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Drumming Empowered Lives of Community with Hong Le


Hong Le is a National Board Certified elementary music specialist who teaches workshops in World Music Drumming Curriculum. We sat down to talk about her belief in community, universal talent, and the ability of music teachers to empower student voices. Weaving in her own story as the child of Vietnamese refugees, Hong Le also speaks to the centrality of hospitality, community, and generosity in building compassionate lives.

Keywords: Community, World Music Drumming, talent, student empowerment, voice

Hong Le

Discussion Questions

1) How do we become more intentional about empowering community-centered musicking?

2) How does music become acts of hospitality and affirmation?

3) How do our beliefs about talent and competition impact our music making and teaching?





Hong Le (00:00):

I feel like if someone could say what you did, which is, I feel like community is very important to you. Like that means I did my job. That was the only job I had. It just means that I am able to help facilitate this 360 view of music, which involves the 360 view of community.

Shorner-Johnson (00:17):

You are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music peace-building dot com, exploring intersections of peacebuilding sacredness, community creativity, and imagination through research and story. Hong Lee is a national board-certified elementary music specialist. She currently serves as general music specialists in the Hudson city schools in Hudson, Ohio teaching with the combination of Orff codeine and world music drumming techniques. Hong is a member of the national world music drumming, teaching staff, and serves as the K five unified arts facilitator and lead mentor for the Hudson schools. She was presented at music, bilingual education and beginning teacher workshops and conferences. She has used the world music drawing curriculum as a means of leading faculty team, building sessions and working with at-risk students. I first encountered Hong Le as my teacher in level one of world music drumming. It is my privilege to present this following interview. So can you tell me about the first time you encountered world music drumming? I'm really curious about when that was and what that was like.

Hong Le (01:37):

Sure. So the first time that I encountered world music drumming was in the spring of 2002. I was at what was then the, um, music educational national conference MENC conference. And I attended a session by dr. Will Schmid in Nashville, Tennessee, and my school district. Good. This was my first year of teaching. They had funded me to travel to Nashville from the Dallas, Texas area to go there. And I went to this workshop, not really knowing what to expect. And, um, in that those 50 minutes that were there, it completely changed the trajectory of my personal and professional life because, um, through that workshop, all I knew was that, um, I needed to learn more. And so by that point, they had had the world music drumming workshops for a few summers already. And so at the time there were not very many locations around the country. So I remember traveling to Baltimore, Maryland for my first level one workshop. So that would have been at the end of my first year of teaching.

Shorner-Johnson (02:40):

And then how many years were you in world music drumming before you became a world music drumming instructor?

Hong Le (02:46):

Um, actually I had taken three sessions of world music drumming. I did my level one that in, um, the summer of 2002, after my first year of teaching, then I did level two and then I did level three and, um, level three at the time was only in Wisconsin. And that summer I was also very intrigued because it was also the first time that Walt Hampton's hot marimba class was offered and being in Texas, he had, he had brought his students down from the Washington state area to attend, um, the, our Texas music conference. And I had seen the students there and I thought, well, I have to learn more. And that was February. I came home and in my mailbox that weekend was a brochure stating that hot marimba was going to be a part of we're on music drumming now. So, um, that summer I had done level three as, um, teaching, and then I went to Seattle for the hot marimba workshop. And that was, it was there that Will Schmid had invited me to become a member of the faculty. Um, starting the following summer.

Shorner-Johnson (03:50):

I asked Hong about how world music drumming had changed her approach to teaching.

Hong Le (03:55):

So by pedagogical instruction, I mean that many times people think world music drumming, Oh, it's like a drum circle. It's just something that you kind of do. It's a unit that you do, but I'm through going through all the steps and processes of it, you learn to break things down for students. Um, and you learn to, um, what it means to encounter a difficulty because going through the workshops, I encounter that difficulty, um, trying to learn the music. And by overcoming that specific difficulty, it was a new experience for me. And I had to learn techniques to get past it for me, which then allowed me to more effectively share it with my students. So the workshops helped because it all put us all into student mode so that I can be teacher turn right around and be teacher mode. So there's really nothing that helps you to learn something faster than to teach it to someone.

