ONTD Political

Drumming helps juvenile offenders learn healthy outlet for frustrations

1:41 pm - 12/24/2011
Last Saturday, a group of young men sat in a circle, basking in the unseasonable warmth of a December afternoon. In front of each was a drum or percussion instrument: African djembes, Latin congas, Native American ceremonial drums, and dumbeks from the Middle East. Three long didgeridoos, the sonorous Australian instrument used for healing, lay on the ground near the group.

The drummers were juvenile incarcerees in C Block, a block at Juvenile Hall reserved for those who have committed more serious crimes. Along with the drummers and John Azzaro, who serves on the Mendocino County Juvenile Justice Commission, were Tobin Hendricks and Billy Thornsby from Learn to Play Music Studio on Brush Street, who provided drumming instruction and support to the young offenders.

"This is not about becoming great drummers," says Azzaro to the group. "We all have a drum, right here," he continued, slapping his hand to his heart. "Drumming is the oldest form of communication in the world."

"Drumming is a great vent for frustration," said Hendricks. "Music takes you away from your problems. It's like a conversation, talking and listening," he continued.

But the trio wasn't there to talk. The boys were given the go-ahead and everyone began playing at once, a cacophony filled with the energy of pent-up frustrations.
Some played with sticks; others with their hands. Hendricks picked up one of the 10-foot-long didgeridoos and took a boy to a quieter area, where he taught him to blow through the sound hole, creating deeply resonant tones used by aboriginal peoples for healing and communion with the spirits.

This was the second time drummers had been invited into Juvenile Hall, according to director Buck Ganter.

"John arranged for Amunka Davila from the band Pura Vida to teach kids in our A and B units," Ganter explains. "We had 23 kids playing drums. It was great, but our C Block kids didn't get to participate."

"Being in the Hall is not punishment. It's a lesson," continues Azzaro, who heads up the mentoring program with the Juvenile Justice Commission. "When Amunka came, the kids started out staring at their shoes. By the end of his session they were smiling, singing and dancing."

And the boys in C Unit seemed to be having as good a time as their minimum-security peers. Like every beginning drumming class, personalities emerged: the confident, loud player; the shy student who holds back; the curious one who asks questions and attempts to replicate the hand movements of his teacher.

Hendricks and Thornsby provided the boys with one-on-one instruction, and just to mix it up a bit, encouraged them to switch to another drum.

Soon, individualized drumbeats began to coalesce, and in an ironic, amusing twist, one young man was able to synchronize the group into a unified voice as he pounded an Indian drum and sang, "John Wayne's Teeth," a song from the Sherman Alexie book and Sundance Film Festival award-winner "Smoke Signals," which poignantly and humorously depicts life on an Idaho Indian reservation, where cars only drive in reverse, alcoholism divides families and the revelation of long-kept secrets enables a troubled young teenager to find peace where there had previously been torment.

Several of the boys know the lyrics, and soon everyone is singing:
John Wayne's teeth
John Wayne's Teeth
Heya heya hey
Are they false
Are they real
Are they plastic
Are they steel
Heya heya hey

Hendricks and Thornsby were unfamiliar with the film, so the youth encouraged their teachers to see it, a "teachable moment" from student to instructor. Along with the unified drumbeats, there were smiles and laughter all around. The second song the boys "played" together? The theme from SpongeBob Squarepants.

"I think there could be a few Tito Puente's in this group," laughs Hendricks. He then takes the group a step further, discussing polyrhythms, challenging the boys with more advanced hand drumming techniques.

A few drums have been given to Juvenile Hall. Ganter, Azzaro and the boys in the Hall hope more will be donated by the community.

"We are accepting donations of drums which can be dropped off at the Hall during regular business hours," says Azzaro. If anyone wishes to donate a drum or percussion instrument, Azzaro assures donors the kids are treating the instruments with the utmost care. Other drummers wishing to participate in the program may contact Azzaro for information.

"The Stanford Criminal Justice project shows that crime rates rise in early adolescence, peak during the mid-to-late teens, and then decline dramatically.
Most violent crimes are committed by people under 30, often beginning with auto theft. In 1950 there were 56 million guns in the U.S. By 1995, that number escalated to 240 million, including military weapons like Uzis, AKs and Tec-9s which wind up on our streets," Azzaro notes.

"Although prisons should be the hardest places to enter, for many youth they are easier to access than educational institutions or decent jobs," he continues. It is Azzaro's hope that programs like this will help build self-esteem, create meaningful connections with adults and provide at-risk youth healthy, long-term outlets for the stresses and challenges they face.

Azzaro concludes with a quote by social reformer Frederick Douglass: "It is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men."

"What made you come here?" asked one youth to their instructors.

"You guys," Hendricks responded.

"And when you get out of here, you've got another home at our studio," Thornsby continued.
Drop-in drum circles for youth and elders are being held at the Learn To Play Studios on the third Friday of the month from 3 to 5 p.m. For information, phone 463-1054. For information on the Juvenile Justice Commission phone 467-8257.

source: Ukiah Daily Journal (California)
romp 24th-Dec-2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
Cool. Any self-expression helps people but I can see that getting to work with others in a drum circle as well as gaining a skill would benefit these kids. A lot of kids in trouble are starving for community and new experiences, I think.
planetariium 24th-Dec-2011 08:38 pm (UTC)
This is awesome. I love it when people actually try to help those in juvie or prison instead of just condemning them.
mephisto5 24th-Dec-2011 08:52 pm (UTC)
It's great that they're doing this, but it would be better to have this sort of thing available to kids before they end up in jail e.g. by decently funded youth groups to give them something interesting to do and prevent them from committing crimes in the first place.
sfrlz 24th-Dec-2011 11:09 pm (UTC)
IA. I think this is a good thing overall but is mostly treating the symptom.
karrixftw 24th-Dec-2011 11:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I agree with this.

(Oh and OT but I have to tell you guys: so you know how my brother-in-law's a Marine, and he and my sister live on a base in Hawaii, right? Guess who's there? President Obama!)
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2011 04:10 am (UTC)
Having been a part of drum circles in the past, I can attest that they are wonderful ways to work off excess energy of *any* kind. Neat - i like it.
queenweasley 25th-Dec-2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
Hopefully this is as nice as it sounds, but as someone who used to work at a juvenile detention center, I'm sure it won't keep the "regulars" from coming back. In my experience, most of these kids reoffend because they come from nonsupportive family environments and because all their friends are into the same negative activities that they are. Upon their discharges so many of them would tell me "I swear I'm not coming back here! I mean it this time!" And then a few months later... :-(
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