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Percussionist drums up students' interest at Moss Side Middle School

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:50 p.m.
Oscar Portis, along with the Sixth Grade Choir, performed at the Moss Side Middle School Winter Concert last week. The choir was joined by a representative group of the 'drummers' for one of the numbers. The Choirs of Moss Side Middle School are under the direction of Mrs. Alexis Spina. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
The Sixth Grade Choir performed at the Moss Side Middle School Winter Concert last week. They were joined by a representative group of the 'drummers' for one of the numbers. The Choirs of Moss Side Middle School are under the direction of Mrs. Alexis Spina. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express

Before woodwinds and stringed instruments, ancient communities were formed around drum circles.

“It's a great metaphor for your place in society,” said Jeff Berman, a professional percussionist and educator. “You want to make a strong personal statement, but you want that personal statement to benefit the greater good of the community.”

For the past five years, fifth- and sixth-grade students at Moss Side Middle School have formed their own drum circles under the tutelage of Berman.

This year, a $14,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts allowed the district to extend Berman's tenure from 20 days to 60 days.

“It's cool because he is able to work with every single student,” Gateway music teacher Alexis Spina said. “They're 10 years old and they're learning these really complex skills.”

Spina said she submitted videos of past performances, photos and lesson plans to the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, in order to obtain the grant.

“They were, I guess, really impressed with what we've done,” Spina said.

Berman's experience might have something to do with it. He has taught percussion and played professionally for the past 30 years. As a traveler, he's gained the experience of different cultures and the music that's passed down from generation to generation.

This week, he taught Gateway students the rhythms of the Middle East.

“That whole region has a very deep cultural tradition and deep music tradition,” Berman said.

He said he encourages students to improvise and take risks with their drumming, which helps build their confidence.

And sometimes they'll add the melody of a xylophone, “so we can create a song,” Berman said.

The class has inspired some students to sacrifice their recess each day for advanced lessons.

“I liked how all the countries had different drumming styles,” said Jillian Blackburn, a fifth-grade student. “It's really cool to learn how other countries do things.”

And it's easy making friends when music is involved.

“I'm more myself when I'm playing,” she said.

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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