Shorner-Johnson (04:50):

So I think my next question is kind of along those lines, but as you moved into world music drumming and recognizing that it's a process that happens over a lot of years, how did you experience world music drumming, changing the way that you approach teaching in the classroom and your interactions with kids?

Hong Le (05:09):

Well, I would say that the process itself changed the interactions because I became more of a facilitator. And instead of just pushing things out, definitely you have to give students, um, guidance and instruction, but the guidance instruction were very small bits, followed by them doing it, followed by direct feedback. And it's just that in this cycle, it's very interactive. I feel, I feel like I facilitate, I instruct by facilitate most of the time

Shorner-Johnson (05:40):

Hong spoke of the power of world music drumming in her early teaching in Texas in this location, she taught a diversity of students, many of whom spoke Spanish as their first language.

Hong Le (05:55):

And so it was a way for them to be on equal footing with all the other students, because I wasn't asking them to repeat back words of a song that they weren't familiar with in a language they weren't familiar with. Everybody was being asked to speak in this language, through their, their hands. And what I noticed was personality of students is that I got to know them a little bit more. So that could be a student who was typically shy or was now playing confident. It could be a student who is typically very boisterous in class with their voice. All of a sudden became very shy with their instrument, um, because they weren't sure what to do. So you could kind of see different students' communication styles. And so, um, by doing echo patterns or questionnaire, answer patterns right away, I feel like I started to know the students right away. And they communicated with me who they were, their style of learning, their kind of their personhood. Somebody could be very, um, outgoing, but they're really just being kind of silly because they don't know what to do with themselves or how to, uh, another way to express themselves. So that's why they became very shy on the instrument. For example,

Shorner-Johnson (07:05):

Our beliefs about talent affect the core of our personhood and our beliefs about our relationship to music. Hong has found that by focusing on technique, tone, and teamwork, she avoids mistaken beliefs about students as failures of musical talent.

Hong Le (07:25):

How many times our society talks about, you know, who's talented, they decide early on what you can or can't do. But for me, there's the other side of it also where I have many colleagues who will say, you know, I have no singing town. I can't do any music. I can't. And I really, my response to those who share that with me is, I'm so sorry that you had that kind of music education experience. And when someone feels like they can't do something, um, I feel like the onus is on the teacher and not on the, um, person or the student themselves. And the reason why is because, um, music is just about like anything else. So in my classroom, I formulate almost all of my teaching around 4 T words. So the first is technique and I teach students on every instrument, including the voice, um, that in music technique affects your tone.

Hong Le (08:20):

So here's the ideal tone. Here are the technique patterns to get us there. So when they play and, um, the tone, uh, we first examine the tone was, did it ring long enough? Um, was it vibrating? Was it, what did it sound like? We talk about it. Oh, here's how you fix it, particularly on the drum, move your hands a little bit more. If you're singing on, be sure to open your throat, um, drop your jaw, all sorts of things so that everything is related to a technique and not talent. So we emphasize that a lot and that's how I feel like, um, it helps students build confidence and it helps them to not be judged. So since we are on, the two teas technique effects, tone, we work on the tone first and then we are learning their rhythms. So then we focus on time. So time includes playing the right rhythm at the right tempo and so on. We talk about what it means to plan time. And then we work on the teamwork part. So if anybody's ever done world music drumming, you can understand that teaching each individual pattern, the students gain it pretty well. It's when you try to put it together. And so that's the challenging part,

Shorner-Johnson (09:33):

Rather than say,

Hong Le (09:34):

This class can't do it. I just put it on me to find ways to help them discover how to play together as an ensemble. So we do lots of different activities, um, that fall under teamwork, which also helps students to discover the head technique of teamwork. And so I'll give a quick example. One thing we may do is that all students will play. For example, if you're talking about ensemble one, the low drum part and their job is I tell them we're going to play a quick game. Now this is called the distraction game. And what I would like for you to do is you're all going to play the low drum part together. And while you're playing it, I'm going to try to distract you. And then what I do is I start playing with them, um, to make sure to help us kind of synergize.

