Category Archives: Different Drummer Book Excerpts

Autism Daily Newscast Reviews My Different Drummer Book

Autism Daily Newscast reviewMy book about the development and practice of REI, Different Drummer: One Man’s Music and Its Impact on ADD, Anxiety, and Autism, was recently reviewed by Autism Daily Newscast.

Here is an excerpt:

For anyone with an interest in the therapeutic aspect of music this is a gem of a book.  For parents wanting to explore different approaches to help their children it will make interesting reading.   As a lay person who just enjoys playing the odd CD I found myself a little overloaded with music and technology theory and was more interested in reading about how following a lifelong passion such as drumming can lead to the most unexpected places and discoveries.

Read the entire review here

You can learn more about the book here

A Review of Different Drummer at, another great resource for learning to play the drums, profiled my book, Different Drummer: One Man’s Music and Its Impact on ADD, Anxiety, and Autism.

Here is an excerpt form the article:

Making Music constantly writes and promotes the healing power of music. That’s why we are highlighting this book written by percussionist and researcher Jeff Strong. Different Drummer chronicles his path as he navigates ancient drumming practices, conducts clinical research, and develops the music that establishes him as a pioneer in the world of auditory brain stimulation over three decades.

You can read the entire article here

You can order the book from here

Order My book, Different Drummer, and Get 30 days of Brain Shift Radio Free

Different Drummer Book cover

“Different Drummer is a brave and open memoir of someone who has followed his passion and intuition and combined those with careful research to create something truly groundbreaking.”

Different Drummer has been out a few weeks and is beginning to get some attention (and user reviews). I’m excited about the response so far and I want to say thank you by offering 30 days of Brain Shift Radio if you buy the book before March 31st.

You get 30 days access if you already have a Brain Shift Radio account, whether you are currently a paying subscriber or if you have used a trial in the past. If you are new to Brain Shift Radio you’ll get a full 44 days of BSR free (our standard 14-day trial plus 30 days for supporting my book).

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Drumming for Focus: An excerpt from my Different Drummer book

This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring my inspiration to use drumming to help with focusing.

You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.


I’m a drummer and a tapper. I drum on everything. All the time. It drives many people crazy. I always thought that my need to drum was just because of my obsession with music and rhythm; but as I was doing some research for an upcoming study on ADHD, I discovered that I’m not alone in my need to tap. 

“Have you ever heard of ‘fidget-to-focus’?” David asked as we were talking about our study. David was a neuropsychologist. He worked at a progressive clinic in San Diego and he was also a drummer. Although ADHD wasn’t his specialty, he was excited about exploring whether my drumming can impact attention. We were planning a study using a Continuous Performance Test (CPT) to collect quantitative data. 

“No, what is it?” I replied.

“It’s based on a study done years ago on coping strategies people with ADHD develop to help them focus. This study was exploring why it was believed that ADHD was considered a childhood disorder that people grow out of as they reach adulthood. It turns out that people don’t necessarily grow out of ADHD. Instead, many people develop strategies to help them function better. The ADHD is still there.”

“So what does fidgeting have to do with it?”

“Well, it seems that fidgeting is one of the most common strategies people with ADHD use to keep their attention. Most are simple things like rocking, shaking a leg, playing with a pen or pencil, anything that uses a motor movement to keep them engaged.”

“Like drumming.”

“Perhaps. Do you suppose there is a higher prevalence of drummers with ADHD than other musicians?”

“I don’t know. That’s an interesting idea, though. Most of the drummers I know are kind of like me. In fact, I don’t know any drummers who are not at least a little distracted, impulsive or hyperactive.”

“That would be an interesting study to do someday. But for now, if we consider fidgeting to help with attention, musical or not, perhaps the rhythm impacts the brain in a positive way.”

“It seems like the case to me, but what does fidgeting mean for our study?”

“Probably nothing, but maybe we can use the concept of fidget-to-focus as a basis for our hypothesis. Didn’t you say that you started developing your therapy from your experiences playing the drums and feeling more focused?”

