Drumming up a Cause


"I have a set made out of crockery pots, with rawhide stretched over it," the now 65 year-old resident of Castleton, Vt. said. "I brought back a drum from British Columbia when I was out there ... I made something called a "shakere" which is a gourd with beads wrapped around it that you shake. But I don't know how to play the drum."

Earlier this year he decided it was time to scratch that one off the bucket list, and signed up for a drumming class being offered by the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning, in Manchester. The class was being taught by Saragail Benjamin, an accomplished musician and entertainer. "She had all kinds of drums and something called a djembe (an African drum)," he said. "So we just started pounding away. The main thing I learned were a couple of basic beats and that I had a lot more to learn."

Benjamin became interested in druming and percussion while working at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York about 15 years ago, she said. "People are innately musical," Benjamin said. "I loved percussion -- anyone can play it and it frees up the child in everybody."

Originally from Omaha, Neb., Benjamin came east to attend college at Sarah Lawrence and stayed in New York until last year when she moved to Manchester. She worked in the music industry nearly her entire adult life, performing in off-Broadway shows, in summer stock theater and as a piano bar singer. She started a music theater workshop, and began working with children. In 2000, she added group drumming to her repertoire. "I realized it would allow me to connect with people in a lot of new ways other than keyboards and singing," she said.

Benjamin hopes to use the connecting power of percussion on Sunday, June 1, to create a music video of a drum circle to encourage sick children to stay the course and remain engaged with life as they undergo treatment. The video will be made primarily for children undergoing care for cancer, like chemotherapy, or who just need a boost. They'll be able to watch the video and play along through a special drumming app, according to her website. All the after-tax profits derived from this video will be donated to benefit kids with cancer and other serious illnesses.

The drumming circle and the video of it will be produced at the Maple Street School in Manchester that Sunday between 2 - 4 p.m. The event will take place outside in the school grounds weather permitting, or inside the school's gym if it rains.

Everyone is welcome to take part and drums will be supplied for all comers. There will be no fee to participate, she said.

Mixing music with therapy for children grew out of her earlier work involving children with special needs. She worked with one child undergoing chemotherapy at a summer camp one year, and returned the next to discover he had passed away in the interim. It was a sad yet revealing experience, she said.

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"I learned more and more about how drumming could help them and that they had a higher survival rate," she said. "I thought that since I can do this, I should."

There are drum kits like the ones many people are familiar with from watching popular music bands and groups, with cymbals, snares, tom-toms and big bass drums played with drumsticks or brushes. Then there are the conga-style percussion instruments usually played with the hands. Sometimes the percussion's role is to help the other musicians in an ensemble keep to the beat, and other times, the percussion line has its own notes and melody as well.

She uses what she calls "world percussion" involving a diverse array of instruments. The wilder the sound, the better, she added. "Think of the drum head as a trampoline," she said. "If you hit the drum head hard it will hit you back. Hold the hand firm but not to tight, and bounce it off."

There are all levels of technique, and you can study drumming forever, she said.

"It all starts from the spirit and the heart responding to the music," she said. "I start with getting people in touch with the music they feel, and as we go along I start teaching world rhythms and improving their technique."

Ted Day said he hoped to try to make it for the drumming circle and video shoot at Maple Street School, and was planning to try and organize a drumming circle of his own at his home in a remote section of Castleton.

It's a good way to relax and unwind while having a good time, he said.

"You just need someone to get a starting beat," he said. "Basically it's fun and it's something I've always wanted to do."

For more information about Benjamin's drum video, visit her website at saragailbenjamin.com, or call 802-768-8640.


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