Of Buckets and Baskets: Reflections on Improvisatory Partnerships in a Bucket Drumming Workshop with Students from the UGDSB

by Carey West

Within the field of improvisation, there is ongoing discussion regarding the value of dissonance and harmony. Collaborations often require trust, which therefore imbues the process of generating satisfying outcomes with risk. Regardless of the medium, collaborative improvisation requires participants to trust each other while managing their own needs and desires. Listening intently, reacting with agility, and considering emergent processes to materialize desired results are all fundamental aspects of improvisation. Not limited to music or theatre, these elements can inform community partnerships which often arise from myriad interests prescribing disparate agendas.

In the spring of 2019, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) partnered with the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) Pathways Planning project to provide bucket drumming workshops for the students and teachers at the Youth Options program. In consultation with Tracy Hunter, IICSI Project Manager Justine Richardson, Community Engagement Officer Marie Zimmerman, and Director Ajay Heble, IICSI hired percussionist Adam Bowman to conduct a four-day progressive program of bucket drumming.

Each stakeholder introduced various priorities for this project. The Youth Options program services students who are identified under Section 23 of the Education Act, which stipulates that students requiring “correctional treatment” are entitled to education. Put plainly, the students have been suspended or expelled from traditional programs due to correctional needs and now attend this alternative program. As is the case with any group of learners, each student would bring their own unique level of comfort in a creative music-making environment. However, these adolescents face various and often compounded challenges in cooperative learning tasks, and the risk-to-reward balance of performing music collaboratively required careful navigation in order to deliver an experience where confidence and comfort were maintained, if not increased.

Hunter was implementing the Career Pathways curriculum and intended to use the concrete experience in musical improvisation as an example of developing intentions and building skills in support of a goal. Her approach to career planning places a priority on personal development. She framed the curriculum by asking students to identify who they want to be as an adult rather than what they want to be. The subsequent career-planning exercises support the student’s envisioned identity. Taking into account his status as a guest teacher in a situation where the trust/risk balance is particularly fragile, Bowman expressed a strong desire to avoid any final presentation outcomes for the workshop. He was clear with the project team from the outset that he would be uncomfortable presenting any learning agenda, and that he is a process-oriented facilitator. These disparate intentions might have been understood as oppositional, with the educational goal being to provide a concrete experience in planning towards successful outcomes, and the musical goal being to maximize creative risk-taking and exploration without necessarily arriving at a finished product. In practice however, Hunter was able to trust Bowman’s process-oriented method and identify outcomes within the workshops on a daily basis that supported her curriculum goals.

Bowman was aware of the unique needs of these students and committed to a program of establishing trust and respect. To help establish trust, he visited the group before beginning the workshops and spent time eating lunch with them, while introducing himself and his music-making experiences. Aware of the career planning component, he spoke to the students about the many lifestyle aspects of being a vocational musician. In this way, he presented himself as a role model for alternative career paths. After their lunch period, the students regularly play basketball in the gym for half an hour. Following these casual lunchtime conversations, Bowman joined in these pickup games. In doing so, he built foundations of trust and respect, and he was able to learn things about the students that he could incorporate into his facilitations. For example, when students were reticent to offer musical ideas, Bowman was able to draw upon other areas of interest revealed in previous conversation to support the creative process. Direct questions about these interests allowed students to apply knowledge from an area in which they felt confident and transfer it to a musical context. The relationship built during the extracurricular sessions established a temporary community of practice and was fundamental to the success of the overall program.

Bowman’s process of percussion teaching is cumulative and makes use of scaffolding to progress from basic stick-handling techniques and timbre possibilities on the buckets, followed by echo activities meant to build a rhythmic vocabulary. As comfort levels increased, he encouraged students to create their own rhythmic passages derived from language. These were eventually combined to create a musical form that included dynamics and supported individual solos. Despite the freedom to follow student needs without the agenda of producing a performance product, the students did arrive at a tangible outcome. They collaborated towards composing and playing a predetermined form of polyrhythms with solos and a coda that resulted in a unified ending. The intrinsic satisfaction was evident, and students expressed elation and pride in each stage of development, particularly in the final session. The work was so enjoyable that several students expressed the desire to continue working as an ensemble of their own initiative. This ownership over musical activities was an unintended and welcome result of the partnership between IICSI, the UGDSB, and Adam Bowman.

When improvisatory practices are incorporated directly into partnership-building—such as was the case between Hunter, Bowman, and the IICSI research team—distinct interests can be accommodated and even harmonized. By means of intensive consultation, clear positioning, responsibility, trust, and agility, the collaboration between a dynamic group of stakeholders was not only satisfying, but the outcomes exceeded the intentions of the project. In this case, Bowman and Hunter were able to capitalize on their common value for process-oriented strategies and invest with faith that final outcomes would materialize as an intrinsic result.