Music lesson gets drummed in to elementary students

March 20, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Sowah Mensah, serving as artist-in-residence at Cougar Ridge Elementary School, teaches the basics of drumming to a group of second- and third-graders. By Tom Corrigan

With a group of second- and third-graders sitting around him in a circle, Sowah Mensah, 57, asks a rhythmic question, playing that question with his hands on the bongo drum in front of him.

A native of Ghana and now a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Mensah was the artist-in-residence recently for a week at Cougar Ridge Elementary School.

After Mensah played the question, individual students were supposed to answer with their own colorful bongo drums.

“When I beat out the question, you beat out the answer, whatever comes to mind,” Mensah told his charges.

There were a few rules. The answer had to wait until the question was asked and it could consist of no more than three beats. When Mensah asked the same question, the student was to give the same answer.

“Create, memorize,” Mensah told the students.

For what he said has been 26 years, he has travelled the country putting on drumming and music clinics for students. Just prior to coming to Cougar Ridge, he was at a Northshore School District elementary school building in Kenmore.

“People don’t know much about artists outside of America,” Mensah said.

He said he gets all kinds of questions from students and adults alike, ranging from what kind of food he eats to the languages he speaks.

Not incidentally, Mensah speaks four languages fluently.

On the Web

Learn more about Sowah Mensah at www.sowahmensah.com.

He is a firm believer that playing the drums is a great way to teach children concentration. Outside of the question-and-answer portion of the lesson, for the most part, students were instructed to repeat on their drums the beat Mensah played on his instrument. The students were expected to repeat Mensah’s rhythm in unison.

“It ought to sound like there is only one person playing,” he said.

Mensah also told his charges to keep their eyes on him to gain their cues as to what and how to play.

“Don’t look at your drum when you’re playing,” he said. “You have to keep your head up all the time.”

Mensah said he is convinced he can help teach younger children to concentrate.

“My hope is if they learn to focus here they can focus elsewhere,” he said.

Each student also was asked to sit on the edge of his or her chairs, their knees around their drums. Hands were to be kept at the students’ sides until it was time for them to smack the drum.

Mensah was at Cougar Ridge each morning working with students who put on a presentation for parents at the end of the week. The afternoon session he put on with Emma Tuan’s class was for students who weren’t involved with the morning sessions.

“It was fun because I never actually played the drum before,” said Emma, 8.

After the drumming lesson, students were invited to ask Mensah questions. There were only a few, including one dealing with his favorite Ghanaian food.

It’s fufu, by the way, a dish made with vegetable roots.

A question about what other instruments Mensah plays led to a fairly long answer. Western instruments he plays include piano, violin, flute, saxophone and guitar. He later added that his interest in music goes back to his childhood, and he has three advanced degrees in music.

“It feels good to play music, it always does,” Mensah said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or www.tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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