World beat percussionist Tony Vacca spent last week at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry, teaching 3rd and 7th graders some basic lessons in drumming, history, sociology and a whole lot more. A remarkable and
enthusiastic teacher, seeing Tony in action with a group of young students is quite an experience.
Tony Vacca is by any set of standards a world class percussionist - he has performed with an amazing array of great musicians, including Sting, Senegalese Afro-pop star Baaba Maal, jazz trumpeter and World Music legend Don Cherry, poet Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, Senegalese hip-hop stars Gokh-bi System, and Massamba Diop, Senegalese master of the tama or talking drum.
He also happens to be a world class teacher, as anyone who spent a few minutes in any of the classes he taught last week at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry could quickly tell. During his week at the school working with 3rd and 7th graders, Vacca taught enough about percussion for the students to put on an extensive program for the school and parents at the end of the week.
But a class with Vacca teaches you a lot more than how to keep a beat. Vacca's classes are filled with information - from women's rights to social studies to history, geography, medicine and health - all delivered with humor, enthusiasm and erudition. Trim and fit, Vacca doesn't look or act like a man who will soon be 59. He brings a lot of energy to his teaching and his playing, and makes clear to the students that that is the way to approach whatever you are doing. He advises the students that they should not hold anything back when rehearsing, but give 100 percent to every performance.
"The concert is just another chance to play," Vacca said. "You only get to play now, so turn up the volume now! You need to be in the moment, in the now. Play your best every time you play, even when you're not feeling your best."
He also cautioned them to give themselves time to learn, and to really go for it when they practiced. He noted that evolution has prepared us to copy what we see and hear in order to learn it.
"We are the descendants of those who copied to learn," he said. "Don't hurry yourself to learn things that take time. Break things down step-by-step and learn a step at a time."
Vacca then explained how he had been working on a five-part percussion piece that required a different rhythm with both hands and both feet. At first he thought it would be too complex to learn, but then broke it down into five steps and learned them in order. At the end of the week, he'd learned the entire piece. "That piece is what I've been teaching you to play this week," he told the surprised class.
All of this is part of Vacca's belief that music is more than entertainment and musicians are more than just entertainers. Musicians have long used their music as a vehicle for social change, he said.
"Look at how musicians look and what they have to say, the things they talk about," Vacca said. "Musicians tend to be the front dwellers, those on the edge of something new."
The classes included a documentary of Vacca's work in Senegal with some of Africa's greatest percussionists and musicians, a project he's been involved with for many years. It is part of his musical approach to life, perhaps best summed up in his comment, "Learn how to practice your generosity in your music."
It's a philosophy Tony Vacca lives every day.
Vacca's residency was funded by The Green Mountain Festival Series and the Flood Brook Activities Cooperative.