Brianna Slattery’s always loved rhythm. “I first picked up a Djembe drum when I was about 18 and found it to be really therapeutic, I just loved the tactile experience of drumming, it was something I did for myself. I’d go to the park and drum without really knowing what I was doing so I joined a Samba style drumming group which was my introduction to drumming within a community.”
“I became aware of how particularly powerful rhythm is in bringing people together and I felt the strength of the connections I was building with everyone I was playing with. Even though we were a really diverse group we became a tight knit community around our common goal of creating and sharing these amazing rhythms.”
Brianna trained as a teacher and began utilising the drum as her primary instrument for teaching music in the classroom. She discovered this was a highly effective way to engage the students, particularly those whose attention was more challenging to maintain. Then, around five years ago, moving over the border from New South Wales into North Eastern Victoria, Brianna returned to uni to study a Master’s in Education, culminating in her writing a thesis based on her observations from her teaching experience.
“It was really fascinating looking at it all through the lens of the context of drumming, particularly the West African drumming style and it gave me some ideas which led to me developing a Drumming for Student Engagement Strategy which I now implement in schools.”
Using rhythm analogies to teach engagement skills is a key component of Brianna’s business, In the Groove, which she established in 2017 as a way to combine all of her passions and turn them into bread and butter. “Accessibility is key to the appeal of drumming, you pick it up, you play it! For kids who struggle with learning there is instant gratification and reward to discovering that drumming is something they can immediately do. Success drives this motivation and they’re immediately engaged. When you’re engaged in something you learn stuff about yourself as a learner that can then be applied to other areas of your learning and life as well.”
“In working with students and teachers, I’m able to incorporate other analogies such as building perseverance or working cooperatively with others; becoming confident in ourselves and exploring these things through the music.”
In addition to a strong educational focus, In the Groove is about working within the community space. Brianna set up a community drumming class in Wangaratta, teaching West African rhythms she’d learnt travelling in Ghana and through her close affiliation with African Drumming in Melbourne. “In West Africa, the role of music is born out of social purpose; when you hear a rhythm or a drumming piece it’s marking a social occasion or event and there’s a whole heap of meanings and learnings tied to that. I think because of this it comes together in a way that’s quite complex, very much like society is! The music is polyrhythmic, you have many different paths all coming together and playing an important role and so the very structure of the music is a really great way to bring people together….
In fact, the beauty of this West African music and these drumming rhythms is you can’t play them properly on your own. You actually need a community of people to play all of the musical parts and to bring the right kind of energy for the music to actually work! It works around synchronicity and all of the parts bouncing off each other.”
“I started teaching these community classes which were very, very small in the beginning and they’ve grown over time. I now offer them in a number of different towns and there’s always some kind of a social agenda or outcome behind what I’m doing. Repetition is a really important aspect to the structure of each group and so is teaching people to really listen to each other. We have people from all different backgrounds and all different ages who come together to learn this musical style and so there’s the building of community around that as well.”
Often, when people head along to their first class, the most common feeling they’ll bring is the worry they lack rhythm. “They’ll tell me they’ve had a flier on their fridge for aaages but their greatest concern which has kept them away is that they’re not musical enough to be doing this activity. I say to them ‘we’ve all got rhythm, we all have a beating heart; anything that we do, any task that’s repetitive whether it’s chopping wood or filing papers or something like that, is rhythm, there’s rhythm everywhere in our world so we’ve all got it, just some of us are tapped into it more than others’.”
In addition to running paid classes and programs in schools, In the Groove gives back to the community by creating free opportunities for people to come together and connect. “At least once a month we jam somewhere in one of the towns where we run the classes, it might be at a local market or a fundraising event or it might just be that we decide to drum in the park. The aim is simply to bring the community together.”
Jams are led by members of In the Groove’s community who keep the music flowing and are structured so that musically they sound great. Brianna takes along spare drums to offer anyone able and willing to join in. “People can enter into the rhythm on any level they like, sometimes we sing a few songs too, it’s just about having fun!” In the Groove drummers also volunteer time to share their music at local aged care homes and retirement facilities.
“It’s brilliant, sometimes you just see people come to life as the music brings a whole energy change to the room.
Education, engagement, community and well-being are core values of In the Groove; they’re also the factors for driving and maintaining Brianna’s motivation and passion in her work.
“I’ve seen ways in which this musical form, this musical style can really serve different needs within the community and I’m really passionate about creating more opportunities for connection. I think we’re becoming really disconnected with our dependence on technology and it becomes very easy to become isolated and pretend to be connected when you’re not really. Music is a wonderful thing for bringing people together in working for a common goal and interacting in person with each other within that context. The underlying theme of it all is connection. Connection with knowledge, connection with yourself and connection with the people around you. The lovely thing about these classes is that they’re accessible and open to anyone, the sense of connection is huge.”
Building a business based on passion is not without challenge for Brianna and there are aspects of it she finds tricky to juggle as a community-minded musician and educator: “I want to continue to offer free opportunities for people to come together and share the music and explore and experience the benefits that brings, but at the same time it’s my livelihood and I’m relying on it as a way to generate my income. I have to remind myself that these are things I also need to offer through my business.”
When I started In the Groove it operated as an aside to my work but now it’s my main source of income. I’ve got all these ideas about ways I could be working with different social groups and connecting across different demographics using music outside of the classes, but in order to do so would require a large investment of my time and resources so although it’s something I want to be available for free to the community it needs to be something I can sustain.”
In spite of this wrangle and because of her passion, Brianna is offering a series of free drum sessions as part of Summer in the Park, a council-led initiative. These are happening in Wangaratta Park on Friday afternoons from January into February, and Brianna describes them as an opportunity for people to ‘finish the working week with a bang.’ “Everything we do is an energy exchange and drumming and rhythm make energy really apparent; you can see it and you can hear it and you can feel it. And you can feel the difference and the impact it makes too.”
Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Brianna Slattery
PHOTOS: Supplied by In The Groove