You hear them first — the rhythmic pulsing of more than a dozen drums. And you can’t help but feel the energy. But it’s not until you walk through the door and see the concentration on each student’s face that you truly appreciate the gift Jake Ezzo brings to his classes at South Orange Middle School in South Orange, N.J. Watching him confidently mold a classroom of energetic teens into a cohesive ensemble focused on a compelling rhythmic pattern, it’s hard to believe this is his first year teaching.
While he was a student at Westminster Choir College, Ezzo became something of the College’s resident drummer. Essentially self-taught, he took some African drumming classes and enrolled in a Westminster summer program with Brazilian music educator Lucas Ciavatta, whose O Passo program emphasizes rhythm and movement.
He shared his love of drumming with the campus community, organizing the “Vitamin D” Drumming Circle; teaching at Westminster Conservatory, Westminster’s community music school; and performing with many college ensembles and student groups. Through his study and performance, he observed the effect drumming can have on people, beginning with his younger brother, who has Down Syndrome.
“I could see him connect with the rhythm,” he says. “I sensed the increased focus and peace of mind that it brought to him and to others.”
The opportunity to use his drumming experience in the classroom came along with his first job. After graduating from Westminster in May and traveling to Oxford, England, to sing with the Westminster Williamson Voices in July, Ezzo began looking for a full-time teaching position in August. “I wasn’t hopeful,” he says, given how close it was to the beginning of the school year. But luckily South Orange Middle School was looking for a general music teacher to begin in September, and after interviewing with the principal, he was offered a job teaching sixth, seventh and eighth-grade music and choir.
Music is an elective class for the seventh and eighth grades at his school. Many of the students assigned to his classes were there virtually by default because they hadn’t selected any other elective, so they weren’t terribly enthusiastic about studying music. A few weeks into the school year, Ezzo decided to “take a gamble” and add drumming to some of his classes. At first he brought his own drums for the students to use, since the school didn’t have any.
“My principal, Joe Uglialoro, was super supportive,” he adds. Seeing the students’ enthusiasm about playing, he encouraged Jake to apply for a school district grant to purchase additional drums. It resulted in $1,500 from the district and an additional $500 from a parent.
“For a first-year teacher, Jake has had some of our most challenging students,” says Principal Uglialoro. “He has created a place where they can feel successful, validated and confident.”
Based on the success in his regular classes, Ezzo went on to create an “all-star” drum group called The Pride, composed of hand-selected eighth graders.
“The students in The Pride include some of the most disaffected eighth graders, many of whom are struggling academically and/or behaviorally,” he says. “I picked them because they have fantastic musical ability. But I’m also using drumming as an intervention program to keep them in school, boost their test scores/grades, and give them a place to succeed where they face failure most other places.”
The Pride has performed at school assemblies, and its members ask if they can come to school early and stay late to play. “For them the music room as become a safe haven,” Ezzo says. Reflecting on his first year as a teacher, he adds, “If I can help students find out who they are and what they want to be, then I’ve been successful.”