Bringing out the Best: BoomShake

How “failing delightfully” helps us play music and create culture

In honor of our 20th anniversary, Playworks is sharing stories of other nonprofits transforming kids and communities through the power of play. BoomShake is a multicultural music and movement community program in Oakland. I was thrilled to talk with co-founder Sarah Norr about how they are bringing out the best in kids and adults.

Among other things, BoomShake leads a youth drumming program. Why is play important in what you do?

I had piano lessons as a kid, and they were not at all aligned with what research knows about how little kids learn and grow. It was all about "memorize this piece, play this scale." I didn’t learn musicality; I didn’t learn how to listen or create my own music or perform with other people—all the things that make music joyful as a grown-up. I just learned how to punch the right key. 

Music is a form of play. So much of school is studying for tests, is having grown-ups telling them to memorize and sit still. It is so clear how much happier kids are when they are able to play music.

We have kids improvise and create their own parts. We learn from different cultures and from our own cultures and traditions. We believe that every kid should get to play music and express creativity, and we believe that all people should have opportunities to create culture and create beauty.

How can other educators incorporate play into music education?

A lot of people actually know songs from jumping or clapping games. We don’t think of those things as music teaching, but they can be. We did a workshop at the Girls Rock conference where we taught a rhythm as a warm up to get girls moving, first clapping on laps and with hands, then stomping, then practicing with other kids paddy-cake style. Then we had them hopping on one leg and playing paddy-cake on one leg. Making it sillier and sillier gets rhythms embodied naturally.

One game we use with our kindergarteners is to make up beats out of words. We have them brainstorm all the things they will grow in their garden, and we act out gardening. Then we have them turn the fruit and vegetable names into beats. So for example, we’d say “apples and bananas,” then have them play that on drums. They get to be involved in creating the music they will be learning and relating it to own lives and imaginations.

You put on an annual “drum musical” called The Streets are Free, based on a true story about kids who advocate to their city for a playground. Where did that idea come from?

The drum musical is actually one of a number of events throughout the year—we also do street performances to support community events and actions, like Black Lives Matter protests. Social justice and racial justice are important to us—not lecturing, but creating opportunities for people to open up to their own experiences and come to their own understandings. That’s what we liked about the Streets are Free story. It’s not just grownups talking about politics; it’s something kids can relate to, that kids need opportunities to be kids. It’s amazing to see kids advocating for the power of play.

Our youth program takes place at Manzanita Seed Elementary School, which is a bilingual Spanish immersion school in the Fruitvale neighborhood. This year, the Manzanita students held a march to advocate for a bilingual middle school, because there are currently no systems to help students continue studying in Spanish. BoomShake students played drums—the kids were so excited to be drumming and chanting in the street!

In addition to your youth program at Manzanita Seed, you also lead classes for women and transwomen. Why teach drumming to adults, and why focus on women?

As a member of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, a street band that plays at protests, I drum on the street a lot. Women often come up to me and tell me they wish they had learned to play drums or wish their daughters could, but that they haven’t had that opportunity. Lots of musical spaces do not feel particularly welcoming for women, and a lot of people also have the idea that “it is too late for me to learn music.” It’s not!

Nkai Oruche and I co-founded BoomShake in 2014. We decided to focus on drumming because that is our background, and because we wanted to be able to make music quickly with people who hadn’t had formal music training. We wanted to give people the chance to play music without judgment; without worrying about performing to a standard, so they feel free to explore and play.

In addition to our youth program and an open-enrollment class for women and transwomen, we also added a class specifically for women and transwomen of color. Just as musical spaces can feel less than welcoming for women, they can feel similarly less than welcoming for people of color. There is so much physical and cultural displacement in Oakland in general that it was important for us to create a space where people could find community and a collective voice.

What is different about teaching adults and teaching kids?

Kids just want to play. You don’t have to convince them to bang on drums, you just put a drum down and they run over and start banging on it. As adults, that impulse is ground out of people. You put drums in a circle and people stand around awkwardly, or they tap a drum on accident and then say, “oh, sorry!”

You can’t learn to play music without being playful and willing to make mistakes. If mistakes are a horrible problem to you, you aren’t going to learn to play music. We tell our students to fail delightfully; we want our grown participants to recapture play and exploration, not get caught up in success.   

You also can’t have that mindset if you are afraid of being judged, so all of our classes focus on building community; creating space for bonding and play and discussion. We do this with kids too; we ask them to share feelings about different subjects so they can hear from and get to know each other. They aren’t just standing next to each other practicing snare parts.

BoomShake teachers are available to partner with organizations and to lead workshops that help educators teach music games that don’t require instruments. Learn how to get involved!



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