Gathered in the downstairs venue of World Cafe Live, students jotted down their hopes and dreams before dropping the pieces of paper into colorful bucket drums.
Guided by Pennsport percussionist Josh Robinson, the budding musicians, who ranged from elementary to high school-aged, spent the morning practicing rhythmic patterns to syllables of phrases such as “self-love.”
The unconventional music lesson was one of several Bridge Sessions hosted by LiveConnections, a nonprofit that has been specializing in “music education, arts accessibility and collaborative concerts” around the Philadelphia region since 2008.
Developed in response to arts-education cuts in Philly public schools, the organization offers music opportunities to school-aged youth and adults with disabilities, as LiveConnections has reached more than 38,000 participants since its inception, according to its website.
“Live Connections’ mission is to inspire learning and build community through collaborative music-making,” said LiveConntions executive director Melinda Steffy. “We really kind of take all of the pieces of that very seriously…We think about it bigger than just traditional K-to-12 education but that music is such a great tool for learning about the world, learning about different cultures, for learning about your own identity.”
While the organization, which is based at World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia, reaches thousands of students each year through a multitude of programs, one of its in-school workshops is returning to F. Amedee Bregy School, 1700 Bigler St., in September.
Taught by Robinson, Bregy’s LiveConnections’ after-school percussion ensemble, which focuses on Latin, Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean drumming technique, recently received a $7,500 grant from The Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s 2019 Youth Arts Enrichment Grants, a citywide program benefitting city youth with limited access to the arts.
“(The after-school program) provides an opportunity at a school where there aren’t a lot of music opportunities…It’s this idea that music can and should be accessible in as many ways as possible,” Steffy said. “We’re not expecting students to be able to buy expensive instruments, but, here are these everyday things that can be used to make music.”
Like the Bridge Sessions, an interactive performance hosted up to 40 times a year at World Cafe Live, the Bregy after-school program, which kicked off a few years ago, exists to not only offer accessible music lessons to an under-resourced arts curriculum in South Philadelphia but cultivate social, emotional and mental development beyond the instruments.
Throughout his life, Robinson, a native of Woodstock, New York, has utilized drumming as an avenue for healing – a practice he now teachers to others.
Aside from working with students in underserved communities, Robinson’s therapeutic methods have led to his work with grieving children across the country, including through T.A.P.S. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), The Moyer Foundation and NAGC (National Alliance For Grieving Children).
Recognizing his own troubled childhood, Robinson says, as a child, he’d drum as a method of coping with various familial issues, including drug addiction.
“I’ve always been drawn to working with at-risk kids, because I can identify with them and maybe what they need in life,” he said. “I wanted to share how drumming has helped me in my life, so teaching it as a tool. A way to express yourself. A way to connect with other people. A way to tell a story – without getting a grade.”
Robinson immersed into music teaching several years ago after playing steel drums for his grandfather while he was recovering from a heart attack at a hospital in Philly.
During his grandfather’s hospital stay, Robinson says nurses and doctors were moved by the performances, which eventually led to his therapeutic work in other hospitals and hospice care around the city.
Robinson has engaged in several projects with Thomas Jefferson University, including teaching a humanities course to medical students and presenting at the hospital’s third annual Philadelphia Trauma Training Conference this summer.
“The words that I had to choose weren’t carrying weight anymore,” he said. “After you tell someone you love them 50 times, what else is there to say in that situation? So for me, music has always been a way to communicate.”
Robinson has collected a range of youth teaching experience over the years. However, he says his philosophies align particularly well with the cornerstones of LiveConnections.
For that reason, he continues to return to the Bregy after-school program, where he says up to 15 students will not only learn about percussion, rhythm poems and composition but will have platforms to tell their stories.
“There’s a lot of arts organizations that align themselves with grants and they get money but they don’t always necessarily understand the people they’re serving…What I love about (Live Connections) is they’re supportive to the artists,” Robinson said. “They continue to give me opportunities to grow and expand.”
Like all of LiveConnections programming, the upcoming Bregy after-school workshop is intended to help young people develop a sense of awareness not just about the world but about themselves.
The true objective, Steffy and Robinson stress, is not to produce professional percussionists but to nourish students’ wellbeing, tapping into their personal expression and emotion while creating a safe space – all through the sounds of music.
“I think giving students the chance not just to be passive listeners but to be actively involved in making (music) and doing that in an educational context, taps into this whole-person approach,” Steffy said. “And, in a learning environment, you need that. Music can just elevate everything else that is happening in a school setting because of that…It’s my hope that our programs are helping make them engaged global citizens. People who have a perspective that is expansive and open to new ideas. It’s my hope that they learn something about themselves that allows them to grow as an individual.”