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GOSHEN -- Ten teens listen attentively as Ben Long demonstrates the strokes used to beat the djembe and the different sounds that resonate depending on where the hand drum is struck.
Then, as they begin to mimic the rhythms Long beats out, their tentative smiles erupt into big grins.
As the session progresses, a few of the bolder teens start beating out their own rhythms. A few add their own rap lyrics. Group members laugh.
The only thing revealing this isn't a typical youth group -- the kind you see at after-school programs, churches and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club -- is the uniform. The bright orange scrub-like outfits scream inmate.
The teens, incarcerated at the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center for crimes ranging from truancy to theft to battery, look forward to the weekly drum circle led by Long and sponsored by the Community School of the Arts at Goshen College.
"It's a good way to get my anger out," said Jane, (not her real name). "If I'm upset, I can beat on a drum and just put it out there."
Jane said drumming, a new experience for her, is also a lot of fun. She particularly enjoys creating her own rhythms and making up rhymes. "It gives me a chance to express how I feel," she explained.
She also gets a kick out of watching the "tough guys" at their first drum circle. "They go into it thinking 'This is so lame,'" she said. "Once they start drumming, they really get into it."
A former inmate, during a follow-up visit to the detention center, said he always looked forward to drum circle nights. "It gave you something to do to distract yourself while you're in here," he said. "It was tight" (that means good).
The drum circle was started at the center about a year ago by musician Francis Miller, an employee.
Fourteen drums were purchased for the center with funds from a Lily Plowshares Grant, administered through Community School of the Arts.
Long, of North Liberty, took over the program in January when Miller moved out of the area.
The former percussionist with the John Glenn High School and Manchester College bands became interested in drum circles after a college study trip to Africa, where he purchased his first djembe.
He now has nine.
He started a drum circle at Manchester and has been drumming at least weekly since. What first drew him to hand drumming was its accessibility.
"Everyone has some sense of rhythm. Everyone can beat a drum," he explained.
"Drumming is a great way to express rhythm and to share experiences. It's a way for people to connect despite the many differences they may have."
That's why he believes the drum circle is beneficial to the detention center teens, who come from diverse backgrounds.
"For some of them, this is their first experience playing a musical instrument," Long said. "For others, it's simply a chance for self-expression, for exploring a side of their creativity they often aren't given a chance to tap into.
"Hopefully, it's fun for them," he continued. "That's my goal."
Long sees leading the drum circle as a way for him to share his skills and give something back to the community. Why the juvenile detention center?
"It seems like a place you can't have too much positive energy and creative expression and empowerment," Long said. "Also, there is an element of healing that can take place."
Pounding on a drum can be therapeutic in terms of reducing anger and stress, agreed detention center staff members. "This is a good, safe way to get out their anger," one said. "It's an emotional release for them. It definitely has positive benefits."
The best thing about hand drumming is that the teens can pursue it anywhere, Long said, explaining you don't even need a real drum to make music. He shows the teens how everyday items, such as chairs, floors and wastepaper baskets can be used as drums.
Cathy, an employee at the center, added the teens have definitely taken that lesson to heart. She recalled a recent walk through the center when the teens were banging on their doors, in perfect unison, to the beat of "We Will Rock You."
"They were awesome," Cathy said.
Long nodded in agreement. "We've had some great jams," he said. "I'm just incredibly impressed by what comes out."
Contact Jodee Shaw at email@example.com