Sunset Primary School, Part 2

Committed to the Arts

By Shane Cadman


Back In The Saddle Again

In our June 2010 spotlight on Sunset Primary School in West Linn, Oregon, we featured music teacher James Compton and his music program for elementary school kids. James teaches music using 30 RMP-5 Rhythm Coach Drum Pads. Because he received the instruments late in the school year, James was only able to use them for a few weeks before having to pack them up for the summer. At the end of the spotlight, we mentioned that we would be catching up with him in the fall to see how the program was going and finding out the latest developments. Well, it’s fall already, and James is back to making music with the kids.

Do You Remember?

The school year at Sunset Primary started right after Labor Day, and James has been working with the students and the RMP-5s right from the start. At the end of the last school year, he had the kids playing on the instruments using only their hands. With plans of introducing drumsticks this year, a refresher course was in order.

“The first week we had to do a review of all the menus and the navigation, because we had some new students to the school. We watched parts of the DVD again and helped each other remember how to navigate.”

Once the students were reacquainted with the RMP-5s, and they had some time again playing them with their hands, it was time for the students to become “real drummers.”

“The first week was just with hands, and the second week, the fourth and fifth graders started using drumsticks. I started with them first because I wanted to make sure it would work ok, and let them prove themselves to me, before I would try it with the younger kids.

Hold On

While the move to drumsticks was successful, there were some technique issues that became apparent right away.

“They really enjoyed the drumsticks, but some of them had trouble using what’s called the matched grip. They wanted to try the traditional grip, where the left hand’s flipped over, but of course they wanted to flip both hands over. I was trying to tell them that in elementary school we really need to focus on the matched grip because we’re going to use the same kind of technique when we go to play xylophone or other mallet instruments. So they sort of understood that and did the best they could. It was a stumbling block for some of them, because they felt really comfortable with their hands, but now they’re holding drumsticks, and they’re excited about it.”

The Kids Are Alright

Once James had the fourth and fifth graders up and running with the drumsticks (and some lessons learned), it was time to let the younger kids give it a go.

“The next week we tried it with the third graders. They did really well–I was pleasantly surprised. We had worked out all the bugs with the fourth and fifth graders, so I just said ‘Here’s what we need to watch out for, here’s what we need to do to be safe, for ourselves and for the instrument.’ They were groovin’ along really well, so I thought ‘Let’s just take a chance with the first and second graders.’ This year we have blended classrooms, where we have two grades in the same room. Our first and second grade classes are all blended together, so I couldn’t just do the second graders and not let the first graders play–that would be a bummer for them. I had to let the first graders do it too, although I wasn’t quite sure that they could control the sticks and be safe, and not hit their neighbor or hit the screen, but none of them seemed to have that problem. They all seemed to understand that these are electronic instruments and they have to be careful. For the most part, they were all looking at the target and trying to be accurate. I think in a lot of ways it was really good, because they immediately felt like they were big kids and they were real drummers, like they’ve seen me do, and seen the older kids do. It was really exciting for them.”


Help, I Need Somebody

While all teachers have different objectives and desired outcomes for their classes, they will all tell you that having students work together to help each other is important, and a sign of a positive educational environment. James is fortunate enough to be able to witness this behavior on a regular basis.

“Our classes are very large this year. We’re suffering with budget issues like every other school, and so our classes are all close to 30 per class, which brings all kinds of space issues, and makes it hard to get around and help all the kids. Thankfully, there is enough peer tutoring, where they’re helping each other navigate through the menus, helping each other remember how to hold the drumsticks. That was very powerful to see, because that’s what we always want to see as educators–that they take leadership and they teach each other.”

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Currently, James has each of his students wearing headphones plugged into their RMP-5, without a master system. While this may at first seem to be a counter productive, it does have its advantages.

“I enjoy listening to them play on the RMP-5 while they’re listening on headphones, because while they hear a “real” sound, all I want to hear is drumsticks hitting the drum pad. It helps me figure out who is not on the beat really quickly. From my teaching standpoint, it is easier for me to clean it up and figure out who needs help by just hearing that sound. When we tried to do it with the acoustic drums last year, it was so “boomey” and so hard to hear; it was really hard to clean it up. It was really hard to work on accuracy and figure out who was really struggling. With the RMP-5s, it’s just awesome. I am happy, and they are happy because they get to hear an actual sound of their choice.”

