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300 Drums Project: Making Native American Drums with School Children

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“300 Drums” is a collaborative, grant funded project to use the making, playing, and painting of Native American frame drums and wisdom from Native American culture as cross curricular teaching tools for all 4th graders in the West Allegheny (Imperial, PA) School District during the 2010-11 school year.

“300 Drums” is a collaborative, grant funded project to use the making, playing, and painting of Native American frame drums and wisdom from Native American culture as cross curricular teaching tools for all 4th graders in the West Allegheny (Imperial, PA) School District during the 2010-11 school year.  With the help of artists and Mesa Creative Arts Center Co-Directors, Brad and Kate Silberberg, all 4th grade students, 4th grade teachers, elementary art and music teachers, school principals, and a few other faculty and staff have made their very own Native American pattern frame drums from wooden hoops covered with elk or deer rawhide.  These are not toys, but real 12” diameter working drums.  With our help, the students will learn about the significance of the drum in Native American culture, as well as Native American history, lifeways, drumming, singing, and decorative arts.  They will use their drums and experience with them to help them learn about the physics of sound, American history, audio/video recording and editing technology, music/rhythm, art/painting, teamwork, and much more.  In the process they are gaining confidence, self esteem, and learning about a different way to be.  The drums and their message are opening their minds and their hearts.


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First, a Vision

Kate introduces 300 Drums Project to teachers at Donaldson elementary school.

Kate Silberberg introduces “300 Drums” to Donaldson elementary teachers

In the late spring of 2010, Claire March, the visual arts teacher at McKee and Donaldson elementary schools in the West Allegheny school district, wanted to apply for a STEAM grant from the Pittsburgh based Grable Foundation.  This was a relatively new from of grant that expanded the interdisciplinary concept of existing STEM grants (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to include the arts.  She called upon her friends, artists, teachers, and holistic healers, Brad and Kate Silberberg, co-directors of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA to help brainstorm about ideas and eventually participate as the required “community partners” to help implement a grant program for all three of the district’s elementary schools .

In a meeting with Mrs. March, West Allegheny Assistant to the Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Christine Assetta, Debbie Turici, the art teacher at Wilson and Mrs. March’s colleague at Donaldson, and ourselves it was decided to use Native American frame drums, their construction, and use as the basis of the cross-curriculum grant project.  Furthermore, we were to include Native American wisdom and the documented health and wellbeing benefits of drumming as integral parts of the program.  Grade 4 was selected as the group to participate in the project as they would be studying sound in a science unit, Native American culture and history, and would still be in the same schools for one additional year after the initial project was to be completed.

A budget for the project was discussed, educational activities were sketched out, and a simple grant proposal was quickly written by Dr. Assetta for submission to the Grable Foundation.  The original grant application called the project: “4th Grade integrated Sound Unit: Fine Arts, Technology, Music, Health & Wellness, Science, and Social Studies- Native American”, a rather unwieldy monicker.  A quick count of how many drum kits would be needed for all three elementary schools in the district revealed that nearly 300 individual drums would eventually need to be made, and so “300 Drums” was born.

We were astonished.  Of all the possibilities we had discussed, had a public school system actually selected the making of Native American drums and teaching of Native wisdom for a mainstream project?  Had they actually specified that we should teach the healing benefits of drumming?  Would the Grable Foundation really back the idea and award the grant funds?  As we left that first meeting, we became very emotional as we pondered what we were about to step into.  We could feel that something big was in motion within the Flow of Creation and we were to be part of it.  We knew that we had to release the outcome, let go of the questions, and trust that the project would soon become manifest.

“300 Drums” Becomes a Reality

300 Drums pin

Early in June, the two art teachers received word that the $15,000 grant had been awarded for the 300 Drums project.  At the next meeting held in August, we began to flesh out the activities and program timeline for the coming school year.  We continued to meet with the art teachers and Dr. Assetta to work out the details of what needed to be done to actually implement the project, such as purchasing and preparing drum making materials, designing lessons, arranging assemblies of the 4th graders, and scheduling substitute teachers so that the art teachers could devote entire days to “300 Drums” activities.

Just before classes restarted the end of August, a meeting was held for the art teachers and ourselves to introduce the project to elementary school principals Tom Orr (McKee elementary), Kathy Sites (Wilson elementary), Trish Nolan (Donaldson elementary), and Mike Shaffer, the technology teacher from West Allegheny high school who would implement the computer technology aspect of the program.  It would also be under his supervision that students from the high school were to video record all aspects of the project so that it could be shared with other educators and institutions of learning.

In early September we met with Mrs. March, Ms. Turici, elementary instrumental and vocal music teachers, and all the 4th grade teachers from Wilson, McKee, and Donaldson elementary schools to inform them of the STEAM grant project and the “300 Drums” concept.  The teachers were excited about the project.  Together we all kicked around ideas about how to use the drums as interdisciplinary teaching tools and “300 Drums” was on its way.

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Objectives and Activities

4th grade student watch a Native American frame drum being made.

4th graders intently watch drum being made

The “300 Drums Project” has been designed to use the making of Native American type frame drums and related lessons/activities to enrich the educational experience of 4th grade students in the West Allegheny (Imperial, PA) School District during the 2010-2011 school year.  Every 4th grade student in all three West Allegheny elementary schools would assemble their own personal drum and drum beater with our help, theirs to keep for the rest of their lives.  The drums and their creation would be tied in with many activities across the curriculum for the entire year.  The students would study sound from the drums in science classes, Native American culture in social studies, Indian designs and imagery in art class, rhythm and singing in music class, for example.  Creating and decorating their own drum with their own hands would enhance the students’ self-esteem, and build character.  Playing them along side their classmates in drum circles would foster cooperation and encourage teamwork.

