Centering Students in Their Own Mythologies

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Centering Students in Their Own Mythologies

Kwame Scruggs, Founder and Executive Director of Alchemy, Akron, OH; Association of Teaching Artists Award Winner 2020


Myth and drums are a potent combination. I first encountered the use of drums in men’s circles when I attended a workshop for a rites of passage group led by Dr. Kwa David Whittaker—Nana Kwa, one of my eventual mentors. After I witnessed him playing the djembe drum while relating a powerful story to the group, I knew I wanted to find a way to incorporate the drum into my own work. Before long, I was down in the basement of my house, alone, practicing drumming while reciting mythological stories.

At the time, I worked as a counselor for primarily Black youth at the University of Akron’s Upward Bound Program, and I wondered whether storytelling could reach the young men. Flashy modern media like rap music and video games seemed to dominate their attention. But when I introduced myth into my work, I observed the youth—adolescents who are wary of any adult with an agenda—suddenly begin to share their own thoughts and emotions when discussing a mythical character’s choices. I learned that myth is the ticket to get youth talking.

And, more importantly, to get them to listen.

Rhythm underlies so much movement in nature and physics that scientists have observed the concept of “entrainment,” which is the tendency of objects moving in a similar pattern and tempo to align with one another. Over time, two swinging pendulums will seem to “decide” to swing together. Birds flying in formation will flap their wings in rhythm together. The beat of the drum helps connect Alchemy participants as we create our sacred circle—our temenos—a safe space cut off from the rest of the world.

This past year we were working on the myth “Iron John.” In one portion of the story, water is being removed from a well. I asked my students, “What do you need to have removed from your life? What needs to be cleaned out?” Responses ranged from “dissatisfaction” to “anger” to “my old ways”—but every answer came from a place of deep self-inquiry. Participants were honest because they were in sync with one another; they were together.

Adolescents meeting with adult facilitators can better establish common ground by listening to the same story told to the same beat. When you add discussion and analysis of the myth, young men are more willing to open up and begin seeing themselves as the heroes of their own stories.


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