Improving Language and Communication with REI Drumming

DD-Front-cover-25This excerpt explores how listening to REI drumming can facilitate language and improve communication skills.

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I was about ten minutes into my session with Noah when he started humming, softly at first. I thought I was hearing things, so I looked over to his mom, wondering if she was hearing it too. She was smiling and mouthed to me, “did you hear that?”

I nodded as I focused on what I was hearing – unmistakable utterances of a humming passage that seemed to roll through the vowels.

I took note of the rhythm I had been playing for the last couple of minutes. It was a stimulating double tempo thing based on a Swiss drumming rudiment (core techniques based in military drumming) that I learned from a fellow student when I was studying at the Musician’s Institute. This rudiment, nicknamed a flirta, was a quick three beat passage using 32nd notes. I had incorporated this into a shuffling rhythm in the time signature of 41/16. The flirta happened every nine beats and was punctuated by a bass tone.

Using the flirta and bass punches as a motif, I built some other patterns and created an eight bar variation, totaling 328 beats. Then I repeated it and added a sixteen beat flirta crescendo. This passage took 84 seconds to complete at my eight-beat-per-second pace. By the end of it, Noah was making quite a racket. His humming had become a more song-like pattern of vowels at varying pitches and durations. It wasn’t terribly musical, but it had a rhythm and a discernible form to it.

I tried to mimic his pattern by creating a somewhat melodic rhythm using combinations of bass tones, slaps and flirtas. He looked my way and continued vocalizing, adding in some consonant type sounds. None of his vocalizations formed, or even approximated, words, but it was the first sustained series of sounds that Noah had ever uttered. He was six, a non-verbal child who had been diagnosed with autism a couple of years earlier.

Noah and I “sang” together for a few more minutes and then he suddenly went silent again. I took the cue and unwound my rhythms into some basic calming patterns, while slowing my tempo and dropping my volume.

I ended with a slow bass pulsation that faded into nothingness. Noah sat spinning a toy soldier in front of his face, a familiar pastime for him.

“Wow, so did you hear that?” His mother said, crying. “He’s never made so many sounds. Do you think he’ll start talking?”

“I don’t know, but it sure was fun playing with him. I’ll come back next week and see if we can do this again.”

Vocalizing to REI rhythms is not uncommon. Because I rarely play live anymore I don’t get to interact with my clients in the way that I did with Noah, but I often hear from parents whose children] talk more with their recording. 

One client, Jason, goes through spurts of language activity whenever he gets a new REI drumming recording. As part of his extended REI Program, he receives a new track every four weeks; but I usually get a call from his mom after 2 1/2 or 3 weeks asking for a new set of rhythms because his language development has stalled. For two or three weeks at a time, Jason develops more skills, increased vocabulary, longer sentence structure, and more meaningful content. 

When Jason began the REI Custom Program, he was 5-years-old and had limited language abilities. He could say his name and ask for things using one or two word phrases. Over the course of the first two months, his language blossomed to two or three sentence phrases and he was beginning to describe events in sequence.

Sequencing, by the way, is something that shows a higher level of communication skills and awareness. This was something I saw in my first client with autism, Stacey.

Stacey had a prodigious vocabulary and talked constantly. But if you were to ask her what she did at school, she wouldn’t be able to describe it to you in a cohesive manner. She may cover some of the events, but they didn’t fit into a timeline or logical progression.

As I described in Chapter 1, when I was working with Stacey, after she had become much calmer, I received a call from her mother describing two milestones.

“Stacey slept over at a friends house last night,” Sheri said to me. “She was able to stay the entire night, which was a first for her.”

“That’s great,” I said. “That’s a major change from last month when you couldn’t leave her side.”

“Yes, she has been much calmer since beginning the drumming. But the exciting part is that this morning I asked Stacey how her night was and she was able to tell me what she did, from start to finish. She related it in a clear and logical fashion. It was amazing.”

“Is the first time she has been able to describe things this way?”

“Yes, and Anna’s mother told me that Stacey displayed a similar level of clarity last night when Stacey was over there.”

With my experience with Stacey in my mind, I went to see Noah again a week after he sang as I played.

This session was not as dramatic, however. I played for Noah, but he was agitated when I got there. He had had a melt down before I arrived, so I spent my session calming him down.

He rocked and pushed away from his mother when I started playing. I had started with some rhythms that I like to think of as “round” rhythms (a nebulous descriptor kind of like Eddie Van Halen’s famous “brown” guitar tone). These round rhythms are soft patterns (still played at eight beats per second) that have a four beat pulse with five and seven beat transitions to keep them from getting repetitive.

Noah settled down after about five minutes and let his mother hold him as he twisted his toy soldier in his hands. I played for another fifteen minutes and by the end he was playing quietly on the floor with a set of Legos. He made no sound. 

This was a big difference from my previous session with him. Yet, not all live drumming sessions produced obvious, dramatic effects like Noah’s first utterances. Still, his mother and I were glad to see him calm.

Trying to capitalize on my first session with Noah, I gave his mother a tape of the session from the previous week when he sang. You could actually hear him in parts of it. She played this recording for the next four weeks since I was unable to come visit him during that time.

At the end of the four weeks, I came back and played for Noah again. 

“Noah has been humming and singing to the tape you made for him,” his mother told me. “He’s also been carrying the tape around with him and he hands it to me to put in the tape player. When I turn it on, he gets excited. I think he likes it a lot.”

“I’m glad he likes it.” I said, as I got ready to play for him again. Noah stood at my side and pawed at the drum as I set it on my lap.

“Would you like to play the drum with me, Noah?” I asked.

He nodded as he tapped away at the head. I joined him and we played together. He started getting excited, though, and began pulling on the drum, so I had to stop, lest he wrestle it from my hands and it fell to the floor. His mom rushed over and tried to guide Noah away from the drum. He pulled away and began running around the room, with his mom chasing after him.

I started playing a calming rhythm but it didn’t seem to have any effect. After a few minutes, I decided to turn on the tape he’d been listening to for the past month. I hoped that the familiarity of the drumming and his singing would help calm him.

I stopped playing, put the tape in the player and turned it on. Noah almost immediately stopped in his tracks. He turned his head and walked toward the tape player.

I was here with my drum, but he was drawn to the tape. I’d never seen this before. My live drumming had no impact for calm, but a few seconds of a recording and Noah was mesmerized. I looked at his mom in surprise while she was shifting her gaze between Noah and I.

Noah stood in place in front of the tape player for almost ten solid minutes, listening to his tape, smiling when he could hear himself singing.