Hong Le (10:20):

And then I start playing each of the other parts correctly. That also helps me to know, do they have the low drum part, well enough on that, a different part. Isn't going to throw them off. Cause often it's not that they don't have the particular rhythm. Is that something going on somewhere else is throwing them off. And then, um, then I start to get real creative with other instruments, just banging and clanging writing notes to them on the board, drawing pictures, dancing around the room and their job is to keep playing. And through that when it's all done and they finally win the game in the way that we play it, I ask them, um, wow. Um, what did you do to help yourself not get distracted? Give me some tips so that I can help the other class. Cause they had to, they have to try the game another day. Um, so then the students are able to tell me what things they were able to do through the self discovery that they went through to not get distracted. And so that includes saying the part to yourself, watching others many times, they would say, I didn't look at you. So then I would rephrase it by saying you ignore the district

Shorner-Johnson (11:22):

In one video clip hosted by Hong Lee, during the coronavirus pandemic groups of neighborhood children, sit with bucket, drums and flags in the midst of, of social distance culdesac, one child rides his bicycle, a toddler marches between drums and neighborhood school, age children play a drum pattern using kitchen utensils to waving the flag. I have noticed across her post and from having been a student in her workshop that Hong Lee has an unending commitment to community engaged. Musicking Hong spoke about the waving, the flag performance as being part of a unit that integrates learning about sports and music across world cultures. This was,

Hong Le (12:15):

I have an all school assembly right before the Corona virus. Actually, we shut down the day before we were supposed to have that Sibley. And at the time we were going to showcase the song, waved and fly with our own arrangement. We had a class who was gonna going to, um, do a whole routine with flags from around the world. And so the students were very familiar with it all by that point in time. And what spoke to me a lot about that particular video clip that you're referring to was this did take place during the coronavirus, that lesson that I was doing with them related to this. Cause I knew they enjoyed that song so much was the last week of school. So for us, that was 10 weeks in. It was something that had to have been organized by their parents to think about doing this.

Hong Le (13:01):

So it really meant a lot to me at that point because the students knew what to do. Well, not all the students knew the particular drum patterns that were being played. So somebody, obviously one of the students obviously taught the others and then they found, um, we had had units on found sound. So they came up with the buckets all on their own. This was not a part of necessarily a part of my lesson. And then there were flags there, there was all these things. So, you know, the parents came together too. And I really feel like over the years I've been in my school district. I feel like if someone could say what you did, which is, I feel like community is very important to you. Like that means I did my job. That was the only job I had, the fact that they went and did that to bring community just meant a lot to me, it just means that I'm able to help facilitate this three 60 view of music, which involves the three 60 view.

Shorner-Johnson (13:59):

[inaudible] I noticed

Hong Le (14:00):

Real quick about the pandemic learning is that I was really surprised at the degree to which some students were involved. And what I mean is the student who in class and you would barely, um, they would barely speak in class or they weren't, or they were, you know, distracted or so on. They were very on top of things and sent me videos every single week. And they seem to really enjoy that way of just like, okay, here it is. I've got it. And then just share it back with me. Whereas I may not have seen that from them

Shorner-Johnson (14:35):

In class. I was curious about some of your quotes where you've said about the power we each have starting with ourselves to contribute to peace. And I was curious about your beliefs and how you enact those in the

Hong Le (14:53):

Well, to me, peace means that you start internally with not having any preconceived ill will towards someone because of anything. They don't like the same book that you like. They don't look the same as you do. They don't speak the same as you do. And I'm not even being like necessarily different language. It could just be within our own country with different, um, you know, different ways of speaking. Um, and I feel like there's just not enough time in this world for us to waste hitting each other. And this really was solidified for me. I'm going way back to my first year of teaching again. Cause really that's just where it all started was that I started in 2001 and that was when nine 11 happened. And um, I was three weeks into school. And in that particular position, the music teacher led all school assemblies, which took place every single Friday, every Friday of the year.

