Rutland Teacher Fosters Team Building To The Tune Of Steel Drums

Dec 4, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 10:06 am

For employers, team building is considered vital if you want to extract the best out of your workforce. To boost camaraderie, many businesses schedule day trips or special activities like high ropes courses, paintball or mock game shows. But Jennifer Cohen, a long time teacher in Rutland, is using music to enhance team building and communication skills.

“I play a variety of instruments," says Cohen: "piano, viola, violin, steel drums.”

Yeah, steel drums,” she says with a smile.

She learned how to play them during a summer college course and liked them so much she bought a set. When you walk into her living room, the bright silver and blue drums are the first things you notice.

“These two up front are called the lead tenors," explains Cohen. "They usually play the melody are the highest pitched.”

Behind the tenor drums are the doubles, the triple cellos and the set of four, 55-gallon bass drums.

Cohen’s steel drums are the centerpiece of her new business, Calypso Consulting, which she's using to foster creativity and build bonds in businesses, schools, nonprofits, social groups, you name it.

“Bob Marley helping with team building; I know, right?” she laughs.

Making music together is such a fantastic experience, she says, "and steel drums are the perfect instrument for a number of reasons."

“First of all you can make a tone instantly,” says Cohen.

And that’s huge. If you’ve ever picked up a trumpet or clarinet for the first time, you know what she means.

“And they’re appealing," adds Cohen, "because when you say steel drums, people think of a tropical breeze and sitting on a hammock somewhere on the beach. So that’s in my favor; it’s positive.”

And then there’s just the coolness factor.

“Not many people have experience playing the steel drums, so they want to give it a try.”

Even if it’s outside their comfort zone," continues Cohen, "Even if they have no musical background, they sort of want to tap that drum and see what if feels like.”

Earlier this fall, employees at VELCO: Vermont Electric Power Company, got their chance when the utility offered Cohen's workshops as part of an annual company meeting. 

About 15 people attended the first session.  

After introducing herself, Cohen quickly had the group counting out different rhythms. “So, to start out we’ll just tap somewhere on your neck,” she explained softy tapping under her chin.

As laughter erupted, she jokingly corrected the group, “Your own neck not someone else’s.”

Cohen says she starts with rhythm exercises, and watches how participants do to see who might be more nervous about the experience.

“So then when we get to the drums, and I give them their part, I really pay attention to whether or not they’re feeling okay.” 

After spending a few minutes going over notes and patterns on the various drums, people begin to practice with rubber mallets. Within seconds a jumble of pings and deeper bongs fills the air along with plenty of laughter.

Cohen starts a CD and counts out the beat and the group begins to play along to the song "Viva La Vida," by Coldplay. By the third time through, the group is relaxing into their parts and beginning to joke around.

"Hey," one member calls out excitedly, "you can actually recognize the song we're playing."

A drummer next to him laughs and encourages him to take a solo, while Cohen smiles and counts out the beat.

“A few mistakes happen among the group,” admits Cohen, “and then everybody sort of laughs and feels safe.”

“And when one or two of the people who were reluctant are smiling and just playing their part I say, ‘okay, we’ve done some successful growth here.’”

Cohen has provided drumming workshops for local teachers and mental health professionals, for private parties as well as for nonprofits like the Housing Trust of Rutland County.

She sees her mission as bringing groups together to foster creativity, break down barriers and help people experience the fun of making music together.

Ron Silva, a telecom technician at VELCO, described the session as way out of his comfort zone, but admitted he loved it. 

Added co-worker Brody McClure, “You can’t not smile when you play the steel drum.”

Kim Moulton, Chief Compliance Officer at VELCO, nodded. “It’s a little intimidating at first; at least I felt it. But then you get into it and say, ‘Wow I can do this.’”

Pointing to one of the drums she notes how interestingly it’s made, then she laughs. “Course, us engineers are trying to figure out how they were making the music they are, but that aside, we’re having a great time.”

Near the end of the hour-long session, Cohen has them play all their parts together for the calypso song, "Yellow Bird," that they’ve been working on.

By the second verse, everyone in the group is grinning and bending their knees up and down to the beat.

They sound good.

Gina Kelley, Director of Human Performance at VELCO, was the one who hired Cohen for the workshop.

She says employees spent much of the day in seminars focused on retirement benefits, health insurance and pension planning, so they wanted to offer some fun breakout sessions as well. Steel drumming, she said, sounded perfect.

Added Kelley, VELCO asks a lot of it’s employees, "So it’s important to create a work environment that people want to be part of."

“And I think when we offer a few of these other, what I would consider a benefit; steel drumming to me is a benefit; that they appreciate that and then they go back to work in an environment that they feel good about.” 

As the first group handed in their mallets and headed back to work, one joked about forming a band while another called out that he was ready for a rum and pineapple cocktail with a fancy umbrella and might stay for more drumming in the second session.

Kim Moulton said she had to get back to work, but thanking Jennifer Cohen on her way out, Moulton remarked, “Who would have known a bunch of engineers would have sounded go good?"

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