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Band Teacher Beats a Drum for Student Musicians

Japanese Percussion

By Clint Kelly ( | Photo Courtesy of John Theine

River Ridge High School students playing Taiko drums.
River Ridge High School students enjoy playing Taiko drums at community events.

How does a high school band teacher keep his students engaged?

If you’re John Theine, a 2012 master’s degree recipient in Seattle Pacific University’s curriculum and instruction program, you do as much as you can. You start a jazz program to expand your students’ knowledge and repertoire; you help them get to Disneyland to perform on stage; and you assist those Disney-bound students with fundraisers — lots of car washes.

But if you are John Theine, you are not done. You have taught your students at River Ridge High School in Lacey, Washington, that you will work harder for them than you ask them to work for you. So why not start, say, a Japanese Taiko Drum Ensemble? And if the drums are prohibitively expensive, why not build your own? And if that means having to secure a diversity grant from the school district and scrounge wood from your dad and find construction plans on the Internet … why not?

SPU Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Tracy Williams appreciates Theine’s attention to the big ideas in learning: “John goes above and beyond in ways that are central to stretching his students’ love of music.”

With the help of his brother, but no previous experience, Theine’s first Taiko drum came together in 2007. Students helped build 13 more drums the following summer, small to medium in size. Then came two large drums, with drumheads 63 inches wide and 47 inches wide. An occasional indoor performance venue door frame has to be disassembled to get the big drums in.

Each of the larger drums cost more than $2,000 to build and cost about $10,000 to purchase. The expense was covered by band boosters and school district diversity grants. Community donors covered most of the construction of the other drums, and nearly $5,000 in startup expenses. The ensemble performed 16 times in the past school year as a way of saying thank you for community support.

“Mr. Theine taught me all that I know about drumming,” says senior Shelby Gregory, a violinist in the school orchestra, who as a freshman admittedly took a shot in the dark with Taiko. She has learned the names of the drums, how Taiko, or “fat drum,” developed culturally in Japan and the U.S., and how to read rhythms in music.

Gregory likes that when the ensemble has played somewhere once, they are generally invited back. “Performances are extremely fun, and the audience loves it!” They’ve played at car shows, flag day celebrations, and a dragon boat festival.

For River Ridge special education students in their own weekly class with Theine, Taiko Wednesdays have become a red letter day. It was while taking an online course in teaching kids with special needs for his SPU degree that Theine realized he could “do something incredible” through Taiko.

“Since I had the opportunity and the means, I felt a moral imperative to do this,” says Theine. “Some students would otherwise never get the chance. Musically speaking, special education students are often left behind in high school. This is one of the most rewarding things I do.” For him, teaching is not a job, “it’s a way of life.”