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School of Music

  • Still Hopes drum circle led by Wendy Valerio

Wellness Comes Full Circle


Under blue skies on a Friday morning in June, 25 residents and staff members from Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community gathered on the facility’s Mansion Porch for a drum circle. Under the leadership of University of South Carolina School of Music Professor of Music Education faculty member Wendy Valerio, participants “rumbled” to familiar songs including “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.”

The faces of residents radiated as they tapped out a rhythm on individual drums and lifted their voices in song. Timid onlookers watched curiously from the perimeter of the circle, drawn in by the sounds of music and laughter.

With Wendy Valerio's enthusiasm, energy and assurance all sounds were music, it was a grand morning drumming and singing. 

– Still Hopes resident Jerry Dell Gimarc

The Still Hopes percussionists were not Valerio’s typical students.

Soon after Valerio joined the School of Music in the fall of 1995, she started the Children’s Music Development Center (CMDC), a community outreach program that provides Music Play music engagement for infants-age 5 (now infants-age 3) and their caregivers. CMDC has provided music education for St. Peter’s Catholic Elementary School K-6 (now PK-Grade 6) since 1997 and at the University’s children’s development center.

Joining Valerio at the Still Hopes drum circle was recent School of Music Master of Music Education graduate Robert Spearman. He studied under Valerio during his undergraduate and graduate programs and now teaches early childhood classes with her at St. Peter’s.

“I have taught a range of grades from early childhood up to high school choir, but my real passion is teaching elementary school and reaching out to communities,” says Spearman. 

Together, they have taught children as young as babies.  

“Did you know that the ear fully functions in a typically developing fetus at five months in utero? So, babies hear very clearly. They hear everything like they are underwater. Their ears are working — and they’re listening, which is the most important job of all musicians,” says Valerio.

Still Hope drum circle
Wendy Valerio speaks with Still Hopes residents
Resident learns to "rumble" in a drum circle.

“We believe everyone on Earth is a musician. Only some were meant to get paid for it and some were not!” she jokes.

Valerio believes experiencing the joy of music is essential for all age groups.

“In Spring 2020, I was fortunate to attend two Music for People Music Facilitator Trainings led by Mary Knysh. Music for People’s mantras, such as, ‘There are no wrong notes,’ has freed my approach to music engagement and facilitation among all ages.”

Valerio had an opportunity to reinforce this mantra when contacted by Michelle Rabon, Still Hopes Director of Life Engagement. Rabon says she is always looking for exciting opportunities to keep residents of the independent living community for seniors to stay active — mentally and physically.  

“Events like this drum circle are therapeutic. They are about making social interactions, wellness and joy. For some people, our planned activities are just a reason to get up in the morning,” Rabon explains. “This is important to our residents. It was great to see who came out today.”

Rabon says she looks forward to an ongoing partnership with the School of Music. She won’t have to wait long.

Valerio’s mentor Mary Knysh will be in Columbia, July 18-22 to lead Inclusive Music Circles  a course designed for music educators, music therapists and drum circle facilitators. Valerio hopes to include a drum circle at Still Hopes during the week-long session.

“I think there’ll be a buzz about the drum circle. That’s usually what happens when a group enjoys an event — they spread the word. Then the next time, we have an even bigger level of participation, because so many of our residents have a fear of missing out,” Rabon says.

The discovery of joy in making music together surprised many participants.

“I didn't expect to be delighted by the drum circle. I just wanted to be supportive of the collaboration between the School of Music and Still Hopes. With Wendy Valerio's enthusiasm, energy and assurance all sounds were music, it was a grand morning drumming and singing. I look forward to another session here at Still Hopes,” says Still Hopes resident Jerry Dell Gimarc.

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About the School of Music  

The School of Music at the University of South Carolina seeks to be a model public higher education music school for America by being musically, academically and artistically excellent. We observe this value by hiring only excellent faculty; recruiting and admitting only excellent students; conducting our work in excellent facilities; creating, delivering and partnering with excellent programs at our exceptional university; and by expecting excellence in student achievement. The School of Music exists to transform lives through excellence in music teaching, performance, creative activities, research and service. 

The School of Music’s Spark Music Leadership at Carolina program provided many of the drum circle’s tom drums. This program is just one of many of the school’s programs made possible through annual program support and endowment gifts from our generous donors and sponsors. Your contribution, of any amount, makes an impact on the musical lives of our students. Thank you for keeping the music playing.

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