The drums, their construction, and use would also be used as subject matter for poetry and creative writing project in English lessons.  The sound of the drums would also be used to teach students about computer and audio/video technology as it would be recorded, manipulated, and displayed with special computer equipment purchased as part of the grant.  In another technology aspect of the program “300 Drums” activities would be recorded on digital video by 4th graders with flip cameras and more professionally by videography students from West Allegheny High as independent study projects.  Clips and finished videos would be posted on YouTube for sharing with people around the world.  We dreamed of how “300 Drums” might eventually turn into 3,000 of them.

The drums would teach about equality, in that every student and the adults who taught them would make similar drums.  The drums would teach about patience and teamwork as the students made and played them together.   With the drums we would help the 4th graders have new experiences of themselves.  Through the drums and Native American wisdom we would teach the children about values, not just facts.

“300 Drums” activities planned throughout the school year:

  • Assemblies to introduce the drums and Native American culture
  • Demonstrations of the drum making process
  • Drum construction by all 4th graders and their teachers
  • Exercising of patience through the long process of making, drying, “awakening”, and painting the drums
  • Assembly of drum beaters in regular art classes
  • “Awakening” ceremonies to give the drums their voices
  • Personalized painting of Indian designs on drum heads
  • Math lessons based on drum geometry and statistics (cost per drum, total number of holes punched, etc.)
  • Recording and manipulation of sound waves produced by drums
  • Lessons about Native American history, culture, and world view
  • Drum Circles for drumming and singing Native American songs
  • Making of Indian style “giveaway” gifts for students to give to their drum making partner
  • Student led drum circles
  • Character building experiences through Native American wisdom teachings, drumming, and drum making
  • Creative writing lessons based on Native Americans and personal experiences with the drums
  • Drumming/singing performances during evening concerts/recitals
  • Stress reduction, relaxation, and focusing exercises with drumming
  • Art exhibitions featuring student painted drums and Native American activities for families
  • Flip camera photography and recording of video interviews with and by 4th graders
  • Digital video recordings of all phases of project by High School students
  • Sharing of video material on YouTube with schools around the world
  • Culminating ceremonial gathering of 4th graders from all three schools to bring all 300 drums together


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The Work Begins

Stacking drum hoops

Kate Silberberg stacks last of 300 drum hoops

After we finished celebrating the awarding of the grant, we immediately set to work.  Not able to order the drum materials until the money was sent to the school district, we began the task of preparing the materials for the drum beaters the 4th graders would need to play their drums.  Sticks from downed tree branches were gathered and cut into 12” lengths.  Brad Silberberg spent hours and hours shaving the bark off two thirds of the sticks’ length, leaving a portion intact for the grip.  Meanwhile, Kate Silberberg marked, cut out, and machine sewed the 300 little fleece bags that would later be stuffed to make the beater heads.  42” strips of quilt batting were cut to be used as the padding inside the beaters, and leather thongs were cut to tie the heads tightly to the handles.

When the grant funds became available in September, the laminated maple drum hoops, lacing, and rawhide drum heads were purchased from a hide and fur supplier in Centralia, WA.  The materials arrived at The Mesa Creative Arts Center later in the month, all in one huge cardboard box.  We found and purchased (at our own expense) the stiff sheets of cow rawhide needed for the disks at the center of the drums’ lacing at Tandy Leather where the manager, upon hearing about the 300 Drums Project, gave us a generous discount.

Now the real work could begin.  Brad Silberberg calculated the diameter of the finished drum heads and center lacing disks, as well as the placement of the punched holes for lacing them together around the wooden hoops.  A plywood drum head pattern was then laid out, bandsawn to shape and drilled for marking the 12 lacing holes.  A smaller pattern for the center lacing disk was made from plexiglas.  Brad then set to the task of marking and cutting out 300 center lacing disks from the curly sheets of hard cow rawhide with special snips and fabricating 200 reusable cardboard forms to support the arched drum handles until the rawhide dried.  The cardboard was recycled from kitty litter packaging, generously donated by Sedona, the Mesa cat.

Two test drums (numbers 1/300 and 2/300) were then made to make sure the head pattern was correct and to work out how the students would affix the braided rawhide handles to the back of their drums.  We then prepared materials for the 20 teachers and administrators involved in the project to make their drums.  This required soaking the drum heads and lacing disks for two days, then marking their circumference for trimming and lacing hole locations with the patterns.   Sharp scissors were used to trim the heads and leather punches to make the lacing holes, 24 holes for each drum.  The rawhide lacing was also soaked, one end cut to a point to facilitate threading the lacing through the punched holes and the other slit to make a loop to fasten the lace to the drum head without tying a knot.  The 14ft laces were then stretched and wound into bundles.  All of the materials had be kept wet and were transported to the schools in buckets. 

4th grade teachers lace a drum.

W. Allegheny 4th grade teachers lace a drum

The teachers and administrators gathered at Donaldson elementary and made their drums on October 28th.  Many surprised themselves by their success at this unfamiliar craft.  It wasn’t until the very end of October/beginning of November 2010 that the first 4th grade classes would be introduced to the drums.  In assemblies at McKee, Wilson, and finally, Donaldson, we excitedly introduced the “300 Drums Project” and Native American wisdom, telling the children the story of “the first drum”.  We explained to them why all peoples’ ancestors made drums and why we continue to do so.  The children were mesmerized by the sound of the drums and by the Native American songs we sang.  They had a million questions.  “Will the drums we make stay at the school when the year is over?” they’d repeatedly ask.  They simply couldn’t grasp that the drums were to be theirs.  Within a few days we were back in the schools to demonstrate drum making to two or three classes at a time, showing the kids how we were preparing the materials at The Mesa, letting them feel the wet animal skin, and showing them exactly how they would make their own drums.