Stop, Children, What’s That Sound?

The RMP-5 has 54 internal sounds (including everything from snare drums and toms to cymbals and percussion sounds), so how does James decide which sounds the kids use?

“I let them pick whatever sound they want. Some of them realized quickly that some sounds were louder than others, and they would stick around those sounds so they could make sure they could hear themselves.”

The freedom to choose their own sounds brings a level of excitement and enthusiasm that the students wouldn’t have using traditional instruments.

“With them playing the RMP-5s, they feel like they are making music. I think that they feel empowered with the sounds, and being in control of the sounds that they choose. I think it becomes more of a fun activity for them.”

More Cowbell

When first working with the students, James starts off by having them copy what he plays on his cowbell.

“We started off with just repeating echoing patterns, so I would play something on a cowbell, (so they could hear it over their sound on the headphones) and they would play it back. And we spent a lot of time with an exercise that’s a very popular drumline exercise for high school kids called ‘eight count down.’ What you do is play eight on the right hand, eight on the left hand, seven on the right, seven on the left, six-six, five-five, four-four, three-three, two-two, one-one and then they lift their sticks to finish on a silent rest. I’ve done this exercise with high school students, and it emphasizes skills including counting, internalizing rhythms and patterns, and thinking ahead about what’s coming next. It works on mirroring, to try to help that weaker hand. It helps them to keep a steady beat, because it should sound like constant eighth notes without any tempo changes. It helps them really focus and listen in.”


The Rhythm Is Around Me

In addition to teaching the students by imitating what they hear, James is also teaching them beginning note reading.

“We put rhythms on the big screen and we started by reading quarter notes and eighth notes. I had to start real simple, because we have students who have never played an instrument before. The power of it was that the students who take piano lessons and can already read these rhythms were creating a really solid foundation for people around them to listen to. So I was playing beats on the cowbell, but they were also hearing their neighbors–especially the ones playing with confidence–play it accurately, and it was helping the group stay together. If we were playing any other instrument, like recorders or violins–anything that made an audible sound–I don’t think they would be as willing to take risks and play. Their neighbor may know that they hit the pad at the wrong time, but it’s not a big sound where everybody hears a big ‘bomp’ on the rest. And I think that has a huge advantage, because one of the things that I’m trying to get them to do is play with confidence and just go for it.”

See The Show

Performances are an integral part of any music program, and the music program at Sunset Primary is no different.

“When we come back in January, we’ll start gearing up for the concerts. The third graders have their concert in February, and the fourth and fifth graders have their concert in March. For both of those shows, the drums are going to be heavily emphasized. We want to show the community what they can do. Everybody has heard about them, but they haven’t seen them in a performance yet.”

The Sound Of Drums Is Calling

With an innovative program like the one at Sunset Primary, you can be sure that these won’t be your ordinary elementary school concerts. Imagine what could be with elementary school kids and 30 RMP-5s!

“We’re going to spend most of January trying to figure out how we can use these for the show. I think what I really want to do is blend them into the existing music that we’re already learning. Every class is going to sing a song in a different language. With that different language component, I also want to add instruments of various types. It could be five students are playing ukuleles, five students are playing xylophones, and five students are playing the RMP-5s. I think for every song that we do, some kids will be playing the RMP-5s. I also want to do some sort of feature that uses all 30 RMP-5s, and maybe create a song using just the RMP-5s. We will have each student assigned to a sound, and they’ll play their part, and the piece will layer up and layer down. It will be something simple, but also enough for the audience to understand that this 30-piece ensemble can create some incredible sounds because they have these 54 sound choices. I’ll have to decide if I want them to play by themselves, or if I want to create a backing track. Do I want to have a simple bass line, or something like that to kind of hold it together, or do I want them to just go for it and play and listen to each other, and just see what happens? I don’t know yet–we’ll have to see.”

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