Braxton Gardner learned a lot last week at Wheelock Elementary School.
For instance, the 4th-grader learned to use his palm to strike the edge of a hand drum and his fingers to play the center of the instrument. Braxton also discovered plenty of new things about the west African nation of Ghana.
“We got to experience a different culture,” Braxton, who lives in Keene, said. “I didn’t know it was on the edge of an ocean.”
These lessons were part of the school’s artist-in-residence program, led by Theo Martey, a Manchester resident who was born and raised in Ghana and directs the Akwaaba Ensemble, a group of traditional African drummers and dancers. The weeklong program, with the theme of “Come Together, Drum Together,” began with an outdoor performance by the ensemble Monday morning, the first in-person, all-school assembly for Wheelock in more than a year.
“It was really cool, because there were people from Ghana,” 2nd-grader Abigail Trubiano of Surry said. “… It was also fun because I got to see my sister in kindergarten.”
The assembly set the perfect tone for the week, said art teacher Kristin Froling, who organized the residency with music teacher Caitlin Dubois and Principal Patty Yoerger.
“We wanted something that would address the social-emotional needs of our students,” Froling said of the residency. “And being remote or hybrid, and such a mixed-up experience for our students over the past year and a half, we wanted something that would be unifying, where we’re all together doing the same thing. And drumming is just a perfect expression of that.”
Wheelock, which funded the program through a grant from the N.H. State Council on the Arts and the school’s parent teacher association, also wanted an artist residency that would comply with COVID-19 safety measures, Froling said.
“And so we kind of custom-picked this residency knowing that you could space drums out 6 feet apart and not touch each other and still have this experience of being in community together,” she said.
Wheelock has hosted several artists over the year, Froling said, but last week was Martey’s first visit to the school. Typically, she said, residencies happen in the spring, marking the culmination of the school year.
“And we really felt like it was a good idea to bring it in right at the beginning to kind of set the stage and help gel our community,” Froling said. “Everyone felt so distant and far apart when we were remote and everything. We wanted to kind of bring ourselves back together as a school community.”
Yoerger, the principal, said the residency accomplished that goal.
“From day one of the residency, seeing the entire school community sitting engaging in the joy of rhythm and drumming, [until] the culminating assembly featuring all classes showcasing what they learned, the residency brought us together as a school community,” she said in an email. “Students learned new skills, had fun, and enjoyed being together.”
Throughout the week, Wheelock’s roughly 200 students from kindergarten through 5th grade got 30 to 40 minutes with Martey each day. He taught them drum rhythms and let them try out different traditional African percussion instruments, which 2nd-grader Colter Crosby of Surry said was a highlight.
Martey, who has been doing school residencies throughout New England for the past 20 years, also interspersed his music lessons with time for students to ask him about life in Ghana.
“Learning about different cultures, it’s something that sticks with the kids for a very long time. It’s very important to learn about other cultures so they’re aware of what their world is all about, not just being in New Hampshire,” he said. “... And togetherness is always what we believe in doing African music or sharing African culture. So the same idea, too, to take it to schools and connect students so they can be more open and learn about different cultures.”
The residency concluded Friday afternoon, with each class performing a song they worked with Martey to learn over the course of the week. The weather didn’t cooperate, so instead of another outdoor, all-school assembly, individual classes gathered in the cafeteria, where they played their songs in front of a camera that broadcast their performance to the rest of the school.
And though this final concert couldn’t bring the whole school together physically, Froling said the residency, as a whole, did succeed in uniting the entire Wheelock community.
“They were excited every day to come in, and everybody, even from the little kindergarteners all the way through the 5th-graders were coming in and telling their teachers they couldn’t wait to do drumming,” she said. “... So it was very wonderful to see that there was so much enthusiasm.”