Hong Le (15:57):

And so it was meant to, you know, showcase different classes and all this stuff, but we also did things together. And, um, while I was watching things unfold, it became obvious that people hated Americans. That's why they did this horrific, horrific terrorist attack. And some of the direct reactions were to hate right back people who looked anything like they were from that region of the world or wherever. And that to me was just not the right solution at all, um, to, to meet hate with hate. And so, um, I spent a lot of time and reflection on how I could use those all school assemblies that I had everybody together for every single Friday and how I could use it to help promote the ideas of accepting everybody. And again, being in that bilingual campus where the, we had many different types of students and, uh, I feel like we, we use, they use it just within our own campus for our own campus building. And over time I feel like it didn't make a difference, um, with a focus on not us or them, but not, not you or them, but us and we. And so I feel like the Romeo drumming has really helped me with that because again, like I mentioned, it it's helped give people voice a voice and a common voice is when we sound the best. And so that's when they realized that we need to that community building thing. It's just a big part of it

Shorner-Johnson (17:38):

In workshops. And in her advocacy, I have sensed that Hong Lee's identity as the child of Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam war informs her sense of care hospitality and her desire to give back to communities Hong spoke about the overwhelming sense of gratitude and community. When a group of people from Arkansas extended, generous hospitality, welcome an affirmation

Hong Le (18:10):

As I've grown older and experienced life in a view things I reflect often on my experience as a Vietnamese refugee. I mean, not as more of my parents as a Vietnamese refugee, I was born a year after they arrived, but my four older siblings were also refugees. And I would want to say though, it wasn't really based so much on negative experiences. I actually want to honor the people of Fort Smith, Arkansas, who actually did a really great job with us. And what I mean is that here we are, there were thousands of people refugees put into Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and it was mostly Caucasian there. Um, and now as a teacher, I think, wow, if we all of a sudden had thousands of new students speaking a completely different language, how would that have affected our school system and how as a teacher, what I have dealt with that?

Hong Le (19:07):

And as a Vietnamese student, I didn't know anything different. I didn't, I was taught, I was educated. I feel like I was accepted. And so I actually want to honor the people in Fort Smith, Arkansas, who was able to embrace it. And in order for my family and other families to leave the refugee camp, we needed to be sponsored by citizens in the town who would sponsor us. And they would ensure that we could get set up and set up with a new life and stuff. So we had a number of sponsors who were just a part of my, uh, of our life and if they had, they not helped my, my parents and I, and provided us help find clothes for us and all the things for us. And we just wouldn't be set up to be where we are right now. And so I actually, it goes back to wanting to honor, um, the people who were able to accept thousands of us and later that, um, in Fort Chaffee, there were a lot of Cuban refugees.

Hong Le (20:07):

And so this town on the city has done a lot towards that. So in that regard and the, um, being a child of Vietnamese refugees, I'm very cognizant of, you know, I just want to actually give back the way that people have given back to me. And as we grow older, you know, sometimes it's just not great to grow older. Cause you start being exposed to all these biases the others have. And I just feel like, I don't know what happened to us if we arrived at a different time in our country and, um, where people don't seem to be as accepting of and, um, people in differences in that way. So that's why it's so important to me. I also, um, as I've gotten older, I have learn what, you know, terrible sacrifices, um, that from our American soldiers in their families, you know, you, you can't really appreciate those things until you grow older, I think.

Hong Le (21:10):

And you have, uh, if it were your own spouse or if it was your dad or if it was your son that went there and they sacrifice, they fought in this war. And then I know that because they fought in this war and thousands died that I am able to live the life that I am now. So I just feel like as an act of being a human, I can't have my life and not understand how I got this life. And it is composed of many different things and yes, it is also composed of my hard work, but I just feel like that's a small part of it. It also was composed of American acceptance, a willingness to help people around the world, no matter what their situation. And I just can't live with all the blessings that I have and forget things like that. And so, yes, that's what I want people, my students to be able to start their small formulations of what that means,

Shorner-Johnson (22:10):

Recognizing that Hong has extensive experience leading teachers in world music, drumming workshops. I asked Hong about the vulnerability of learning a new musical tradition. She started reflecting on her first remembered attendance at a level three world music drumming workshop.