“Yes. I guess that would be like fidgeting-to-focus. Only I wasn’t doing it solely to help focus. The drumming exercises were homework. And I wasn’t just focusing better while I drummed, I felt more focused afterward. The residual focusing effect was the basis of exploring the drumming for focus. My goal was to see if listening to syncopated drumming rhythms provided the same focusing effect as playing my homework exercises.”

I described to David that one of my challenges while attending the Musician’s Institute was being able to keep up with the pace of my classes. The most difficult for me, and many percussionists, was music theory and composition. I spent a lot of time analyzing music, digging deep into the structures that were being used in rock and jazz music (to this day I can’t listen to the Beatles and enjoy their music for what it is. I always find myself remembering the many hours spent dissecting their songs). As someone with ADHD, focusing on the mundane analysis of music theory and composition was nearly impossible. Contrasted with this was my favorite class, sight-reading, where it was always interesting and, as a result, easy for me to focus on.

Because I wanted to avoid music theory and instead work on sight-reading, I decided that I would reward myself for my theory and composition work by doing my sight-reading exercises before going back to some of the mundane work I was assigned. As someone who was somewhat impulsive and hated delayed gratification, I quickly decided to reverse this plan. Instead of theory first, I would allow myself to spend a half hour or so doing my sight-reading exercises then dig into theory for 30 minutes, followed by another bit of sight-reading. 

The reason I preferred sight-reading was that I was able to play continually unique patterns. One basic exercise consisted of reading rhythm patterns from a book on syncopation, called Progressive Steps to Syncopation For the Modern Drummer, by Ted Reed. The patterns were random combinations of 8th and 16th notes written across the page, page after page throughout the book.

My assignment was always to choose a page and read it in varying ways. Left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top, right to left, diagonally, whatever. The goal was to always be reading one or two measures ahead of where I was playing. This got me accustomed to reading ahead, therefore when confronted with a new piece of music, I could read, comprehend, and interpret it right away and convincingly perform it the way the composer intended. I loved these exercises. They gave me a rush.

Imagine my surprise when I also discovered that these exercises made doing my theory and composition work easier. After 30 minutes of sight-reading, I’d switch to theory and, to my amazement, could focus. The analysis was easier and the musical structures started making sense. I could even begin to appreciate the simple predictability of the Beatles’ music (especially since I never really liked listening to it – still don’t).

And analyzing more complex music of some of the progressive jazz-fusion bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report became rote. My grades for the semesters after discovering this sight-reading-then-theory pattern confirmed what I felt. I was focusing better and grasping complex concepts better.



REI and Self-Stimulatory Behaviors: An excerpt from my Different Drummer book

This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring the use of drumming to help with self-stimulatory behaviors.

You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.

Kylie watched as I set up my gear, her face blank while she repetitively zipped and unzipped her sweater.

“She stims like this a lot,” explained her mother. “I can’t get her to focus when she does this. She just stares off into space and plays with her zipper or button. She can do this for hours and when I try to stop her she has a meltdown. She’ll pull away and scream.”

I nodded as I began to play. Simple, quiet rhythms at first. Just testing the waters.

The slightest smile appeared on Kylie’s face. It was gone as quickly as it came.

I settled into a groove with syncopated muted tones, creating a pulsing patter to try to engage Kylie. For about one minute she looked down toward the floor while zipping and unzipping her sweater.

I stopped for a couple of seconds, looking for a response. Kylie looked up at me. I started playing again, figuring that she was listening. She opened her eyes wide a few times as though she was trying to wake herself up.

I kept my syncopated patter going, interjecting a couple of rhythms I had found useful for stopping self-stimming. At about two-and-a-half minutes into this session, Kylie looked at her mom, who was sitting next to her on the couch. Over the next minute or so, Kylie looked at her mom and then away several times.

