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Helping students hear the beat

Jason Chuong at the White House

Jay Chuong was part of a special group of teachers who participated in an event at the White House to support the Jobs Act in 2011. White House photo/Pete Souza. 

In Philadelphia, Jason "Jay" Chuong teaches his students to follow the beat of a different drummer. He does this through bucket drumming—a creative and economical way to give percussion lessons to third- through 12th-graders in the city’s public schools.

Each week, Chuong stacks plastic buckets from Home Depot in the back seat of his car and drives to Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, Franklin Learning Center, Warren G. Harding Middle School, Thurgood Marshall School, Duckrey Tanner School, Carnell Middle Years Academy and Abraham Lincoln High School. He works with more than 175 students, mostly teaching them how to play drums on the buckets, which are less expensive than drum sets the cash-strapped school system can’t afford. Chuong runs the entire music program in some schools and teaches students how to play band instruments, including clarinet, flute, trumpet, trombone, and saxophone. But drumming is his passion, and Chuong has found a unique way to share it with his students.

"The idea is to try to meet the kids halfway," says the third-year teacher. Many of his students listen to pop music and hip hop, so Chuong decided to teach musical elements such as harmony, form and improvisation through an alternative drumming method that would engage students yet still allow them to meet the national standards of music education.

Philadelphia Music Teacher Jay Chuong talks about schools, music education, and the American Jobs Act.

Chuong got the idea from his alma mater, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he earned an undergraduate degree in jazz performance and a master’s degree in music education. In college, he participated in Rumble, a student bucket-drumming ensemble. All kinds of musical artists and dancers participated in the group, not just trained drummers. "The biggest thing I realized was how accessible playing on a bucket was to someone who’s not a drummer," Chuong says. So when he decided to become a teacher, as he puts it, "to give back to the people of Philadelphia," he jumped at the idea of using buckets in his percussion lessons.

While he enjoys teaching music, Chuong also takes pride in equipping his students with life skills, not just showing them how to read scales. He wants the kids to learn the value of discipline when they go home and practice, as well as the value of teamwork when they perform in an ensemble.

"He doesn’t just teach to the musician," says Josh Anderson, a fellow music teacher and Chuong’s classmate at the University of the Arts. He teaches to the students to make them better people, Anderson says. "His main goal is to have productive, successful members of society. Music is the way that he’s doing it. Music is the vehicle."  [Video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]