When asked about my religious background, I lovingly say that I was brought up in Unitarian Universalism, the church of the old gay hippies. And like so many others, my musical life began at church, with my Sunday afternoons spent in the St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church basement crowded around a piano and learning songs by rote. When I graduated to the adult choir, this ritual I had grown to love, singing in a group every Sunday, had changed pace. Instead of learning 10 new songs in one day, our choir might work on one section of a particularly difficult song for the entire rehearsal period. They asked intricate questions about when they were supposed to come in, how the tone should sound, what the lyrics mean, and how it relates to our UU values. But the biggest difference in this choir was age- I was now 14/15/16 years old in a choir full of people who were happily enjoying their later years in life.
While I’ve often worked in close proximity to seniors, I’d never facilitated anything for them until coming to India. My years singing in choirs with people who were much older than me could have never prepared me for leading a group of elders with whom I didn’t share a common language.
I had planned my first workshop at the Elder Enrichment Center down to the minutes. I wrote out a neat breakdown of every activity I planned on doing with them and why it would be beneficial. The director of Khula Aasman, my boss Sarita, suggested that I incorporate drumming into my first session, and I reluctantly said yes, though I didn’t have as much experience with rhythm as I did with voice or theatre. I read scholarly article after scholarly article the night before on using drumming to foster community engagement. I took comfort in all the buzzwords I read because it made me feel like what I was doing was actually meaningful.
The next day, when it came time for the workshop, Sarita and I packed a cab full of Djembe drums and headed to the center. It was one of those cab rides where I savoured the minutes that I had left before I got out because I truly had no idea what to expect when we got there. When I first arrived in Bombay, all of my cab rides were like that.
We arrived at the center, an open air gathering space under a tin roof. Brightly colored mats lined the floor, and most of the women sat in plastic lawn chairs. On that day, the women were collectively celebrating all of the June birthdays, and one woman came around and offered us sweets. She put a small piece of cake in each of our mouths with her hands.
Sarita introduced me as a music and theatre student from the US, and I began my portion of the workshop, making sure to adhere to the steps and exercises I had written out. I was able to lead the entire vocal warmup without needing much direct translation from Sarita. Once I established that most of what we were doing was call and response, the women picked up on my every move, mimicking exact pitches in my voice and movements in my hand.
Having studied music and theatre for years before even coming to college, I knew how quickly students could spot a teacher who lacked confidence or classroom control. Even though it was my first time leading this type of workshop, I knew it was important that it seemed like I knew exactly what I was doing so that participants could feel at ease. I started with smiling. Everything I did, I did with a big open mouthed grin. I had ready some study about how smiling makes you seem more approachable, and I wanted the women to know just how excited I was to be there.
The women took on a new energy when we started to pass out the Djembes and tambourines and hand drums, their focus turning to these objects they so often heard, but rarely felt. We passed out one too many instruments, a mistake I would never make again, and I used the surface of a wooden table to lead the rest of the session. We began call and response exercises with the instruments, and once I saw that they easily picked up on simple rhythms, I tried adding in syncopations and off beat stresses. In that moment, I was trying to build musicianship skills instead of building community. Some of the women were intimidated by the more advanced rhythms and stopped playing altogether. There was no way that “making music together brings people together” if the people were too stressed to play their instrument. So we took a short break to give the women time to rest their hands, and I regrouped, reminding myself of why exactly I was there. It wasn’t to make them into great drummers because I’m not a great drummer. I’m not even a good drummer. I needed a way to make this session more about the community and less about getting rhythms right. I remembered an exercise I had read about it my research that involved inviting two volunteers to sit in the center of the circle and close their eyes while the rest of the group played a simple rhythm around them, sending them ‘energy’ in the process. I decided to give it a try.
The two women who volunteered had been the most outspoken of the group, very quick to tell me with their body language that they didn’t like it when I was going too fast or I led rhythms that were too complex. They sat crosslegged on the ground in the middle of the circle, and I sat on the periphery. I started a simple, slow rhythm that mimicked a heartbeat, and I tried to play as quietly as I could so a new leader could emerge. The women began playing louder and faster, layering different rhythms on top of the beat. They had taken this circle into their own hands, and I sat back and watched how they played, focusing their energy on the two women sitting in the center. After about 5 minutes of straight drumming, I brought the circle to a close and asked the women in the center how they were feeling. Both gave me the thumbs up, and now many more women raised their hands to take a turn in the middle. Sarita ended the session with a guided meditation, and after many a selfie, we called an uber and each headed home.
In the car ride back, I remember feeling shocked that the session actually went alright, even though it nearly derailed towards the middle. Somewhere between the advanced rhythms or the fast pace, I had to abandon my carefully written out plan and focus instead on what the women actually wanted. I was no longer just singing in a choir with the elderly- for the hour and 15 minutes that I led this session, I was sort of responsible for their wellbeing. I didn’t realize until my cab ride back that the workshop wasn’t successful because of my meticulous planning- it was successful because we did what the women wanted to do. It was never about the drumming.