Artist teaches culture through world music at Howard schools

Tim Gregory is fond of telling schoolchildren that his music career began while playing his mother's pots and pans with pencils as a kid. It's a testament to his credo that "everything is a potential instrument."

Gregory not only encourages playing with sticks and spoons, he shows how people from foreign lands have made them art forms. He teaches welcoming songs and games from abroad, particularly East Africa. And he encourages children to see similarities between conventional musical instruments and the didgeridoo from Australia, the thumb piano from Tanzania, the kemenche — a Turkish bow instrument that he's learning to play — and others.

Gregory, founder and director of Nada Brahma Productions, a company that teaches students world music, recently completed a weeklong residency at Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge, leading workshops for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. It was one of three residencies he has slated in Howard County schools.

The other two stints will be at Lisbon Elementary School in Woodbine, beginning Jan. 30, and Bryant Woods Elementary School in Columbia, beginning Feb. 6. He also has residencies planned in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

"I tell them, 'If you can play the recorder, there are hundreds of instruments you can play. Other instruments work like the recorder, but they might be the Native American flute or the suling from Indonesia or the Irish tin whistle,'" said Gregory, 48, who added that he aims to instill in young people the fascination for world instruments he enjoyed while growing up in Randallstown.

"I liked how when cultures use music instruments, it's not always about entertainment," said Gregory, a Washington resident. "That fascinated me even as a kid; whether [instruments] are used for meditation, whether they're used for healing, sound is very important.

"I'm hoping to leave [students] with an experience of music in its place in the world in the many ways it's approached," Gregory said. "I tell kids that the reason I play the didgeridoo is because I play the trumpet. It's the same instrument. It's the same technique."

Eileen Curry, a Rockburn Elementary music teacher, said students there have begun making their own instruments after Gregory's visit.

"Students were fascinated by the interesting sounds they saw and heard on various instruments. The didgeridoo from Australia and the goat's hooves from South America were among their favorite instruments," Curry said.

"Since Tim's week at our school, my kids have been singing his songs … and talking about all the cool things Tim taught them," said Megan Cooperman, the Rockburn PTA cultural arts chairwoman, who facilitated Gregory's residency via a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.

Rockburn Elementary first-grader Emily Huang said that some of Gregory's performances reminded her of music she hears on the Disney Channel show "Lilo and Stitch."

"It was good. He played some cool instruments," said Emily. He father, Joseph Huang, said Emily has repeatedly praised the performance.

Gregory launched Nada Brahma in the early 1990s while working as a maitre d' at a restaurant in Ellicott City and pondering other career venues. He conveyed his passion for playing world instruments to one of the regular patrons at the restaurant, Jim De George, who at the time was principal at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City.

"I suggested to him that he begin to focus attention on international music and that there was an opportunity in the schools for him to perform," said De George, a Fulbright Scholars coordinator at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I invited him to Ellicott Mills and contacted other principals in Howard County, and made a suggestion that they embrace the work that Tim was doing, which was not only playing the musical instruments, but teaching about the instruments," said De George. "He taught about the people who made the instruments, about their purpose, some that sound like a bird, for example. And it really became an international studies type of performance."

Gregory said he embraced the phrase "Nada Brahma" while playing the sitar, a stringed instrument native to India and Pakistan. "Nada" is a Sanskrit word meaning "sound," and "Brahma" is one of Hindu's trilogy of gods.

"'Nada Brahma' is a Sanskrit mantra meaning, 'The world is sound,'" said Gregory. "Everything is a potential instrument. The world is sound to me."

Gregory has taken his passion for world music to such venues as Strathmore, Wolf Trap Chidren's Theatre-in-the-Woods and the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre. He has also worked as an arts-integration facilitator with hopes of incorporating world music into math programs.

But he said his personal goal is to teach people about the cultures that exist beyond American shores.

"Through all my stuff, my personal mission is geography and getting people to know the world," said Gregory. "I'm using music as a vehicle, but ultimately the underlying thing is to show kids that, hey, basically around the world we are a bunch of instruments. Sometimes we look similar and sound similar, and sometimes we look different and sound real different, but we're all instruments."