Learning by Doing

Middle School Music Teacher Miriam Altman traveled to Ghana to learn traditional drumming and dancing. Here she shares her experience, and the importance of community when learning and teaching these traditional art forms. 

My morning lessons in Ghana started with formal greetings fo all my teachers. We would meet in the rehearsal space, shake hands, greet each other using a long exchange in Ewe, the local language (there isn’t a direct translation for “Hello” or “Good Morning”, but rather a conversation with multiple questions and responses), and ask about one another’s sleep and breakfast.

It was my third visit to the Dagbe Cultural Institute since 2010, with this most recent trip supported in part by University School of Milwaukee’s Think Big Fund. Dagbe is in the small rural village of Kopeyia in southeastern Ghana and has a world-famous legacy of drummers, dancers, and artists. This summer, I lived there for a month, studying music. The morning greetings are an example of the importance of community in Kopeyia. As I would take a walk down the nearby highway, people would routinely pull over on their motorbikes and in their cars to welcome me. When my Ewe became more proficient, the conversations became longer and more curious on both sides.

The music of the Ewe people is like this too. Every voice in the rhythmic architecture is expected to be strong, fluent, and communally improvisational. Conversations occur without a word being spoken.

While this is all happening, there is a simultaneous expectation of artistry. On the first day of learning the historic and traditional music of Atsiagbekor, Emmanuel Agbeli, master drummer, and director of Dagbe, stopped the class halfway through, frustrated by my dancing. “This is a warrior’s dance,” he said “You are a warrior. All the imagining in your head of what that means should come across. It shouldn’t just look like you are exercising. There needs to be style and power. And you need to have that from the very beginning.”

As a student of this beautifully complex music and dance, one must learn to be an adept aural learner. This is an oral tradition. It cannot be learned in isolation from a book or video. There needs to be a community present: multiple people to play and dance all the parts, older and more experienced musicians to teach the newer ones. Many of my afternoon and evening lessons were taught with my teacher’s children and grandchildren present, sitting together side by side.

Now back at USM, I am the master drummer for my students here. It is my responsibility to show them the challenges that come with learning complex music without written notation. Our goal is to create a deep understanding of how the music fits together so they can find their way independently when they are lost and also adapt when the rhythmic energy of the groove intensifies.

I work to create a community of musicians bigger than our music classroom. Because of the great teaching artists I’ve met at places like Lawrence University and in Milwaukee and Chicago, our students can collaborate with other students and master drummers and dancers. It is through this music—all music!—that people can become more authentically connected, regardless of the initial differences or barriers. I work to create a community of musicians bigger than our music classroom. When we play, dance, and sing together, my students have told me that the music becomes something that is alive.

The Think Big Fund

The Think Big Fund was established as a named fund in USM’s Endowment by a generous gift from a USM family. Since 2002, the Fund has provided substantial professional development opportunities on an annual basis for our faculty, distinguishing USM from its peer schools. This gift helps to attract and retain talented educational professionals and maintains USM’s position as an educational leader in the Milwaukee community.

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