- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

Musician and teacher Nasar Abadey reaches out from the heart literally.Since February, one of the Washington area's master percussionists has been part-time artist in residence at Anacostia's Savoy Elementary School, teaching several dozen fourth- and fifth-graders about rhythms in the universe and how these relate to the music inside their own bodies, starting with the sound of a beating heart.
Sponsored by American Honda Motor Co. in conjunction with Young Audiences Inc., the project, called Dream Lab, is aimed at sparking creativity and stimulating the imagination among children in early grades.
"The other day, we talked about the rhythm box in your body," the tall, colorfully dressed 55-year-old reminds a class at the beginning of a recent session.
Standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by desks, he asks each student to put a hand on his or her chest and feel the steady thump-thump of a heart pumping blood through healthy arteries. The request also mutes the youngsters' restless energy, at least temporarily.
"What do you hear when you walk through the streets that is rhythm?" he asks next, hoping to make the point that "man is in tune with the world even though we appear not to be."
Eager hands go up, and students answer excitedly: "Car horns." "Sirens." "Birds."
"Basketballs," a boy says. Mr. Abadey builds on the observation, reminding the class that "melody is rhythm in motion" by telling them, "You don't get any better rhythm than seeing Michael Jordan going through the air."
The special residency project is set to end in May at Savoy but will be continued for at least two more years at selected schools around the country.
By paying talented professionals to mentor children in lower-income minority communities, sponsors hope Dream Lab will help compensate in some measure for the dwindling local resources devoted to music and arts education in public schools.
"He met them where they were they like loud," says Savoy's music teacher, Helen "Angel" Watson, of Mr. Abadey's impact on the children. One whole wall of her classroom displays everyday items that make sounds, many of which are used in native African instruments. Students showed off their talents in a public concert March 27 called "Dream Lab: Celebrating Our Heritage."
Savoy, like the other five schools chosen nationwide to take part in the initial year, also receives $5,000 from Honda.
Anne R. Evans, Savoy's principal, says half the sum will be used to buy a new piano for the school, and the rest will go toward various student endeavors.
The other cities involved this year are New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio.
Working through 31 local chapters nationwide, Young Audiences Inc. gives public school children exposure to and hands-on experience with arts education by bringing practicing arts professionals into schools on a short-term basis.
Adrienne Francis, interim executive director of the Washington chapter, keeps printed materials handy that explain research showing how such creativity-minded programming influences the academic and social skills of young children.
A two-page summary states that each of the performing arts relates to cognitive capacities and motivations to learn but doesn't say explicitly how that happens. Listening to music, her list states, enhances spatial reasoning; music performance affects "self-concept." Music combined with language learning improves "English skills for [English as a Second Language] learners."
There is no doubt that children's eyes and minds are fully engaged during the session with Mr. Abadey. He only occasionally has to remind them, gently, that he needs their attention.
A drummer and composer who is founder and leader of the music group Supernova, he also has worked with Young Audiences school programs since 1984. He says he sees his job as supporting the school's regular teachers.
When a student told him she didn't like science because "it's boring, not interesting," for example, he reminded her that "every moment of your life is a scientific event that goes on constantly. When you breathe, you take in oxygen and then you exhale carbon dioxide. A plant inhales the carbon dioxide that you exhale and then exhales oxygen."
Plants, in other words, have a rhythm of their own.
The student, he says "agreed that she never had thought about it that way."
The first thing Dream Lab hopes to instill in students' minds, Mr. Abadey says, is learning to work as a unit.
"The second thing," he says, "is to respect each other. When you respect yourself, that starts to lend itself to the person next to you and also to the world to other cultures and what they have to offer.
"Their behavior has been enhanced because they know if they don't act right in class with their regular teachers, they are not able to come to this class," Mr. Abadey says. "I see behavior changes over the past weeks. Teachers have noticed change. The students get the idea of speaking in turn and of being patient."
Mrs. Evans agrees; she says the biggest change has been among the boys, who "don't want to do anything that would keep them from Dream Lab."
At different times during the session, Mr. Abadey instructs his charges in different ways of creating rhythms with their hands and feet, and he demonstrates how they can create their own musical instruments, such as the shakere and berimbau, out of gourds, old rubber tires, beads and string.
He explains each instrument's origin and shows how each item contributes to the sound the instrument makes.
Holding up a tiny rock, he says he found it on the Mall while looking for a pick for the berimbau he played in a concert at the Smithsonian not long ago.
The berimbau is a bowed instrument with a small gourd in the middle. Sound comes from striking the bowed wire with a stick.
"The wires are taken out of the tires," he explains when a student raises his hand to ask how a rubber tire is involved. "What makes it important is a rock. The rock raises the pitch of the berimbau …."
The children clap spontaneously when he finishes.
Chanee Hawkins, a fourth-grader who says she likes music and dance, picks up the knack at once of how to tie and bind the beads onto strings surrounding the shakere gourd. "I have a kit at home," she says.
The Savoy students, like other elementary-age pupils taking part in the Dream Lab program, were introduced to the project through a visit to the Honda-sponsored film playing through Labor Day at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History called "Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey."
As they watched the film go by on the 99-foot-high Imax screen, "you could hear a pin drop," Mrs. Evans says.
A wordless exposition of the compelling nature of mankind's ability to explore sound and rhythm in many forms, the feature traverses many cultures and countries Botswana, Brazil, Japan, Guinea, Spain, South Africa, England, Southwestern United States and New York City led by one of the key members of the Stomp performing group.
The fast-moving global presentation makes an important point, Mr. Abadey notes: "The movie helped them see there is a world outside full of magic they can access."

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