The next phase was the hardest, the actual construction of the students’ drums.  It would take all but 4 school days between November 1st and Thanksgiving for the project introduction assemblies, drum making demos, and work sessions at the three schools.  We handled this on top of our already busy class and event schedule, care of healing clients, and other duties at The Mesa.  This meant preparing two dozen or so drum kits at a time with all of the requisite soaking, trimming, punching, and stretching being done at The Mesa for the next day’s class, sometimes late at night after our evening classes had ended.  As we worked, we smudged ourselves and all the materials with white sage, prayed, and sang.  We made many tobacco and cornmeal offerings to the Four Directions, Mother Earth, the ancestors, and Spirit Drum Makers, as well as thank-you offerings to the animals and trees that had given of their bodies so the children could make drums.  We also thanked the waters of the Earth, without which we couldn’t make drums at all.  It was amazing to us how many gallons of water we would eventually use to soak all of the drum materials.

As the drums we had made as demonstrations of the construction process fully dried, we “awakened” them in a traditional manner back at The Mesa.  We gave them their voice so the students could hear how their own drums might sound, and so Kate could paint Native American symbols on their heads as motivation for the kids.  Every time she completed a new one, we would take it into the schools and ceremonially unveil it for the 4th graders.  They would “ooh and ahh” over them.  We knew that we were inspiring them to beautifully paint their own drums when the time came.

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The Students Make Their Drums

4th graders making a  Native American frame drum.

4th graders team up to make a frame drum

Under our guidance, and with the help of the two art teachers and parent volunteers, each of the eleven 4th grade classes at the three schools constructed their drums.  McKee was first, with over 90 students, then Wilson with about 70, and finally Donaldson with 80 plus.  In the Native American tradition, we started out each session by drumming and singing for the children, to bring in the help of the Spirit World with the sound of the drum and to remind them that the work they were about to do was magical, special, and (dare we say it here?) sacred.  Back at The Mesa, we had left traditional tobacco offerings in gratitude for all of the materials and to ask for help for the students in making their drums.

The children worked in pairs, one lacing his or her drum while their partner helped by holding the center lacing disk, keeping the drum hoop steady, and by keeping the lacing going in the correct order.  They worked together patiently, lacing up one drum, smoothing out the pleats around the hoop, tightening the lacing, braiding the handle, and setting it aside before starting the second one.  As the first drum was completed In each class, we had its maker hold it high.  We then loudly announced the achievement and led the class in “trilling” (ululating), making the high pitched celebratory sound of tribal culture.

Each class worked for 3 hours and all the drums got finished by the appointed end of class time.  We saw not one incident of arguing, fighting, or meanness amongst the children in any of the 11 drum making sessions with the kids.  The parent volunteers by and large were great, although several were less help than hindrance, vying with us for control and sometimes taking over lacing the drums as their children stood idly by.  We largely solved that problem by asking the parents not to work with their own child and removing all of the scissors from the room besides the two “magic” pairs we carried in our back pockets.  This was done to prevent cutting of the drum lacing before our careful review of every drum.  Some well meaning “type A” parents still simply couldn’t resist taking over the process to “get the job done right”.

Some of the kids were grossed out when they first saw or felt the wet rawhide, so we’d have them all yell “Eeewwwww!” in unison at the beginning of each drum making session to get it over with.   Some felt clumsy as they began to lace the first drums, but by the time they were starting the second of the pair, they handled the task easily and became “experts”.  “We love making drums!” we heard them say many times during the three weeks of construction.   “Can we make more drums?” they’d ask.  When they’d see us walking through the halls of their school they’d shout “Mitakuye Oyasin!”, a Lakota expression (pronounced “Mit-toc-kwee-yossin”) we taught them that means “All My Relations” and reminds us that we are related and connected to all other things. 

Braiding rawhide lacing into drum handle

Braiding rawhide lacing into drum handle

By and large, the kids’ drums came out great, but as the first batches of drums dried, it became apparent that the dry, constantly blowing HVAC systems in the three schools were causing the drums to dry much too quickly.  This was something we had never had to contend with in all of our drum making experience at The Mesa.  Where drums we made at the Mesa or in the schools and took home to dry dried over a period of 3 or 4 days, the student drums were drying overnight, causing some to very noticeably warp or twist.  We decided that the best thing we could do was to lace the drums much more loosely than was our custom, and to turn the thermostat down in the art room overnight and let them dry there, but the dryness was still taking its toll on more of the drums than we had hoped.  We learned to have spray bottles on hand to rewet the drum heads and lacing while the kids worked, otherwise they would start to dry out before they were even finished making them.

On a day when we were feeling responsible and fretting about the shape the first batches of drums were in, the smiles on the children’s faces and joy in their voices when they saw us in their classroom brought us nearly to tears.  They were ecstatic, and proud of what they had accomplished.  They didn’t care that the drums weren’t perfect.  They loved their drums and they loved drum making.  They loved the Native American songs we sang at each session we were with them, and they made it clear that day that they loved us.  We, in kind, were falling in love with them.  We reminded them that they hadn’t even played their drums yet, and what a magical experience it would be when the time came.

Students place finished drums together to begin drying.

Students place finished drums together to begin drying

Now the kids had to exercise great patience and wait for at least one moon cycle (a traditional “gestation” period) for their drums to be ready for use, but even longer for their “No Child Left Behind” testing and academic schedule to permit time for an “awakening” assembly.  This gathering of all the 4th grade drum makers in each school would involve the ceremonial first playing of of each drum individually to sound its voice and call in its “personality” (what we would call its Spirit).  In the classes that remained before the winter holiday, the students began learning about Native American history and culture, the physics of sound, and dreamed of their drums.  In art classes they poured over books of Native American designs in preparation for painting a special symbol on their drum’s flat leathery face and practiced drawing the images they envisioned would grace their drums.

