummer into the classroom. I have also asked our custodian to demonstrate making handmade drums, as she is a musician who makes her own musical instruments. She showed me how to make this style of drum using recycled PVC pipe. Due to the high cost of rawhide, students make drums with only one head. It is a cross between a tom-tom and a kettledrum. In addition to individual drums, I have students make a large double-headed tom-tom drum so the class may experience rhythm and teamwork in a drumming circle. …

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