Lower School students at Germantown Friends learn to drum in unison as part of the World Percussion Ensemble (from left): Elijah Oglesby, Liam Kleitz, Madison Wells-McFee and Ben Istvan.

by Laura Jamieson

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Germantown Friends School, and in the main building the floor is lightly bouncing, the gilded-framed portraits on the walls are shimmying and vibrations are resonating through the ceiling. Upstairs in the Poley Auditorium, fourth- and fifth-grade members of the Lower School World Percussion Ensemble are pounding out their mighty rhythms.

In 2004, ensemble director Shawn Hennessey, GFS Class of 1998, brought drums, which he got while studying music in Ghana, to a third-grade class at GFS.

“When I saw little kids in Africa playing with master adult drummers and not missing a beat, I realized that young people have a place in the musical community,” he said.

The classroom visit led to the formation of the World Percussion Ensemble, which plays Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern, and African drum music – with some hip-hop and pop mixed in.

While it’s not hard to see why almost any kid would want to beat away on a drum to make a booming ruckus, these kids are doing much more than that: They are learning about historical, cultural and spiritual aspects of drumming.

“I teach the kids that drumming is part of almost every culture,” Hennessey said. “It’s a common thread throughout the whole world. I tell them stories about Africa and what the drums are used for.”

Fourth grader Phoebe Rotondo joined the group for fun but said she learned something, too.

“I’ve learned about South and West African music,” she said. “We studied Africa in third grade, but now I know about a whole other aspect of it.”

Hennessey believes rhythm can be a bond that ties people together.

“Everyone has a natural rhythm that is easy to forget to exercise in modern America,” he said. “The communal rhythm strengthens everyone’s individual rhythm, so once the students start working together, they see what they can do with the sound.”

“The goal is to all play together,” said fourth-grader Sean Flaynik. “We all hear each other play and if we make a mistake, we help each other out. We try to sound like one drum.”

Hennessey said that the students’ understanding of the Quaker testimony of community, as well as their knowledge about Africa, makes the group open to the larger lessons of drumming. And those lessons often stick with Hennessey’s students.

When junior Pedro Ramos was in elementary school, he played the piano, but after participating in the very first World Percussion Ensemble, he switched to playing drums.

“Playing in an ensemble really taught me to listen to the other players and adjust accordingly,” he said. “And playing Afro-Cuban rhythms allowed me to gain insight into the respective cultures, folksongs and dances.”

Ramos now plays percussion in several bands and in the Upper School orchestra.

So when the walls shake at GFS, it’s caused by the warm reverberation of young musicians learning to drum in unison, learning to master music from around the world and tapping into the primal rhythms that always have – and always will – join humans together.