After school resumed in January 2011, we delivered the materials for the drum beaters and the students spent time assembling them in regularly scheduled art classes.  It took two sessions for the students to complete them, in part because the students have only 35 minute periods for art classes.  The art teachers also found that the glue that held the beater head padding in place needed to dry completely before pulling the fabric covers over them in order to keep everything from slipping.  Beaters completed, the students anxiously awaited the awakening of their drums.

As all of this was going on, and to meet the grant requirement to share the the project with other school systems, many of  the “300 Drums” activities were being video recorded.  By the end of January 2011, well over 12 hours of video of the various phases of the project had been recorded by West Allegheny high school seniors Kevin Kisow, and Joe Bucci .  More video recordings were made by the 4th graders and their teachers with “flip” cameras purchased as part of the grant.  The high schoolers’ videos were edited by them under Mr. Shaffer’s guidance into 6 hours of finished 20 minute segments, while the elementary school students edited the videos the

4th grader shows off his finished drum.

McKee student shows off his finished drum

made with their 4th grade teachers.  We recorded a series of short videos in our workshop of how materials were prepared for the drums and beaters, as well as a few stolen moments here and there in the schools as we were presenting.  We recorded and posted videos on YouTube of ourselves singing simple Native American songs for the music teachers to use as instructional materials to teach drumming and singing to their students.  A YouTube account was to be set up so that all involved could post their completed videos on one “300 Drums Project” channel for the whole world to see.

Meanwhile, there had been some drum disasters.  Mrs. Nolan (Donaldson’s principal) found that her drum head had actually split open in a massive structural failure, likely due to the dryness in the school combined with an unusually thin spot in the hide.  A similar failure occurred in one student drum at Wilson.  We replaced those drums with ones we had made in drum making demonstrations and salvaged what we could by soaking and removing the rawhide from the wooden hoops.  The drums’ lacing would be reused for braiding drum handles and the torn heads cut into lacing for other drums.  We were glad to have the extra lacing materials on hand, but would still need to have a few more drum heads to reuse the hoops and complete all 300 drums.  The combination of extremely cold weather in the winter of 2010-11 and the drying heat in the elementary schools had also caused the lacing on the back of several student drums at all three schools to tear through the punched holes in the edges of their drum heads.  The children were clearly distressed over this and repeatedly showed us their drums.  We reassured them that we would hold repair days in their schools to fix all the drums.  We decided to repair rather than replace these drums by punching secondary holes and tying the lacing back together with artificial sinew.

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Happy McKee 4th graders pose with their drums.

Happy McKee 4th graders pose with their drums

On the day of the Awakening ceremony at Donaldson elementary we received a giant-sized “thank you” card from the 4th grade drum makers in one of the classes.  This was another example of the way the drums were being used in the curriculum, as a subject for creative writing.  Each student had written a personal note to us.  They reflect the children’s individual awareness and experience with the drums and the “300 Drums Project”.  Here is some of what they wrote:

“Thank you for going at our school and let us make a drum and helping us make it.  This is the first time I made a drum and it’s so fun because you get wet.  Thank you very much, Julessa.”

“Thank you very, very much for preparing all of the materials for us.  We are all grateful for you both helping us make our drums.  Sincerely, Morgan.”

“Thank you for leting us make the drums.  The other thing is giving us the opportunity to make the drums.  The thing I really liked you trusting us.  From Jacob”

“Thank you so much for helping us make our drums.  It was so cool.  Also for singing really cool songs to us.  From Antonio”

Thank you for singing all the songs.  Also thanks for showing us how to make our drum before we start to.  Is the hole punching hard?  I thought so.  Anyway thank you so much for picking 4th grade as your first class.  I really appreciate it.  From Adam”

“I’m very thankful that you helped with our drums.  It was a lot of fun.  It’s so cool how you know this stuff.  Love Libby”

“Thank you for having all the materials so we could make the drums.  You helped us if we made a mistake.  I am very thankful for that.  Sincerely, Kellyanne”

 “Thank you for singing songs on your drums that you made.  I also liked the Bear Song.  The last thing I liked was when you showed us how to make our drums and helping us.  Sincerely, Madison”

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The Big Day: “Awakening” the Drums

4th graders with newly awakened drums

Wilson students hug newly awakened drums

Finally, finally, the day had come when the students would get to play their drums.  Big assemblies took place, with all of the 4th graders in each school gathering together.  They all sat in their cafeteria, their drums and beaters on the tables in front of them.  Their teachers had impressed upon them that they were not to play their drums until told to do so and they were magnificently compliant.  We started the proceedings at each school with an a cappella song in Lakota, explaining to the students that we were forgoing the use of our own drums to honor the awakening of theirs.  We left an offering of cornmeal on a central table for the spirits of all the drums, reminding the children of the special place of The Drum in Native American culture.  We explained to the children the idea that each drum was worthy of the honor of being heard separately and that each of their drums would have its own voice and personality, just like each of them.  We gave them instructions on how to honor and awaken their drums, asking each student to stand in turn, say his or her name, the name of their drum if they had chosen one, and then to play their drum, solo, for a few moments. 

It was very telling to watch each child as they stood before all of their classmates to speak their name and play their drum for the first time.  Some were obviously nervous, shy, or even embarrassed to be singled out in that way and timidly tapped on their drum, the brief  improvisational performance testing their emotional envelope.  Others hammed it up or joked around, happy to be the momentary center of attention.  Many of the 9 and 10 year olds understood the significance of what they were doing and were able to get into the spirit of things.  They had chosen thoughtful names for their drums and played them proudly.  All of this went remarkably well, with the rest of the 70 to 90 students waiting (mostly) patiently as each drum sounded its voice for the first time.  After each drum was sounded, we called out “Mitakuye Oyasin” and the kids echoed the same.  When all the drums at each table had been heard, we asked each table to play together.  As each table played, we ululated and the kids joined in, relishing the chance to whoop it up.  Their teachers awakened their drums in the same manner and their students cheered for them.

