King Koonto and Jeffrey Make Music

My name is Rory the Cook. I feed everybody at Andrew Fleck Child Care Centre, except on Thursdays, when cowgirl Kathleen steps in for me so I can do other things like make music. I write music for choir and for jazz ensembles, I play drums and percussion with a particular interest in spontaneously improvised music and, occasionally, I teach individual lessons and group classes. I have had the pleasure of leading music workshops for kids at the Featherston Autism Unit and likewise for youth with Autism through the SNAP program run by the City of Ottawa. My interest in musical improvisation has played an important part in the success of those endeavours. Here is a story about one session with the SNAP teens which was particularly successful.

We assembled at the Baobab Tree Studio where my wife, Kathy Armstrong, leads her group, Baobab Youth Performers, and where she has, over the years, presented drum and dance classes for all ages. I had recently discovered the calming benefit of turning off the direct overhead fluorescent lights and instead, illuminating the gathered participants with a string of orange and purple Halloween lights piled up into an electric bonfire in the middle of the circle, faces glowing in the comfortably dim light.

After teaching a rudimentary technique for playing on African hand drums, I initiated a circular call-and-response activity that started very simple but gradually grew into something of a little opera.

I played a very simple rhythm, just a few beats, on my drum and invited everyone to repeat the rhythm. I played it again and they played it back again. I played it with a very slight change and they followed me. Then I played to them more quietly and they responded in kind, then each time quieter and quieter until our rhythm faded away.

I invited the person on my left to play a few beats for the group to echo. We followed her lead on a succession of subtle rhythmic changes, gently fading to silence. The next person after her was uncomfortable about playing for the group and couldn’t think of a rhythm, so I suggested simply playing a single beat on the drum. Everyone responded with a single beat. I suggested adding one more beat and the group echoed. We continued, keeping it simple, fading eventually to silence. I introduced the idea of dynamics (shifts in volume) and how that could help give more shape to the music we were making. Slowly fading each person’s call-and-response contribution gave shape to the music and we were really creating a lovely suite of pieces around the campfire.

By this time, one of the participants had long since stopped playing and moved to get more comfortable on a couple of chairs at the edge of the room, leaving his chair in the circle vacant. He had been yawning mightily for the first while and I thought if he was so intensely bored or tired or disaffected, I didn’t want to force his hand. When we finally arrived at his empty chair, I called to him to see if he would join us again and play a rhythm for us to repeat. He couldn’t have sounded more tired or less interested. “Uhhhh……I’n….I’n really tired.”

I asked if he was really sure he didn’t want to try. He was pretty sure. He slouched down further until he was almost lying down. Somehow I had the wit to say nothing and just let the silence do the work. After a minute, that’s quite a long silence in a group setting, he blurted out “Oh, alright! I’ll play something.” I had no idea what lay in store for us. He got to his chair, sat down and said “I’n going to tell you a story”.

His name was Jeffrey. He proceeded to create a story about a king, King Koonto. I encouraged the story, repeating his last words each time he spoke. This seems to work well with very young kids too. As much as I was delighted with the emergence of his spontaneous oral creation, however, I thought we should perhaps return to the drumming element of the workshop, so I asked him if this king had a special rhythm that was played whenever his name was called. Of course there was such a rhythm. Jeffrey played the rhythm for us and we all repeated it with every mention of King Koonto. Not only that, but there was a song to go with it and, in an astonishing mock-operatic tenor, Jeffrey delivered for us the song of King Koonto and we responded with our drums. In fact, I made every effort to respond in operatic voice myself, but a quick read of the circle suggested that drumming was a better option for the rest of the group.

Of course the king had a queen and together they had a princess and each character had a rhythm that we all played several times, fading to silence after each episode. Just as I pondered silently the question of how far to go with Jeffrey’s oration, time was up.

Parents and the SNAP Coordinator came back into the room, the fluorescent lights came on. The spell was broken and there was no way that I could think of to fully convey how far we had gone in that hour. I left the studio thoroughly delighted and Jeffrey became a private student for a couple of years of very inspired music-making.

Written by Rory Magill, Cook
Andrew Fleck Child Care Centre on George Street