Hong Le (22:32):

I feel like I was very vulnerable at that point. And really the point in which I started understanding what I was doing that week was the Monday after the workshop was done. And on the Monday after the workshop was done, some of the things that we had taught us, I finally was like, Oh wait, that's all it was in terms of that thing. And I realized it was because I was so high strung at that point about why am I not getting this, this I'm not going to be able to take and to my students two months later. Um, and I had put a lot of pressure on myself to do those things. And so when you're learning something brand new, you should be okay with understanding that you're not, you may not get to that level where you're teaching students exactly. As it was taught to you, you can only teach students only what you understand and you have to have that, um, self awareness and self understanding, but that often doesn't come with out a lot of self reflection and being okay with it.

Hong Le (23:38):

And so in terms of that, since I started teaching world music drumming workshops, because, because I had gone through those, I typically will start a workshop hitting that point right away and asking teachers. I know there's a lot of pressure for you to be here. Your district may have paid for it. You've committed your family money to it. You've just left your kids for a week. Um, you're, you've told everybody you're doing this and they're expecting something when you come back and you're, it's a lot of pressure. So I asked participants on the first day, the first morning, try to release yourself of that pressure and you will learn more. And as soon as I started doing that and um, I found for through feedback with other teachers that they've told me, and as soon as they start releasing it, they can, they can gain more.

Hong Le (24:24):

So the good thing is through most of the world, music drumming, um, things that you'll learn and could do with your students. It's all written down as a point of reference now. So if you just will, I encourage teachers to just kind of release themselves of that responsibility and just learn the music as a musician. And it stays with you. I have kids who come back who are seniors in high school, who walked through the building, um, at the elementary building says, I remember that medium drum part and they start singing it, you know, they're in the building doing something and I, and I hear them doing that. So, um, I definitely think that vulnerability as a student helped me. Um, and that's what I would encourage others to do is just kind of release yourself from that pressure and just take in the music. And then it'll fall

Shorner-Johnson (25:05):

Place. Hung spoke about the psychological and emotional toll on teachers and students from continuously turning music into a competitive venture. The heart of Hong's teaching is centered in community as she uses West African traditions to offer a different way forward.

Hong Le (25:30):

Right. And I, you know, I've had a lot of time to think about this, just working with music, colleagues, not even necessarily related to world music drumming. And I don't know if there's another way to do it, but I really feel that the way we do music kind of eventually puts this pressure on us. So what I'm saying is like, you're in beginning band, let's try out for chairs to see who's the best one. So you're always in competition, even when you don't want to be in competition with someone, they do the assessments and then they put you in chairs, you know, Oh, who's going to be principal. Who's going to be this, Oh, I'm way on the third. And so you're always put in a place in music and that has, I feel like a psychological effect and a social, emotional effect to the idea of being together.

Hong Le (26:20):

So, um, what I mean is, you know, I love music teachers. I love my colleagues, but there's an idea of outdoing each other all the time. That's just kind of prevalent in the wide music education and performance culture. And when you think about it, we started our lives this way. And, um, over time, I don't know, you know, you, you have to learn to discard it and you can't blame others who are still in that because we'd kind of do that to people where, as I feel like music from Ghana, um, one thing that I've learned with SOA and playing that music is that everybody has to has a place somewhere in no part is more important. Any other part, and a lot of people come in wanting to play the drum parts. That's like all I want to do. I don't want to touch any of the instruments, which in our lingo, we call accessory instruments, but in their lingo, every instrument is X. You cannot exist without the other one, they're all intertwined. So the idea of community and music, I just really resonate with, um, with music from Ghana and that I feel is it teaches you the right principles. Um, whereas I feel like in our culture, we've just set kids up to compare themselves to each other. And it's something to think about

Shorner-Johnson (27:39):

Special, thanks to Hong Lee for her time and talking about her experience in world music drumming and her love for community teachers. As we collectively face the uncertainties and fears of teaching and a coronavirus pandemic, I offer you this blessing taken from Hong's words, amidst speed, anxiety, uncertainty, hate anger, fear, loneliness, isolation, and disconnection. May the hospitality of our presence pull from the most profound parts of our American history of generous hospitality in Arkansas or of joyful gatherings in neighborhood called a Sachs may. Our shared gift of music, be a gift of community, voice, belonging, and identity, sounding joy and laughter into the beauty of our being. This is the music and peace building podcast hosted by Kevin showrunner Johnson at Elizabeth town college, we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peace, building thinking deeply. We reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music, peace,

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