All of this went very smoothly in all three schools and it didn’t take that long to have each drum awakened separately.  When they all had been given their voice, we asked the kids and their teachers if they were ready to play all of their drums in unison and they screamed “YES!”  We gave the signal and they all let loose, like a room full of excited woodpeckers.  We gave the cue to stop and they reluctantly complied.  We then told them how the drums would bring them together and connect them, that it was already happening.  We reminded them that while each drum, like themselves, had its own voice, together they were “all one drum”.  We then started a slow heartbeat on the large frame drum we had brought for the occasion and the children quickly joined in.  The smiles on their faces told the whole story.  They loved the drums and the feeling of playing them together.

4th grade girls with drums

4th graders showing off their drums

When each group would come into rhythmic synchronization with the heartbeat, we noticed the energy of the whole room shift, becoming calm, bright, and more coherent.  Seeing all of the drum beaters moving together was an amazing sight, reminiscent of the simultaneous movement of violin bows in a large orchestra.  We led them in playing fast and slow, loud and soft.  When we finally slowed and stopped, we asked the children if they noticed any difference in how they felt and they all yelled “YES”.  We asked them if they felt better and they shouted that they did.  We asked if they loved playing their drums.  “YES!” they shouted in unison.  Again we reminded them of their mutual connection through the drums they had made.  They echoed us as we called out, “WE ARE ALL ONE DRUM”.

Each assembly of 4th grade classes eventually got it together to follow our lead and play in unison.  At the largest school, however, this happened nearly instantaneously.  While not always the most decorous, their unity was consistent, stunning, and deeply stirring for us to witness.  The smallest school’s 4th graders seemed to have the greatest feel for the spirit of the drum and how it brought them together.  They kept shouting “Mitakuye Oyasin” to us, and spontaneously broke out in chanting “WE ARE ALL ONE DRUM”.  Having already spent a lot of time in all three buildings, we also understood that the way the kids connected and drummed as groups reflected the different energy, consciousness, and micro-cultures of the various schools.

With what little time we had left in the 45 minute gatherings we guided the students in more unison drumming.  We led them in playing fast and slow, loud and soft.  We did a little “call and response” drumming, beating out short rhythms that the students echoed back to us.  When it was time to go to the next activity of the day, the kids all marched out with their drums clutched tightly to their little bodies, drumheads against their hearts as we had instructed them, ostensibly to protect the drums but also to help them resist the natural urge to play them as they walked through the halls.  As they left, one little boy came up to us and asked anxiously if we were leaving the school or staying for the other activities.  When we answered that we were staying the entire day, he responded simply, “Oh, good”.

The Days’ Activities Continue...

4th graders take part in drum circle with their new Native American drums.

4th graders take part in drum circle with their new drums

The 4th grade classes in each elementary spent the rest of the school day rotating through several related “300 Drums” activities led by their teachers in different locations, round robin fashion.  In each school they participated in drum circles led by Brad Silberberg with music teachers, Mr. Humbert and Mr. Hoffman, with one 4th grade class at a time taking part in call-and-response playing of rhythms on their drums.  We did our best to make it fun for them and they loosened up considerably as we played along.  They were then given turns being the leader of the group for a couple of minutes as their classmates followed their beat.  While some squirmed when it was their turn, most of the children clearly delighted in it judging by their body language and the funny faces they made when the group imitated what they had played.  When asked how they felt after playing their drums for a while, the kids said things like, “better”, “calmer”, “happier”, “tingly”, “inspired”, “awesome”, and “energized”.  It was obvious that some were feeling things they simply did not yet know how to describe.  They relished it when we let them play loud and when we added funny vocalizations to punctuate the call and response rhythms.

The individual drum circle groups all exhibited varying degrees of rhythmic coherence, with the classes at the largest school being the most together, more so in fact than most of the adult groups we have drummed with.  They went beyond following the lead.  They grooved together.  One such class was truly exemplary, not only playing in total rhythmic accord, but innovating, jamming, and eventually standing and adding choreography to the mix.  All of the drum circle classes left grinning and happy, but when one child passed on her way out the door, she smiled and said, “This is the best project I’ve ever done!”

In the art room station of all the schools the students made drum awakening “gifts” with Kate Silberberg and their art teachers, Mrs. March and Ms. Turici.  The 4th graders decorated leather thongs with colored feathers and beads as a Native American style adornment to give to their drum making partner to tie on their drum.  These were made to commemorate the drums’ awakening and served to help in identifying each student’s drum.  It was also an act of generosity and camaraderie that each student willingly performed, making something specifically to give away to a fellow student.  From doing so the children learned how rewarding it can be to make something to give away, simply to please someone else.  This was true to the Native American concept that giving is to be done without expectations and with no strings attached.  “What colors do you like?” they’d ask their partner as they worked, simply wanting to make another child happy.  They left the art room smiling and as the day went on they would hold up their drums to proudly show us what they had been given.

Student manipulates recorded sound of drums with audio editing software.

Student manipulates recorded sound of drums with audio editing software

In the music room of each school, the children learned a short Native American lullaby in Iroquois and English with their choral music teachers, Mrs. Sharlow and Mrs. Jack.  When they had the words down, they accompanied it with their drums and xylophones.  After a short rehearsal, their performance was digitally recorded by their teachers and put on a computer thumb drive.  They took that recording to the next station where were the audio/visual technology teacher from West Allegheny high school, Mr. Shaffer, was waiting for them.  He used sound editing/enhancing software (Audacity) in a Mac computer purchased through the grant to show the students what the sound waves from their voices and drums looked like on a giant “Smart Board” computer screen.  The kids squealed when he played back their recorded talking, singing, and yelling, each time showing them the difference in how the sound waves looked in the on-screen graphic representation.  The students took turns manipulating the recordings with the software, instantly catching on how to work with it.  Their laughter could be heard down the nearby halls.

