Sunset Primary School, Part 1

Committed to the Arts

By Shane Cadman

It’s All About Vision


The best teachers are the ones with vision. They’re the ones who think, “Is this really the best way to do this?” or, “What more can I do with what I have?” James Compton is a perfect example of this kind of teacher. He teaches at Sunset Primary School in the small town of West Linn, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. Sunset Primary is a K-5 school with a commitment to the arts—all of the students take music classes twice a week.

What’s In Your Bag Of Tricks?

James started as the music specialist at Sunset Primary School in 2002. Like many teachers, he brought a variety of experiences with him, including having taught high-school music in Texas and middle-school music in Las Vegas, as well as experience as a pianist, drummer, and percussionist. While all of this experience plays a role in his teaching elementary-school music, his experience with drums and percussion have proven to be the most valuable.

This Is Learning?

James feels strongly that involving students in rhythmic activities is an easy and essential way to get them making music.

“When it comes to playing with a beat, that’s something that every music teacher needs to get their kids to do, whether they’re four years old or 18 years old. Talk about building blocks—it doesn’t matter what they do in music after this. If they have the fundamentals of beat and rhythm and pulse, it’s huge. When I started teaching elementary music, I immediately started trying to find ways to incorporate drum circles and hand drumming, and all kinds of things.”

He believed that getting the kids engaged in an activity like this would draw them into an environment that would make it fun to learn, and he was right.

A Little Bit Softer Now

Initially, they bought some Tubano drums, but they were too loud. They moved to smaller drums and tambourines, but with class sizes of 26-30 students per class, it was still too much.

“It was hard to listen across. It was hard to do dynamic things. It was just hard to do a lot of things.”

Check Out My New Pad

In an effort to solve the problem of too many live drums, all being played by kids, he started purchasing electronic pads—the Roland PD-8 Dual-Trigger Pad—one by one, until he ended up with six pads. He used them with the Roland TMC-6 Trigger MIDI Converter and ran it through his personal keyboard, using the internal sounds of the keyboard. By doing this, he could individually control what sounds the students heard, and also be able to adjust note velocities so they could all play at the same dynamic level.

Yes, I Love Technology

Fortunately, in addition to his traditional training, James has always been a tech/synthesizer guy and computer musician. In fact, he recently finished a Master’s degree in Technology in Education, so as he put it, “It all sort of fell into place.”

Not only did it all come together, in terms of solving problems, but it was a huge hit with the students.

“What we realized is that the kids really enjoyed it because it was so versatile, with all of the sounds we could assign. We even tried some sampling, where we talked into a microphone [to record a voice] and they were able to hit a drum and trigger it back. There were lots of really cool ideas and they really got into it.”

Leave No Child Behind

Solving one problem can often create another one. In this case, James came up with such a great idea that all the students wanted to play the electronic drums. This meant that he had to figure out how to get 24 more drum pads in the classroom. But then, if there were 30 electronic drums to be played, how do you get that many sounds, and how do you control it, and...well, you get the idea.

“When I started this project, I originally figured, ‘Okay, if I had 30 of these drum pads, then everybody could play at the same time. Then we could control the dynamics, the ensemble playing, all those kind of things.’ As soon as I started trying to figure out how to get 30 PD-8 pads to play, it got to be very complicated because then you had to deal with running them all through converters, assigning them all to different sounds. But then the kids can’t hear what they’re doing because it’s all being funneled through the main sound system—they can’t identify their [own] sound. There are all these issues that came up with it. But I was still thinking this was the best way to go because I saw all the possibilities.”

Great things happen from seeing the possibilities...and then making those possibilities realities.

This Feels Like Olympic Training


Having decided that working with 30 drum pads was worth the challenge, James was presented with his first hurdle to get over—buying 24 more pads was going to cost more than a typical primary school music budget had to spare. Being one to look for solutions, he found one in a local organization called “Music and Arts Partners,” which is made up of parents from the community who fundraise for local music programs by doing things such as having concession stands at concerts. He wrote a grant request to them for 24 more drum pads. They approved his request, so now it was time to bring the vision to life.

Right away he discovered the next hurdle. The drum pads were designed to be mounted on a stand for a drum set—not for using 30 of them together in a classroom—so they would need custom stands. Fortunately for James, one of the school parents had a machine shop and said to him, “Tell me how you’re going to mount them and I’ll build the stands.”

Looks Like It’s Time To Contact Roland

When James started looking at clamps for mounting the drum pads onto the custom-built stands, he found that they were all very expensive. He was responsible for coming up with the money for the clamps, so he needed to keep the cost down. After checking out a number of options, he realized that he would have to contact Roland to find a clamp that was affordable, yet durable enough to last in a busy classroom.

Roland Takes It To The Next Level

James wrote a letter to the Music Education department at Roland and then followed up with an email to Roland Music Education Specialist Bill Erlandson. Bill got back to James, and once he realized what his needs were, told him, “Our drum guy Tim will be contacting you today.”

