WATSONVILLE -- Standing at the back of teacher Betty Aboytes' classroom, Norman Peck beat an earsplitting rat-a-tat on his snare drum.
"Whoa!" gasped a student, as heads pivoted to the back of the room.
Peck, principal percussionist with the Santa Cruz County Symphony, had grabbed the attention of the Amesti Elementary School fifth-graders, and he held it for the next 40 minutes as he drummed his way through a lesson that riffed on history, geography and, of course, music.
Peck and his fellow musicians are visiting schools from Boulder Creek to Watsonville this month in advance of four free Symphony performances that will introduce thousands of students to classical music Feb. 25-26 at the Mello Center and at the Civic Auditorium. The outreach effort, part of the Symphony's Youth and Family Education program, aims to ensure students at cash-strapped schools have access to symphonic music.
The program culminates March 3 with "Imagination Takes Flight," a family concert at the Civic.
Peck said his specialty gives him an advantage in the classroom over other musicians.
Percussion, he said, can be "bigger, louder, faster so it's easy to get (students) to participate."
After a brief description of the various instrument families -- strings, woodwinds and brass -- Peck launched into an interactive explanation of percussion instruments. He demonstrated a drum roll on the snare, and asked if anyone would like to try. A dozen
"Good energy," Peck said, as each student took a turn. "The snare drum would be first instrument you'd learn, but it wouldn't be the last."
Then, he was off, taking the students on an around-the-world tour, aimed at showing the universality of percussion, its ancients roots and the way it communicates ideas.
He clicked castanets, tapped a temple block, bonged a tam-tam, a type of gong and clanged cymbals -- softly at first, then louder and louder to the delight of students.
Giving geographic clues, he asked students to identify the countries of each instrument's origin: Spain, Korea, China and Turkey.
Cymbals, he said, were created in Turkey in the days when Egypt was ruled by pharaohs.
But even earlier, Peck said, people found ways to communicate using percussion. He rattled a dried bean pod and a tube holding desiccated butterfly cocoons that produced a soft rhythmic sound.
"What you're listening to now is the music of dead bugs," he said, explaining the cocoons were picked with the caterpillars inside.
Possibly, Peck said, the first drummers were people listening to their heart beat at night, and wanting to communicate the sound to their friends.
"You take the music, the rhythm inside you and share with others," Peck said. "That's what musicians do."
Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS
IF YOU GO
Imagination Takes Flight
WHAT: Family Concert by the Santa Cruz Symphony and Youth Symphony, with Watsonville Taiko Drummers, Santa Cruz Ballet, ZunZun and Linda Arnold
WHEN: 2 p.m. March 3
WHERE: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium
ADMISSION: $10.50 student, $12,49 adult, online at santacruztickets.com