Lessons from Ghana: For Students of Music and Beyond
By: Katherine Jubert, Music Director Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz
This year at Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz, we had the pleasure of welcoming a visiting musician from Ghana, West Africa. Sowah Mensah, a professional drummer, composer, and teacher of Ghanaian music, worked with students preschool through twelfth grade, as well as parents and staff. His visit was important for our students musically but it also helped them in their traditional classrooms. The methods of teaching music in Ghana can be transferred to any classroom and both teachers and students expanded their learning from this approach.
“You have got to watch,” Mr. Mensah would say to every student during every rehearsal. Ghanaian music is lead by watching the lead player; there is no written music and there is no one telling you what to do. You simply focus on the leader to find out what you are doing. If students are not watching then they will get lost or play at the wrong thing.
This is a very important concept in the classroom. Students need to focus on what they are being taught. It was amazing how simple it was for students to stop, watch, and learn when Mr. Mensah would remind them. He would tell them to keep their eyes on him and watch his different cues. In an afterschool workshop with staff, even teachers struggled with this lesson. In today’s world we are often distracted by our phones or our busy lives and sometimes it’s important to remember to “just watch”.
After watching comes listening. Since there is no written music in traditional Ghanaian songs ,we were told to listen for all our cues from the lead drummer. Mr. Mensah described how each player has a name on the drum; it’s like a musical sequence that is different for each performer. These names are used to cue a solo, to get a performer’s attention, or to thank someone for playing. There are other musical cues that are common in Ghana that when played will lead the musicians to a new section or the end of the song. When my students were practicing with Ms. Mensah, he used these different calls such as the use of silence, a particular pattern, or even a slight nod of the head to guide the music. If students were not listening they would miss the cue.
How often do we tell our students to listen? In my class it is a phrase I use all the time. Listening is a key part of any class and often students struggle to listen to the teacher. Mr. Mensah suggested that if we used musical cues during class students would hear them clearly because they sound different then the voice and they refocus faster for the next step. Try adding in a bell for transitions or even a drum cue. Even at the high school level students enjoy a clap sequence or rap. Recently when I started looking for ways to help manage and transition my preschool through twelfth grade music class I found a blog on edutopia titled 30 Techniques to Quiet a Noisy Class. This blog gives great tips on how to refocus classes at different age levels. There are many ways to ask students to listen and some are more effective than your voice.
Stop and Follow
In Ghanaian music, if players lose focus or stop listening, they will get lost. When this happens it’s the performer’s job to stop and then follow along with the rest of ensemble. However often young performers will not stop, they will keep playing not realizing they are wrong, or they think that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
As a performer it was even hard for me to stop, I didn’t want to show that I was lost. But there is strength in stopping and figuring it out on your own, and once I learned that, I became more confident in the music and a better musician. Students struggle with this all the time. They might miss a direction and then come to ask the teacher, ‘What are we doing?’ If students were taught that when they are confused, they should stop what they are doing and look at what other students are doing, we might see growth in them because they would be using their own skills to figure out their problems.
It is always a beautiful thing when different cultures or content areas are able to connect and learn from each other. We are hoping to have Mr. Mensah come back next school year to continue teaching our students and staff how to use these simple tools in our own classes or lives. Focus. Listen, Stop and Follow, so simple yet so hard.
Finley, Todd. “30 Techniques to Quiet a Noisy Classroom.” Edutopia: What works in education. October 21st 2014.