Different Drummer Book Excerpt #4

You can read the previous post here

Chapter 2, Part 2

Four weeks later, I arrived at the school nervous. I hadn’t talked to the psychologist or the teachers since I dropped off the tapes so I had no idea how the kids were doing or whether these recordings were having any impact.

Karl wasn’t able to be at the school when I conducted my four-week check-in, so we talked briefly on the phone before I interviewed the teachers and aids and met with each of the kids. Karl told me that he felt the autism classrooms were much calmer than before the kids started listening to their tapes. He also said he thought the tapes were having an overall positive effect on the kids. There were, however, some issues with teacher compliance.

“Very few of the children listened with the frequency that we planned,” he said, preparing me for what I would soon discover from the teachers.

“What do you mean? How often did the kids listen? What a mess,” I replied, clearly bothered, felling my study was ruined.

“Everyone listened a different number of times over the last four weeks.” He replied. After a short pause, “I know this seems like a problem, but we’re still going to learn a lot from this study. It’s rare that a study of this sort goes exactly to plan. And it’s often in the unforeseen that we learn the most.”

I’m silent. I’m trying to process this new information and thinking I should have been at the school everyday to make sure the tapes were played the way I wanted them to be played.

“You couldn’t have been there everyday, you know that. It would have been too disruptive to the classrooms,” Karl said, reading my mind. “Just go in, talk to the staff, check in on the kids, and try not to worry. We’ll make sense of the data when it’s all collected.”

“I guess,” I said still trying to come to terms with how my study got sidetracked. I had never done a study before so I didn’t know if Karl was telling the truth or whether he was just trying to make me feel better.

I stopped worrying about this when I arrived at the school for my check-in, surprised and gratified by the enthusiasm of the teachers and aids when I talked with them about their experiences the first month. They all felt that the tapes were having a positive effect and they described many instances where the music had made a big impact.

From a cursory glance at the tracking forms it was clear that most kids were calmed when their recordings were turned on. I was encouraged by what I was hearing, but I was deeply touched when I met with the kids.

Nina was my first stop. She was sitting quietly in a private study room with her aid, listening to her REI recording. I observed her for several minutes while she worked and she stayed on task. I talked with her teacher and she mentioned that Nina was more compliant and less anxious than before starting REI. She did mention that Nina still got anxious and became disruptive and sometimes aggressive during the day, most often right after lunch.

The teacher said she felt that the transition from the unstructured lunchtime to the more structured afternoon class time seemed to be particularly problematic for Nina. Because of this observation, the staff developed the practice of playing Nina’s REI recording a second time after lunch to help with this transition.

According to the tracking notes from her teacher and aid, Nina was calmed every time the recording was played. This calming effect generally appeared within 4-5 minutes of turning on the recording, though it was often sooner. They reported that many times Nina stopped her disruptive or anxious behavior almost immediately upon hearing the recording begin. It seemed that Nina often fell asleep during the recording, speaking to the toll that the anxiety was having on her.

It also appeared that listening to her tape twice a day was having an overall positive effect on Nina’s behavior. She was less aggressive, more compliant to requests and directions, and was able to attend to tasks better.

My next stop was Lucas. This morning Lucas was uncharacteristically quiet, hardly talking to me at all. He sat in his chair and ringed his hands together while staring into space. His teacher told me that he had been having a hard time since his father moved out of the house two weeks into the study. She described that he had been arriving at school agitated, so they started playing his REI recording as soon as he got to school in the morning.

The tracking form showed that Lucas was calming down to the recording as it played nearly all the time (92%). This calming effect generally lasted through lunchtime. The teacher also noted that Lucas seemed to like listening to his recording and often commented on it.

Because Lucas was so quiet and was engaging in this hand ringing self-stimulatory behavior, I decided to grab a drum and play for him a bit. I started with a rhythm that I often use for people who are stimming. This rhythm contains complex accent patterns in a time signature of 21/16.

Lucas glanced at me as I started playing, and over the course of 3 minutes he stopped ringing his hands and came over to me as I played. I switched rhythms to a loping Brazilian Samba-type pattern (this REI version consists of a 4 bar phrase of a pattern played in a 15/16 time signature). Lucas put his hands on the side of the drum and held it as I played.

As I progressed through several other rhythms, he sat down next to his teacher and quietly listened. This continued for about 4 minutes until I stopped. At that point Lucas came over to me and started talking. He was telling me about a game he liked – what it was and how it was played. This monologue continued as I walked with him back to his classroom.

When I arrived with Lucas to his classroom, Sammy came up to me and gave me a hug. She stood next to me and smiled as her teacher told me that Sammy “loved” her recording and asked to listen to it a couple of times a day.

