The Rhythm Project is a world percussion ensemble dedicated to the nurturing of self-esteem through individual and cooperative achievement. Founded in 1996, the program was started in Portsmouth, VA by the Virginia Arts Festival. There are four elementary and middle school Rhythm Project groups that feed the program’s premiere performing ensemble, the All-Stars. The All-Stars is a year-round program, for high school students that focuses on instilling discipline and dedication in students through performance and touring opportunities. Two high school groups, in addition to the All-Stars, serving the cities of Norfolk, and Virginia Beach completes the family of Rhythm Project ensembles.
The All-Stars, 2009, and 2010 PANorama Caribbean Music Fest grand champions have earned international acclaim with their high energy performances over the years. They have opened for Gladys Knight, collaborated with the Girl’s Choir of Harlem, and performed at the Royal Nova Scotia and Virginia International Tattoos.
I sat down with Dave Longfellow and Paul Munzenrider, the co-directors of the project, and chatted about how it all started and where they are going next.
When did the Rhythm Project start and what is the tie-in with the Virginia Arts Festival?
The Rhythm Project started in 1996 as an educational program to work with kids at risk and essentially give them success through music that they can carry with them through their entire lives. VAF, in conjunction with other grants, provided all the resources to cover the costs of the drums, shelving, and other equipment that has nine programs, reaching over 200 years each year. Most of our programs are after school-related, but we are working with a school in downtown Norfolk, of which we are part of their in-school music curriculum. At Tidewater Park Elementary, we work with the current music teacher during the day and get to play with almost the entire 5th grade, between classes on Tuesday and Thursdays.
Basically, any kid in our program can come in without any experience or musical knowledge, and have no financial investment in an instrument, and start playing right away. We don’t want money to be the reason kids aren’t encouraged to play.
How does what you are doing in the schools and using steel drums affect the students in other areas of their lives?
We know that the skills they are learning on the steel drums transfer into other areas of their lives – teamwork and collaboration are a huge component to the steel drums. You can have three kids playing individual parts that only work if they play together. This program helps them to realize they need to work with others, learn to be disciplined, and work collectively to reach their goals – like everyone does to succeed in their lives.
What kind of graduation rate do you have?
Our graduation rate with students in our program is over 99%. Since we started, we have only had one student not graduate. Regardless of the school system, almost all of our kids, with the exception of the one, went on to graduate and enroll in college or join the armed forces.
We really believe that we can help these kids at an early stage and follow them through high school. We know we can be a part of what motivates them in other areas. If they are successful in this, they have the confidence to be a success in other areas.
Why is this program so attainable for the kids?
The average inner-city kid doesn’t relate to the band. We use steel drums and create an environment where any kid can relate and gain instant success. We start with a tune that kids know…something in popular music… and teach them through repetition how to play that song. We really want to get kids engaged and find success really quickly so they will be motivated to keep playing. We don’t start working on teaching to read music until high school so they are comfortable at an early level and continue to play.
We also think it’s important to have the kids play the music that they know. While we do play some well-known pieces eventually, we focus on pop-music so the kids enjoy what they are playing.
We feel alternative music education is incredibly valuable, important, and attainable for kids who look at the status quo as boring.
Talk to me about the All-Stars. Why is this group so important?
The All-Stars is our flagship program for kids from high schools in the area. The students not only audition to be in the Rhythm Project but also audition for individual shows. They team up with The Governor’s School For The Arts for a once a year performance for the community.
The really cool thing about the All-Stars is that students from all over Hampton Roads come and see the group live and get to see what other kids are doing. This encourages them to get involved and shows them that they can do stuff like this too. The cast is completely made up of the students from the schools – both with the musical players – the All-Stars and the dancers – The Governor’s School For The Arts students.
Do you see some rock-stars or upcoming artists in the community from your programs?
Definitely – we have followed these kids from elementary school through high school.
When do the All-Stars perform?
Our performance to the public usually happens in the month of February to tie-in with black history month. Due to the snow, it was pushed back to March. The All-Stars will perform at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk on Friday, March 27th at 7:30. You can get tickets through VAF online or call as well.
The show delivers the story of Trinidad steel pan and calypso in a really interesting way. The combination of narration is based on historical facts, with color, movement ad sound. The show really tells the story of how the steel drums came to be. And many of our kids relate to this story – a young culture that rebelled and created new instruments because they didn’t have anything else. We use the show to connect with kids and show them what they can do when everything is taken away. They can still make something great.
Interview/article written for WHRO Public Media & The Scene.