There were some other “300 Drums” activities that took place at one or another of the three schools  The children completed creative writing assignments about their drums and experience with playing them.  They made teepees out of twigs and decorated paper.  They made “god’s eyes”, a Central American Indian traditional object made from colored yarn woven around crossed sticks.  Throughout the day, the learned, had fun, and got a rare chance to express their creativity and exuberance.  A 4th grade boy told one of the teachers, “This was the best day of my life”.

4th graders drum and sing Iroquois Lullaby.

Mrs. Sharlow leads students in singing Iroquois Lullaby accompanied by their drums

The day’s events culminated with another gathering of all the students back in the cafeteria.  This time we led the whole group in drumming and singing as one.  (Well… mostly one.)  Again we guided them in playing their drums in different ways, but always together.  We drummed loud and soft, fast and slow, even tapping on the side of the wooden hoop to make their drums “click”.  We taught them to put the edge of the drums to their chests and feel the sound in their bodies.  We had them play them over their heads.  We showed them how to imitate the sound of the wind by rubbing the palm of their hand around the drum.  We all sang the Iroquois lullaby they had learned and drummed together.  (See the video, below)  We sang the Bear song and the Apache Welcome song that we had introduced back in November.  The kids enjoyed it all, but above everything else, the loved the call-and-response rhythm game.  In the last assembly in the last school, it was a truly transcendent experience as the energy grew and grew as we played rhythms punctuated with yelps and squeals, drum and beater movements, and impromptu dance.  They held nothing back; something they hardly ever got to do in school if at all in their young lives.  Clearly, the kids loved it.

The students were all exhilarated as we finished and they headed for their buses to return home. Several children came up to us and asked if they could hug us and we were deeply touched.  We knew they had experienced a day they would never forget and we were grateful to have been a part of it.  We were still vibrating inside and felt hugely and deeply clear, expanded, energized and, well... pumped up.  We had seen and felt the power of The Drum clearly demonstrated on physical, emotional, spiritual and consciousness levels.  No wonder Native Americans drummed to prepare themselves for prayer, celebration, or war if it made them feel like this, we thought.  No wonder it had freaked out the reserved white Europeans who encountered them.  We ourselves felt altered by the day’s experience, more energized than we were used to and feeling more connected not just to the students, but to everything.  The children and their response to us through the drumming had reminded us:


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What We Have Learned So Far

We have taught the 4th graders a lot, but we have also learned many things during the course of this project.  Some were brilliant things we would incorporate in future projects.  Others were pitfalls we would seek to avoid.  As much time as we had already spent in the public schools as presenters of special activities and after school enrichment programs, we also learned more about the business, attitudes, efficacy, and culture of our local educational system.   We also got to spend more time with the children themselves, and got a greater sense of how their public school education and especially “No Child Left Behind” is (and largely is not) working for them.  Here are some interesting things we learned:

  • Children are getting their education from second or third hand experience.  They are being taught about aspects of life by people who have never had a chance to experience them in meaningful ways.
  • Students are being taught academic subjects, but very little about how to function emotionally or think creatively.  They are being taught how to eventually earn a living, but not much about how to live or BE ALIVE.
  • We learned how to successfully lead drum circles with up to 90 excited 4th graders.
  • Things sometimes move slowly in the schools, because of rules, protocols, chain of command mysteries, buck passing, and CYA (“cover your a _ _”) practices.
  • We can say anything we need to in the schools and keep the peace with fundamentalist parents, as long as we preface everything with, “... in Native American culture, they...” or “... Native Americans believe...”
  • The necessity of setting up a more detailed budget with the schools in order to realistically cover expenses.
  • We can still hold sacred space working within the public school system.
  • Rawhide is unpredictable.  This, in and of itself, was a lesson in acceptance and letting go.
  • Some drums are going to warp, tear, or split open, necessitating repairs and/or replacement with extra materials.
  • Each school has its own mini-culture, energy, and consciousness, even when they were geographically close.
  • Teaching the children to carry their drums with the heads against their chests keeps them from playing them in the hallways.
  • $20,000 would have been a more realistic budget for this project, working out to around $70 per drum.
  • It would have been better for the school district to have involved the 4th grade teachers as soon as planning began.  A few may have resented the project, seeing it as adding to their workload for the year without their input.
  • It’s important for teachers and administrators to make their own drums, preferably before the students do.
  • It is hugely helpful to have parent volunteers to assist with drum making sessions.
  • We learned how to peacefully and firmly work with parent volunteers that wanted to be in control and insure “perfection”.
  • Most of all, we learned the real lessons of The Drum.

How “300 Drums” Has Changed Us

Kate and Brad Silberberg with rainbow Yei drum

Kate and Brad Silberberg with rainbow Yei drum

We went into the 300 Drums Project with a certain knowledge and experience when it came to teaching children, running programs, drum making, Native American wisdom in general, and specifically the power of The Drum.  We knew that we would pick up a lot of good experience and likely some new insights from fulfilling our parts of the project, but we had no way to expect how it would affect us emotionally, spiritually, or in terms of our consciousness.  From the very start, we were aware that something bigger was afoot for us and were sensitive enough to feel it as a movement in the energetic fabric of our lives, but we were unable to see the full magnitude of it back then.  When the 300 hoops and rawhide drumheads arrived at The Mesa, we could feel the spirits of those as yet unassembled drums pushing us urgently forward.  They had an agenda.

