Josh Schneider teaches a Japanese drumming class at Davidson River School in Brevard.

AP photo

Josh Schneider teaches a Japanese drumming class at Davidson River School in Brevard.

School helps students straighten up

By NANCY TANKER

The (Hendersonville) Times-News

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HENDERSONVILLE — To hear Josh Schneider tell it, the art of Taiko, or Japanese drumming, saved his life.

“I was by far the worst-behaved kid” in Brevard Middle and Brevard High schools, said Schneider, who now teaches Taiko at Davidson River School in Brevard.

Despite being the first-chair percussionist in the middle school band, Schneider was bored in band and in middle school, so he started acting out. Things got worse when he moved to high school.

“I was expelled for 365 days — twice,” he said.

Coming to Davidson River School as a student in his teens “was my last chance,” he added. The school helps struggling students get back on their academic feet and earn their diploma at either their home high school or Davidson River.

When Schneider arrived at the school, he heard Taiko drums being played outside his classroom. The booming sounds of the drums renewed his interest in music.

“I wanted to play in the Taiko group but the principal, Miss (Donna) Wilde, wouldn’t let me until I completed 80 hours of community service” at the Rosman dump, he said. The experience gave him time to reflect and “taught me not to mess with Miss Wilde.”

Today, Schneider, 20, is a Davidson River graduate, the school’s current Taiko instructor and happier than he’s been in years. Not only does he have a huge smile on his face as he coaches students on tone and technique, but the class is awash in laughter.

Sophomore Anna Owen said she originally felt “forced” to take Taiko when she came to Davidson River during its summer program two-and-a-half years ago, but now it’s her favorite class.

“Well, maybe I like lunch just a little bit better,” she said with a laugh. Her favorite part of the class is being able to “hit things hard.”

Taiko, which means “big drum” in Japanese, involves the entire body, with a lot of hard-hitting drumming and choreographed movements. The drumsticks, called bachi, are about an inch in circumference and can be up to 2 feet long. The sound the drums create is so loud and percussive that the class has to be held outside in the school parking lot.

“When you first start playing Taiko, your whole body hurts,” said sophomore Jenna Nichols. “I wanted to do it because I thought it would help me get out of my shell, and it did.”

Daihachi Oguchi created Taiko music in Japan after World War II, she added, “but the drums have been around for centuries. They used to play them to create a property line and establish territory.”

Schneider said the drums were also used to intimidate enemies on the battlefield.

At Davidson, the drums have a more peaceful purpose.

“They give the students a feeling of belonging and acceptance and being part of a team,” Wilde said. “Josh does a great job with team collaboration. Students help monitor and encourage each other. In the past, these were the academically not successful kids, and now they are the cool kids teaching other kids to play Taiko.”

Taiko also teaches accountability and self-discipline, Schneider said, adding that “if one drummer is missing, the whole group has to adjust.”

When a student recently had trouble with attendance, Schneider gave her a bigger part so that she had to show up or risk the displeasure of the entire class.

“When other people count on them, it makes a big difference,” he said.

A koi fish is part of the class’s official logo to call to mind an ancient Japanese legend of struggle. “The koi has to swim upstream to mate, so basically it struggles its entire life,” Schneider said.

After swimming up waterfalls and rivers to get to “the top of the mountain, it turns into a dragon. All of that struggle, and the koi turns into a strong dragon.”

Schneider’s students now love Taiko so much that on a recent day, “we were so tired of being inside, we played in the rain,” he said. The group played 19 concerts last year, including kicking off Brevard’s White Squirrel Festival, where they packed the proverbial house, with hundreds of people lining the streets.

As Schneider wrapped up his Wednesday class with a final improvisational jam session, every student was smiling. With the final beat, the group let out a collective “Yeah!”

“I’m so proud of you,” Schneider said.

Looking back at his early academic struggles in life, Schneider says he feels lucky to be sharing Taiko with his students while working toward earning his music education degree at Blue Ridge Community College. He is considering finishing his degree at Brevard College, which has a highly acclaimed music program.

Instead of getting in trouble like he used to, Schneider now finds joy and music surrounding him every day. “Every day, everywhere I go — walking, brushing my teeth, coming to school — I hear rhythms in my head. Taiko will be with me for the rest of my life.”