This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring the use of drumming to help with sensory processing.
You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.
“Brandon can hear the Fed Ex truck coming from miles away,” his mother, Jenny, told me. “He has super hearing. On the flip side, he is easily overstimulated by the noise. It’s good that we live in the country, otherwise he’d probably be screaming all the time. Is this something you can help with?”
“A lot of my clients have sound sensitivities. So, I think I can help,” I said. Brandon’s sound sensitivities remind me of Steven, a child from my study at a public elementary school. Theresa, one of the teachers helping with the study, had warned me that if I played my drum in the small room where I had successfully played for every other kid, Steven would run out of the room screaming. He didn’t. In fact, he was less bothered by sounds after listening to a recording of me playing for two months. So I was confident that I could help Brandon. This is why I was willing to drive forty miles to his home in a tiny town on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin.
I arrived and Brandon was standing on the porch, dancing excitedly on his toes.
“Hi Brandon. Do you like drums?” I asked.
I handed him a case and had him follow me into the house.
We went into the living room and I started to set up my equipment when a plane flew overhead. Brandon’s hands flew up to his ears and he started rocking and groaning. Jenny grabbed him and held him, soothingly. I sat by my drum and watched as Brandon reacted to the sound of the airplane. It was flying low and it took a while for it to get far enough away for Brandon to calm down.
“Does the airplane scare you, Brandon?” I asked.
He looked at me and didn’t say a word, though I thought I detected a slight nod.
“The planes don’t come very often,” Jenny told me. “There is a small light aircraft terminal a few miles from here and sometimes a plane will land or take off over us. When it happens Brandon gets anxious.”
“Do any other sounds bother him?” I asked.
“Anything sudden or unexpected will do it. He also hates the vacuum, lawn mower, and hair dryer.”
“How about loud noises? Are they a problem in general or is it only unexpected or droning noises?”
Not all loud noises bother him. He can handle loud music. He actually prefers his music loud. I think it’s mostly sounds that carry on.”
I turned to Brandon. “Do you mind if I play the drum?” I asked.
“Brandon, why don’t you sit down next to Mr. Jeff,” said Jenny.
Brandon came over to me and sat as I started to play. As you might expect, I started slowly and quietly, using mostly muted tones with some soft open tones and bass punches thrown in as I built the volume. I wanted to see how loud I could play before he began getting uncomfortable.
For about five minutes I increased the volume and added slap tones, which are the loudest most piercing sounds this drum can make. By the end of these five minutes, I was playing as loudly and intensely as I ever had. Brandon sat next to me watching my hands hit the drum. He was not bothered in the slightest.
This has been my experience with the live drumming for people who are extremely sound sensitive. In every case, they could tolerate what I was playing and none showed any signs that they were uncomfortable. No covering of their ears, no screaming or crying, no recoiling or shying away.
This is often not the case with a recording of the drumming. If the volume is too loud for someone with a sound sensitivity, he will cover his ears, complain or leave the room. But with the live drumming, this has never happened.
So, knowing that my drumming wouldn’t bother him, I settled down a bit and focused on playing rhythms that I have used for other kids who had similar sound sensitivities. I played a series of rhythms with more subtle differences between the lower and higher notes, creating more of a droning patter. Brandon shifted in his seat. I increase the repetitive nature of the rhythm and Brandon shift again, this time leaning away from me.
More repetition and Brandon stood up and left the room. I increased the volume and, as Brandon brought his hands to his ears, I dropped the volume and played a five beat rhythm heavy on bass tones. These rhythms and textures were in large contrast to what I had been playing. Brandon dropped his hands from his ears.
Next, I switched to a 73-beat rhythm that I played once before when a young girl was covering her ears as a plane flew overhead. This rhythm settled her down. And now, I wanted to see if it would relax Brandon as well. Testing a rhythm this way is what allowed me to develop the databases of rhythms related to symptoms.
After a minute or so with this rhythm, Brandon was next to me again. I eased off on the volume a bit and added a few more muted tones to the pattern. Brandon sat down. I added some more bass tones and played for several minutes before Brandon put his hands on the side of the drum.
It is common for kids to place their hands on the drum when I play a combination of bass and muted tones. The bass is deep and resonant. And it’s inviting. The physical sensations of the drum are palpable. You feel it in your chest.
Brandon held onto the drum as I played for several more minutes. Then I stopped. He continued holding the drum. I tapped out a simple bass pulse and asked if he wanted to join me. His hand slowly moved from the side of the drum to its head. He held his hand on the head as I kept pounding the bass pulse.
Soon he tapped in time with me. I kept the bass pulse going with the right hand and with my left added simple syncopations encouraging him to keep playing with me. We played together for a while before I stopped again. His hand remained on the drum for a minute or so. Then he lifted his hand, got up, and walked out of the room.
Satisfied with the session, I packed up and left. I made a tape for him and sent it to his mother the next day. I also asked her to specifically note how often and how severely he reacted to sounds in his environment.
I checked in with her after four weeks.
“Brandon is much calmer than he used to be. He is less bothered by the lawn mower and vacuum cleaner. The other day I forgot he was in his room when I turned on the vacuum and went down the hall with it. When I had done this in the past he would come screaming out of his room with his hands over his ears and run outside. This time he stayed in his room and kept playing.
“I was surprised because after I finished vacuuming I went into his room to get his dirty laundry and there he was, playing on the floor. I asked if he heard the vacuum and he said he did. I asked, ‘didn’t it bother you?’ and he said, ‘yeah’. I asked why he didn’t leave the room and he said he was busy playing. I was shocked because any other time and he would have been crying and screaming. This is just one example of how he seems much less bothered by the noises that used to drive him crazy.”