Deep and profound changes were to take place within us as we went along with the day to day work of preparing the materials, working with the 4th grade students and their teachers, and documenting the process for future reference.  Many times during the 3 to 4 weeks we spent at the three elementary schools during the introduction and creation phases of the project we felt deep and powerful emotions; love and connection with the children, gratitude to all of Creation, and pride in what we were helping the children do.  We were also able to admit to at times feeling less noble things; frustration that the schools weren’t always able to make “300 Drums” a scheduling priority, resentment that a compressed workload was pushing us to mental and physical limits, despair over drums misshapen by the dryness, and righteous indignation over the lack of greater financial support for what we saw as important spiritual work.  The children’s enthusiasm kept us buoyed up through it all, the drums got constructed, and we looked forward to the day the kids played them for the first time.

We thought we had planned well for the Drum Awakening rotation days, gathering supplies and working out strategies for the activities, but there was no way we could have foreseen what would transpire.  The response of the children to the drums and drumming was far and away above what we could have imagined.  With each successive school presentation the energy of “300 Drums” grew and grew, expressing a life and consciousness of its own.  We were not surprised that the children threw themselves into the spirit of what we were offering them and were touched by it.  We understood it through the depth of the love and gratitude they had been expressing to us.  What took us aback was how we ourselves were being opened, expanded, softened, and transformed by it all and the realization that it was all happening because of The Drum.  All along we had been telling the children about the significance of The Drum in Native American culture; its power to transform, inspire, uplift, communicate, and connect us with “All My Relations”.  As the drums were “awakened” and the 4th graders spent the day playing them it hit us that we were witnessing exactly that kind of transformation, happening in a huge way right before our very eyes.  The Drum was bringing the students, teachers, and ourselves together in a way we had never experienced or could have expected.  We felt a deep sense of awe and connection.  We felt the contagious ecstasy and joy of the children flow over and through us and it filled our hearts.

From Kate Silberberg:

Kate Silberberg painting Hopi Sunface drum.

Kate Silberberg painting Hopi Sunface drum

“Going through the entire ‘300 Drums’ process has brought me into a new place of grace and humility, a gift from the kids themselves.  It has changed how I move through my day, how I look at my life, and how I interact with other people.  I wonder how I got along all those years before I had a drum.  I find myself thinking about how many people could benefit from having a drum in their life.  I am beginning to see the evidence of how the lives of the children and their teachers are going to be enriched now that they have drums.

This project has affirmed the idea that we truly are all related, that we share all experiences with all others, and that none of us are healed as long as one among us is still hurting.  Drums can heal us and teach us.  Drums can open our hearts and let our true self back in to remind us of who and what we really are.  Drums teach us that we can still connect to one another, and how easy it is to reaffirm that connection when we allow ourselves to do so.  I witnessed the hearts of nearly 260 fourth graders open and remind them of who they really are.  As each child stood and gave their drum its voice for the first time, a part of each child was awakening with their drum.  Brad and I spent the day watching as each drum maker, child and adult alike, got to know this new part of themselves as they got to know their drum.

The making of Native American frame drums with the students and teachers of McKee, Wilson, and Donaldson was one of the most awe inspiring things I have ever been a part of.  It was a remarkable thing to bear witness and hold the space for 9 & 10 year olds, as well as their teachers and their building principals as they braved doing something they had never done before.  They didn’t know, (well, maybe some of them did) that what we were doing was a sacred act.  We were sharing sacred space while we assembled gifts from Mother Earth and crafted a new ‘being’ with our own hands.  Whether they were fully engaged in the task at the start or not, the amount of trust that they placed in us was staggering.  Their willingness to step into ‘another world’ and do something outside of the box of regular classroom existence was nothing short of amazing.  They did it, and we knew they could.  Kids are like that, they will amaze us when we nurture them and allow them to do so.”

From Brad Silberberg:
“Throughout the 300 Drums Project, Kate and I had felt a greater presence directing us, the palpable spirit and consciousness of “300 Drums” itself.  By the end of the third and final drum ‘Awakening’ day, I was prepared for how that spirit might channel through me as I began to direct the children to drum in unison, but as we continued to drum together what I started to feel was emotionally and spiritually overwhelming.  It was a level of love, joy, and connection that I had never felt before.  I recognized that a great power was there in that room driving the process, coming not just through me, but through all of us together.  I was aware of myself doing and saying things in front of those gathered that I might have felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, or even afraid to do in the past, moved as I was by the expanding sound and positive emotion.  I understood that I was in alignment with something irresistible and I had to honor it and allow it to be created through me, whether I was afraid of feeling it or not.

As we got to the end of the assembly when things should have been winding down, the sound vibrations of the drums and voices of the children continued to add power to what was happening and it increased exponentially instead.  They were totally in the moment and holding nothing back.  How could I do anything but join with them?  It was all about the kids and their drums.  I could feel myself being swept into being authentic, real, and open beyond my previous safe limits.  The experience pulled me from anything egoic and I felt myself allowing the Flow of Life to course unfettered through me.  Kate and I had told the children about what The Drum could do, but I had never experienced its power at anything close to this level, not at The Mesa, any ceremony, or Pow Wow.  As I led the drumming I was conscious of being massively transformed by it as it was happening.  In the end, it was the children who taught me what The Drum is really about.”

We are deeply touched and are still trying to digest exactly how we have been changed by “300 Drums”, the kids, and the Spirit of The Drum.  We have spent a lot of time crying from a mixture of joy, awe, and pride in what the kids have done, how they have responded to us, and what they have taught us.  We are so grateful to the Great Mystery, the drums, and to the children of McKee, Wilson, and Donaldson elementary schools.

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Kate with Wilson teepee

Kate Silberberg in front of teepee owned by Wilson Elementary

The “300 Drums” Community

“300 Drums” is a community project that is destined to involve many people here in southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.  As the designated “experts” from a partnering community arts organization and as The Mesa Creative Arts Center’s co-directors we are teaching the students and their teachers the traditional making, use, and cultural significance of the drum in Native American life.  We have guided the students and their teachers to make their own drums from elk or deer rawhide and maple hoops.  It is our role to teach about Native American culture and life ways beyond the scope of textbooks.  We are helping the students, faculty, and staff experience the well documented health and wellbeing aspects of drumming and singing, and tying in personal development lessons from Native American wisdom through the drums.  We, along with a few volunteers from The Mesa Creative Arts Center prepared all of the drum and drum beater making materials into kit form at “The Mesa”, transporting them to the three elementary schools involved.