I noticed that Sammy was holding her tape and said as much to her teacher. Her teacher nodded and remarked that Sammy often carried her tape around with her during the day.

Sammy’s tracking log showed that she was always calmed by the recording and often seemed “lighter” or “happier” after listening to it. The staff reported that Sammy seemed to be coming out of her shell and was beginning to engage more with the staff. She still had no interest in the other children, though.

I played for Sammy a little and she again smiled when I began playing. At one point I played really quietly and asked her if she would like to join me. The teacher led her over to the drum and she stood quietly in front of it for a minute or so, then put her hands on the edge of the rim as I played.

I played for several minutes while she stood holding the instrument. Even with very complex, intense rhythms and, at one point, an especially loud passage, Sammy stood and smiled. I should note that drums such as the Gonga I play can exceed 140 decibels at this close range – a volume that can match a loud rock concert, so it’s important to be very careful and to keep passages such as these very short.

Sammy also looked me straight in the eyes for quite a while as I played, eye contact that I was told was very unusual for her. Once I stopped, she averted her gaze and let go of the drum. She continued to smile, though, as she left the room.

Tom showed up as Sammy was leaving, so I had the chance to play for him again. His response to my playing was similar to his first session – he wasn’t bothered by the rhythms, tones, or volume of the drum, even with his sensitivities to sound. In fact, he seemed more engaged than the first live session, evidenced by his sitting quietly and watching me the entire time rather than his stopping me playing.

His teacher reported that Tom had fewer aggressive incidents since starting his recording and the incidents he had were significantly less severe. His tracking log showed that he was calmed 98% of the time as it played. His tape was damaged by another student the day before my visit, so I had to make him a new one. Because of this, he missed three days in a row and listened to another subject’s recording for these past three days. He was still being calmed by the other student’s recording.

Next, I went to see Marcus. He was in the middle of working with his aid so I didn’t get a chance to play for him. His teacher and I talked as I watched him work.

“Marcus doesn’t really like his tape. It rarely calms him,” said Therese, his teacher.

“Hmm,” I said, thinking.

Before I can say anything Therese said “But there something that we noticed. I’m not sure what it means, but he seems to calm whenever we play Tom’s tape. Do you think one tape could be calming another not?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I suppose,’ I said. “Let’s test this. I’ll make a copy of Tom’s tape that you can play for Marcus and we’ll see if there is a difference in his response.”

“Okay, I’ll have Angela play Tom’s tape until then.”

“Actually, let’s not. Has Angela been the person playing his tape and tracking his response?”

“Yes. Marcus does well with her.”

“I think it would be interesting if Angela doesn’t know that we changed the tape. Let’s tell her that the tape was damaged and that I’ll bring a copy in tomorrow. This way she won’t expect a different response than she’s been getting. If Marcus is calmed more or less this upcoming four weeks, we might learn something interesting.”

So, that’s what we did. After meeting with more kinds in the study I ended my day with Steven, the first child I played for at the start of the study.

When I entered his classroom, Steven was in a corner with his aid rocking and covering his ears.

“Could you turn on Steven’s tape?” I asked his teacher.

“Sure,” she said as she put it in the tape player and moved the player to a table near Steven.

She stepped back and we stood and watched. So far Steven had not noticed me because he was facing his aid with hands on ears and rocking back and forth. His teacher and I watched as Steven shifted his gaze to the tape player. Stilling holding his ears, his rocking became less chaotic, seeming to synchronize slightly to the pulse of the rhythms filling the room. Other kids in the room gravitated toward to tape player, some looking that way and others moving in its direction.

Steven’s rocking subsided after about a minute and his hands came away from his ears. Less than a minute later he was settled into a chair in front of the tape player listening intently.

“He almost always gets like this when his tape is played’, his aid said.

His teacher handed me his tracking forms and, sure enough, Steven was calmed most of the time by his tape. Seeing firsthand how the tape calmed Steven put this study into perspective, a perspective I hadn’t imagined before. I was used to seeing people calm as I played, but I had not seen firsthand what a recording of my music would do for such a diverse group of kids, especially as I looked around the room and saw that nearly everyone had calmed. Many children were also tuned into the music, either looking at the tape player or moving in time with the drumming.

This was a great way to end my day so I left and stayed out of everyone’s way for four weeks, trusting that whatever data we collected would be enough to show me something about how my drumming may help these types of kids.

At my next check-in eight weeks into the study, I was gratified by the enthusiasm of the students and staff. As I did at my four-week evaluation, I wanted to see each kid and talk to each teacher and aid to get a more complete picture of their experiences than I would by simply looking over the various forms that Karl and I would collect.

