Flood Brook students explore Japanese tradition, drumming up an appreciative audience

Sensai Stuart Paton celebrates with the Flood Brook taiko drummers.

By Bob Niles
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing

Thirty-six drums were lined up precisely like traffic cones in nine rows of four  on one side of the Flood Brook School gymnasium.

Two buckets filled with drumsticks were placed nearby. In the center of the gym, a single large red drum hung horizontally at shoulder height from two wooden supports. More than 250 students sat on the floor waiting eagerly to perform. A standing room only crowd of teachers, parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors watched in silence. All eyes focused on Burlington Taiko’s resident instructor or sensei, Stuart Paton, who asked everyone to take a deep breath.

The 2022 Flood Brook Taiko Drumming Extravaganza was about to begin.

The history of taiko drumming in Japan dates back some 1,500 years when it first appeared on the island in festivals and religious rituals as a form of communication. This ceremonial percussion materialized only this October at the Londonderry school, where Sensei Paton conducted eight days of training for all students at the K-8 campus.

Paton’s work incorporates rhythm, movement and flare into the music. After an energizing brief opening solo performance, Sensei Paton started a roll call of students – kindergarten through middle school – to join him on stage to perform their own rendition of taiko classics.

First up, kindergarten and first graders marched to their drums to perform a Japanese traditional song that created images of nature. Starting with the sound of tiny raindrops, the music then moved to a sprinkling or shower, followed up by heavy drumming that evoked the reverberation of thunder. The young percussionists, some barely as tall as their instrument, closely followed the direction of Sensei Paton in a call and response pattern that created the magical music. With cheers and heavy clapping at the conclusion, the youngsters relished their newfound celebrity before returning to their spot on the floor.

Another song performed by older elementary students featured a story about a flying good luck green dragon. The drummers’ music called upon the airborne reptile to make three ceremonial trips around Peru, Landgrove, Londonderry and Weston to bring good weather to make local farmers happy.

Each young drummer participated in four to six classes with Paton before the final concert. “Our sessions with the students feature Japanese culture, music and schooling,” says Paton. “We focus on repetition, perseverance, discipline and respect for each other. The students together learn to speak the language of the music first, then they are ready to play.”

Near the end of the performance, middle school students were featured in a rousing tune with a Vermont connection. In 2018, Vermont designated the Japanese prefecture of Tottori as a  Sister State. The older student drummers performed a march written for the people of the Tottori city of Yonago. The song gives permission for everyone to enjoy its annual summer festival featuring dazzling fireworks and parades of elaborate lanterns.

For the Flood Brook Extravaganza’s grand finale, every student lined up to perform a traditional Japanese dance or “bon.” There had been no time to rehearse as a large ensemble, but everyone eagerly joined in to entertain the audience. The production depicted a rendition of miners performing a hard day’s work digging coal with shovels and using baskets and carts to transport the ore to the surface. At the end of the dance, the participants used their arms and hands to create a Japanese sign that proclaimed their hard day of work had come to an end.

Perhaps the mood of the day can be summed up by one conversation that took place just after the show. A middle school student shuffled over to sit down on the bleacher next to her family. “Now that wasn’t so bad,” said her mother with a knowing smile.

“I thought it was going to be so embarrassing,” said the daughter, who gazed out at the gym floor filled with people, then added after a brief pause. “Actually, it was pretty cool.”

One youngster’s expression of appreciation for their instructor sums up the learning experience, “Thank you Sensei! You’re the best!”

Bob Niles is the communications director for the Taconic & Green and Mettawee School District.

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