When a shortfall in project funding appeared because of the unexpectedly higher cost of the drum kits, we told the schools that we were willing to forgo some of what were to be paid so that the children could have their drums.  Upon hearing about the “300 Drums Project” and the budgetary situation, patrons of The Mesa Creative Arts Center contributed over $1,800 to help cover the deficit.  They also contributed all the fleece fabric for the drum beater heads, donated leather thongs for the beater ties and drum decorations, and collected many of the sticks for the beaters.  They supplied much needed “moral support” for us and good energy to the project through their belief in it.  They prayed for us, the kids, and the project and cheered us on.  One Mesa student helped with shaving drum beater sticks.  A second from out of state stayed late after a healing workshop to punch holes, and another showed up to help with drum creation for a couple of the 4th grade classes.

The project is taking place at McKee, Wilson, and Donaldson elementary schools in the Imperial, PA area.  There, the eleven 4th grade teachers, two art teachers, four music teachers, and one high school computer technology teacher are integrating the drums into the students lessons for the entire year.   Many parents of 4th grade students volunteered to come to the schools and help on the days when the students made their drums.  Some returned to help other classes besides that of their own child.  Parents, administrators, other grade level teachers, PTA’s, and local Native Americans are being invited take part in helping with various parts of the program.

“300 Drums” would be not be anything at all if it wasn’t for the 250 or so 4th grade students who openly embraced this project and embraced us.  These brave little 9 and 10 year old souls stepped up to the plate and did things many adults would not feel confident doing.  They made a drum with their own hands.  They opened their minds and their hearts to Native American culture, wisdom, music, and language.  They allowed themselves to feel the sound of the drum.

We thank all who made the 300 Drums Project a reality.
We are deeply grateful to:

  • Joe Bucci

    Kevin Kisow

    W.A.H.S.  student videographers, Joe Bucci & Kevin Kisow

    The Grable Foundation
  • Visual Art teachers Claire March and Debbie Turici
  • Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christine Assetta
  • West Allegheny High Technology teacher, Mike Shaffer
  • Principals: Kathy Sites, Tom Orr, and Trish Nolan
  • The 4th grade teachers: Pat Matvey, Renee Caruso, Sherry Tisdale (Wilson), Bill Welsh, Debbie Stockhausen, Susie Dorman, Jan Schade (McKee), Jacqui King, Kim Will, Diane Ordich, Lynne Shaffer (Donaldson)
  • Music teachers: Terisa Sharlow, Darren Humbert, Mark Hoffman, and Laura Jack
  • West Allegheny High School student videographers, Kevin Kisow, and Joe Bucci
  • Our Mesa supporters, especially: Sharlene Dufford, Linda and Dan Ingham, Darren Smith, Evie Cox, Kate Ann and Mack, Karen Scofield,
    Pam Wilhelm, Diane and Steve Jarecki, Marie Seubert,
    Kim Sulkava, Lyndia Stauffer, Brenda Speer, and Anna Zeitz
  • Courtney from Tandy Leather in Delmont, PA
  • All those who bought “300 Drums” pins to show their support
  • The Great Mystery, and all those in Spirit who are helping us


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How to Bring “300 Drums” to Your School or Organization

It is our personal vision for “300 Drums” to turn into 3,000 (or more) as the lessons of The Drum and Native American wisdom spread to other schools in the US and abroad.  We are willing to share our knowledge with your school as to how we have developed and implemented this rewarding project.  We are also available as educational consultants and/or facilitators to set up educational, health and wellness, or drum making programs, drum circles, or staff development activities for your educational institution.  We are willing to travel to do so.

We can also tailor “300 Drums” programs for your corporation or civic organization, using drum making, drum circles, and Native American wisdom for team building, stress reduction, and to increase health and wellbeing.

We also offer drum making workshops at our Mesa Creative Arts Center for adults and children.  Check our Class and Event calendar for upcoming workshops and drum Awakenings.

Please feel free to contact us via email or call us at The Mesa, 724-947-3097.

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“300 Drums” Videos

Here are some “300 Drums” videos we’ve recorded, one of the 4th graders at McKee lacing up their drums, one of McKee students playing their newly “awakened” drums and singing an Iroquois lullaby, and two of us signing.   Our recordings of the Bear Song and The Apache Welcome Song were made and posted for the West Allegheny elementary music teachers to use on large computer screens (“Smart Boards”) to teach these songs to the 4th graders.  We have lots more video recorded but need to do some editing before we post it.



“300 Drums” is a work in progress... more to come soon...


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Continued Funding for “300 Drums”

While the original grant budget included a certain amount of money to be paid to us for this amazing project, it is only covering a small portion of the time, materials, and transportation expenses we are actually incurring.

We’d also like to purchase additional materials so we can make “loaner drums” to use for drum circles in other schools.  If you’d like to help support this project and help us to make more drums with more school children, please consider making a donation.



We thank you, and the 4th grade students of
McKee, Wilson, and Donaldson Elementary schools thank you.

Pilamaya aloh!    (That’s Lakota for “Thank you very much!)

“Mitakuye Oyasin”

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Brad Silberberg is an artist and holistic healer who envisioned
 The Mesa Creative Arts Center and Mesa Healing Center as a place of awakening for art, healing, and spiritual expansion.

Mesa Creative Arts, Inc.,   30 Miller Business Park Drive, Burgettstown, PA 15021    (724) 947-3097

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