I met Nina first since she was my star student at the four-week point. Nina was alone, calmly working on her schoolwork with her aid when I arrived. They were in a separate room from the other students like they had been at the four-week point. The aid reported that Nina had listened to the REI recording approximately 2 hours previously and that Nina had been calm since then. Her aid mentioned that she came to school agitated and was immediately brought to this room to listen to her REI recording. She was calm after about 10 minutes of listening to her recording.

Nina’s tracking notes related that she was still calming to the REI recording every time it was played. Overall, Nina responded very well to her tape. Besides being calmed as it played, she showed some obvious changes in her behavior in general. Her teacher and aid both described that Nina was less aggressive toward staff and other students, she was more able to control her impulses, and was easier to direct and redirect if she was acting out than before starting REI.

Of all the children in this study, Nina showed the most significant change. She also heard the recording more frequently than the other participants, averaging 10 listening times per week.

Lucas was my second stop. His teacher described that Lucas “has been able to better express a variety of feelings as well as use quiet times to calm himself during anxiety. We also noticed an increase in group participation.”

His rate of immediate calming for the second part of the study was still above 90% and his overall change was significant in several areas: his anxiety dropped 25%, aggressive behavior dropped 30%, his memory increased 35%, and his ability to listen and follow directions increased 60%.

I was looking forward to seeing Sammy again, especially after getting a nice hug from her last time I saw her (it’s nice to be appreciated). As I expected, Sammy was consistently calmed by her tape.

Her teacher told me that, “she loves listening to her tape. Aside from being calm, we have seen increased eye contact, less refusals and shorter latency to respond to requests.”

According to the exit assessment, Sammy also showed improvements in motor control (coordination), eye contact, and social engagement. These were all good things to hear, but the best part was that Sammy approached me and asked if she could keep her tape.

I said she could. And she smiled and gave me another hug.

Next I checked in on Tom. His teacher and Karl, the psychologist, reported that Tom was noticeably calmer overall and that he was still calmed nearly all the time when the recording played. He showed significant improvement in several areas including, anxiety reducing by 45%, sensitivity to sound reduced by 40% both for the intensity and frequency of his reaction to offending sounds, and his frequency and intensity of aggression dropped by 45%.

Of course, this was followed by my meeting with Marcus’ teacher and aid.

“Marcus did better with his new tape,” Therese reported. “Take a look at Angela’s notes.”

“Wow, it looks like he is being calmed by Tom’s tape twice as often as he was by his own.”

Karl over heard this and said, “So, Marcus was calmed more by Tom’s tape than he was his own?” asked Karl.

Yes,” I said. “The drum was the same. The recording process was the same. The tempo and the pitch were the same. The only difference between Marcus’ tape and Tom’s were the particular rhythms.

“This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over again,” I explained. “One rhythm may be calming. Another may stop a stimming behavior. And another may engage and get someone moving.”

From analyzing the two tapes, Tom’s had more odd groupings. “Remember during the initial session when I played that pattern in 13, then Tom sat down after circling the room? I put that and some similar rhythms on his tape. For Marcus, he was calm to begin with so I never played anything like that. Because he was so withdrawn I played a lot of triple feel rhythms. Those ended up on his tape. And he didn’t like them when he was anxious. They weren’t calming for him. Whereas the odd meter rhythms were,” I said thinking out loud. “There seems to some importance to the specific rhythms that matters.”

“My teacher, Lloyd used to talk about this specificity. He said that each rhythm has a purpose and knowing what to play when was the key to having success with the drumming.”

“This actually goes back to the origins of using drumming in ceremony where each rhythm is tied to a specific spirit, or Orisha as they’re called in Africa,” I added. “I saw this years ago when studying ceremonial rhythm-healing techniques. The key to the traditions was the connection to the spirits. And it is through these connections with the spirits that the ceremonies successfully changed a believer’s behaviors.”

My studies with Lloyd included both the ceremonial and the clinical. We played for his church and we played for individuals, like Ty, who had behavioral issues that he felt could be helped by the drumming. I was intrigued by the one-on-one drumming but very uncomfortable with the ceremonies. So, as I was witnessing Lloyd playing for people I tried to filter what I was seeing through my belief system, which didn’t include the concept of spirits having anything to do with behavior.

I needed to find another explanation, which was one of the reasons why I was conducting this study with Karl and working so hard to explore and document the effects of the drumming and rhythms. As it turns out, it was good that I did this because many people I shared this approach with had the same concerns about the spirits as I had.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter 3 here