“Sure enough, Tim [‘Texas’ Tim Root, Roland Percussion Specialist] called me within a couple of hours and said, ‘Tell me what you’re doing. Let’s talk about your different options here.’ So he listened to my whole story and then he said, ‘You’re really trying to do this in a very difficult manner. There’s a much easier way to do it, and that’s the RMP-5.’”

“And I was familiar with the RMP-5 but had dismissed it because of the cost. So I said, ‘Tim, that’s a fantastic pad, but it’s just not going to work [because of the cost]. So let’s just try to find a clamp idea and see if I can just do what I’m already doing. And he said, ‘Hold on. Let me talk to some people and I’ll call you back.’”

“And that’s when he called back a little while later and said, ‘We would like to offer you this deal because we’re excited about what you’re doing, and we would like to use your testimonial and use your school as an example of what’s possible in elementary education.’”

The Gift Of Vision And Sound

When talking about how all of this came about, James struggled in finding the words. “All I was trying to do when I wrote the letter…I never even imagined that Roland would offer me the amazing deal that they offered.”

James had the vision and Roland had the solution. While it was going to cost a bit more than the original plan, the benefits greatly outweighed the cost, and Roland’s commitment to music education and its desire to work with educators made this attainable. The principal of Sunset Primary was also committed to the project and agreed to cover the money for the cost of the drums while the fundraising was taking place. Needless to say, everybody involved rose to the occasion, and the money was raised for the RMP-5s, which arrived at Sunset Primary in late Spring.

Slow Down For The Curve

When the RMP-5s arrived, Roland Product Specialist Mike Snyder came and spent the day with James going over the instrument and showing him basic playing techniques on it.

Because they arrived late in the school year, James was only able to use the RMP-5s with the students for a few weeks. However, some of the learning curve has been mastered and some lessons have been learned.

“It was all about learning how to go through the menus, learning how to do the accuracy score game on our own, which was really important. It was really good for me to teach that to them, so they’ll know that going into the Fall. But in the Fall I really want to do some ensemble playing because that’s what the whole project was designed to do, was to also play as an ensemble, and also to perform as an ensemble.”

Do You Need A Kid’s Menu?

When James was using the PD-8s through his keyboard, he had control over everything. The RMP-5s have an LCD menu on each drum, so each student has individual control, which means that they have to learn how to use it.

“They caught onto it fairly well. They’re so tech-savvy. I think when we hit the ground running in September, they’ll be able to fly through it just fine.”

This Isn’t All Fun And Games. Or Is It?

“One surprising thing is that they were able to activate the accuracy score game, and they really enjoyed that. I thought it would be too hard for them to understand, but they jumped on that and were really trying to one-up themselves all the time. They were saying, ‘I got a 76%. Let’s see if I can get even higher.’ That’s a neat game feature that is attractive to this level of student, because any time that they can sense that there’s a game, or that they’re able to get a score and get better, they’re going to enjoy that.”

Of course, like all games, sometimes things can get a bit too competitive.

“I have to make sure that they all understand that it’s not a game where you’re trying to beat the person next to you. You’re trying to measure your own accuracy.”

Sounds Like Pre-Teen Spirit

Of course, we have to remember that we’re still talking about musical instruments here, so at the end of the day it’s all about how they sound. While James already knew about Roland quality, that didn’t mean anything to the students. So, what did they think of the sound of the RMP-5?

“They really like the sounds, they really like the variety, and I think that they are starting to get ideas of how to use these in a live performance. They get the idea behind how the sounds can blend and mix in with our existing CD backing tracks or other instruments.”

This is exciting! The students are not just playing their instruments—they’re actually thinking about sound, orchestration, and live performance. And they have a good reason to, as these RMP-5s are not just for the classroom.

“Every single grade level will use these on the stage as part of their bigger concert, with singing and instruments and all kinds of things.”

How Deep Is This?


While he only had a few weeks to work with the RMP-5s, in many ways that turned out to be a good thing.

“I just barely dipped my toe into the water of what’s possible, and I’m really glad that I did that because now I have the whole summer to plan and think about how to maximize these with all levels. September is really going to be the testing ground for how we use them.”

Think About The Future

September will be the testing ground, but James has some exciting plans for the coming year.

“We’ve got some extra money, so we’re going to buy some cymbal pads so we can actually do some back-and-forth things with two sounds. My next move will be to implement these in the show and show the audience that, ‘This is what you contributed to. This is one of the ways that we’re using them,’ because they often don’t get the chance to find out what we’re doing in the classroom itself.”

He also has plans to share what he is doing with other teachers.

“That’s what so great—they’re so portable. I want to be able to take my kids and go someplace, to another school or school district, and say, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. Look at what these kids can do. Look at how excited they are. Look at the possibilities.’”

Roland is so excited about the work that James is doing at Sunset Primary that we plan on catching up with him in the Fall of 2010, and again in the Spring of 2011, after he has put on his Spring concert. We have no doubt that more excitement is ahead for him, as well as for the students.

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