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Samba for Kids

Dr. Howard Pitler - L'Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet.
1996-97 Kansas Elementary Principal of the Year.
1997-98 National Distinguished Principal from Kansas.

Teaching 4th and 5th grade children the percussion instruments and rhythms used in the samba schools of Rio de Janeiro has been a learning experience not only for the children, but for the instructor as well. I began teaching grade school children samba batucada in the spring of 1995. Dr. J.C. Combs, professor of percussion at Wichita State University, organized fifty 4th and 5th grade children to perform at the University Percussion Ensemble concert for that spring. The following fall I instructed 4th graders at Collegiate Lower School in Wichita, who were featured on the "Samba for Kids" video with Dr. Combs and San Francisco Bay Area percussionist Michael Spiro. For two months during the spring of 1996 I met with 4th and 5th grades at Buckner Magnet School in Wichita, and in April of that year they performed at the MENC (Music Educators National Conference) in Kansas City, as well as in the Percussion Ensemble concert a few days later.

During my first meeting with a group of elementary students, I give them a brief history of the music of samba. I begin with a geography lesson- "Can anyone tell me where Brazil is?", followed by a history lesson- ("who colonized Brazil?, How and why did Africans come to Brazil?, etc.). We then talk about Rio De Janeiro and its poor neighborhoods, the favelas. I describe as much as I can about the living conditions, and why the samba schools (or groups) in these neighborhoods help to bring the community together. An Escola de Samba, or samba group, includes 2,000 or more people (sometimes as many as 7,000), all working towards the goal of winning carnival - to have the best theme, song, dancers, floats, and bateria, or percussion group. The bateria is the driving force of the samba school, propelling the group down the parade route, playing the style of samba, known as batucada. The escola uses a myriad of percussion instruments, but in my teaching at the grade school level, I show them the ganza, tamborim, ago-go, cuica, pandeiro and surdo. The first instrument I introduce to them is the ganza, or shaker. While I'm playing it for them, I ask them what the rhythm reminds them of: "a snake!"...no! "a washing machine!"...getting closer "a train!"...YES!!!. The rhythm should make one want to move, and playing a ganza is much harder than it appears. I then demonstrate the proper technique: Imagine a line in front of your nose, move the ganza equidistantly above and below the line.

The result of doing this correctly creates what I call a locomotive rhythm. Initially when the students begin playing the ganza they have the tendency to use their whole arm instead of just the wrist. Some will almost throw their arm out of the socket! It takes a while for them to get the right touch and feel, but I've learned not to worry about this at first. I just keep reminding them why their arm hurts after two minutes of playing. Once the ganza players get the motion and the rhythm correctly, they tend to move more to the beat than the other sections. The next section that I teach includes the tamborim. This small frame drum is played with a small stick, or a few plastic dolwel sticks taped together at one end. The basic rhythm that I teach the students is phrased in a 2/3 "clave" rather than the 3/2 "clave" (or phrasing) that is more frequently played in Brazil. The rhythm looks like this:

Starting the pattern in this way makes it easier for the kids to "lock in" to the rhythm because it starts on the downbeat. Sherri Pilgreen, the music teacher with whom I worked at Collegiate, came up with a method of counting the tamborim part to help the students verbalize the rhythm.

The ago-go, with two differently pitched bells that are attached, provides a melody to the whole batucada. The rhythm that I teach to the students is a basic pattern and looks like this:

Students have a tendency to either play this pattern too fast when the tempo is slow, or to play behind the beat when the tempo is brighter. I tell those in the ago-go section to make sure that the second note on the low bell is locked with the high surdo. The patterns for the tamborim and ago-go bells may appear to be the most difficult of the samba rhythms. This is not necessarily so, especially since the most important rhythm is that of the surdo. The surdos are the bass drums in samba batucada, and provide the foundation for the entire ensemble. The best players should therefore play the surdo parts, and so I usually have "secret auditions" for those who will play this instrument. The rhythm for the high surdo is:

and for the low:


and the two together:


I tell the students that if the surdo parts aren't played correctly, the whole ensemble will fall apart. If there are enough players, I add a third surdo that plays:

This is phrased along with the 2/3 "clave" of the tamborim and ago-go parts. The ganza, tamborim, ago-go, and surdos are the sections on which I concentrate. The pandeiro is played using a thumb-heel-tip motion with one hand but this is somewhat difficult to do, so I just have the students shake the pandeiro like a ganza. As for the cuica, I tell students to work on getting the low and high sounds, without breaking the stick!!

I meet with the students once a week and for the first couple of visits, Ihave them switch instruments so that all may have a hand at each rhythm. Eventually, the student stays with the instrument he or she seems most comfortable with.

I play a drum known as the repinique, which I use to teach the kids a rhythmic "call" that tells the ensemble when to begin and when to stop. With the aid of a samba whistle and hand cues, I indicate to the students whether I want to feature a certain section and have the other sections drop out. We also work on call and response rhythms. I play a rhythm and they play it back. Some of the calls that I use I borrowed from the C.D. "Brasileiro" by Sergio Mendes. Other calls can also be made up by the instructor or by the students themselves. The calls can be played at the beginning of a piece and to close a performance.

I tell the students that the goal is to make music with these percussion instruments, not simply to make a bunch of noise. By the third week, the rhythms start to come together. The most important thing to me is seeing those kids who initially had no interest in music now come alive as they beat a surdo or an ago-go rhythm. Just one smiling face makes it all worth it.

Janet currently teaches Brazilian and Afro-Cuban drumming at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.

"Our 4th graders love the Samba Band program. We received our drums in February, and were able to dazzle an audience by April. Parents told us it was the best thing they had ever seen their children do. Not only did my kids learn a great deal about music, they learned about how kids their own age lived in Brazil and Africa. The cultural diversity component of the program makes it a "must have" for students in a global society."


drum rhythms


Samba Drums

Afro-Cuban Rhythms