I switched to a 9-beat pattern and Kylie moved over to her mom and leaned into her and closed her eyes. The stimming stopped.

I played for another minute and noticed that Kylie was asleep. I stopped and left the room. 

Kylie had autism. She engaged in a fairly typical behavior of self-regulation through repetitive motor movements. For Kylie, zipping and unzipping her sweater was soothing. Hers was a relatively subtle, innocuous behavior, one that didn’t seem to coincide with any outward stimulus or event.

This behavior was upsetting to her mother because when Kylie was stimming she was unreachable, having retreated into her own world. This is common among people with autism, though the stimming isn’t always present, because being unresponsive is a defining characteristic of the condition.

From my perspective, repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviors like this take two forms. They are either internally driven, possibly as a desire to retreat from the world, or they are in response to a disagreeable external stimulus. The stimming is a way to tune-out or modulate the stimulus.

REI and Sound Sensitivities: An excerpt from my Different Drummer book

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.”

REI and Mood: An excerpt from Different Drummer book

Due to the positive response I received from my last excerpt exploring a specific symptom (you can read that post here), I’m posting another symptom-based excerpt. This one is on mood issues and depression.

I hope you enjoy it.


“Logan came home the other day from school, ran straight into his room, and turned on his CD. I asked him what he was doing and he said that listening was his reward for getting an A on his math test,” described Kim, his mother.

“That’s great. It’s always a good thing when teens take the initiative to play their REI music on their own,” I said. “That’s a big change from last month when he wouldn’t listen at all.”

“Absolutely. He has taken ownership of the process. I can see his mood lifting. He cares about his schoolwork now and he’s getting involved again in activities at school. Before he started listening to the drumming, he just wanted to come home and stare at the screen.”

Logan was having difficulty in school, socially more than academically, when he began the REI Custom Program. He was slightly shy, though he had a couple of friends. Having recently turned fifteen, he had become moody and withdrawn. 

Teenagers can be hard to reach. Whenever I run into a clients’ resistance to listening to the drums, it’s usually with teens. Logan was initially resistant, saying that he didn’t want “anyone messing with his head”. 

Because Logan was not interested in the drumming – he often told his mother how weird he thought it was that she attended my drumming classes – we decided that I wouldn’t play for him live. Instead, she and I would talk about Logan’s issues and her goals for him. From that, I would make a recording that Logan would listen to before going to bed.

“He doesn’t want to do anything. He used to be so bubbly and energetic, but now he is so lethargic and down. Getting him up in the morning is impossible and he just drags himself through the day. His grades have slipped and he is distancing himself from his friends,” explained Kim during Logan’s intake interview. “Do you think the drumming can help?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. This was fairly early in the process of developing the REI therapy and I hadn’t yet worked with any teens with mood issues. I knew I could help with anxiety or attention and I told her that, but the mood would be something we’d have to evaluate as we went along.

“If you’re okay with feeling our way through this, I’d love to give it a try,” I said.

“I usually feel so good after the drumming class that I can’t imagine it wouldn’t help Logan,” she replied. Kim had been coming to my drumming classes for a few months. This was the reason she approached me about working with her son, even though he didn’t have autism or ADHD, the conditions I would often talk about during class.

This wasn’t an unusual request. Even from my earliest days of exploring how the drumming may work outside of its cultural context, people approached me and asked if what I was doing could help them or their children. This led me to work at Pathways, a center for people with chronic illnesses where I worked with clients with a large variety of chronic conditions, from pain to HIV, CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) to depression.

One client, Jamie, was recently diagnosed HIV-positive and was feeling pretty hopeless about his life. He was 28 years old, generally healthy and not symptomatic, but he felt that he really had no future. I was worried when I first played for him because the entire time I drummed he sprawled on the couch and cried. These were not quiet tears, rather they were plaintive wails with full-body convulsions.

“Are you okay? Would you like me to stop playing?” I asked, as I stopped, concerned that I was making things worse. 

“No, I’m fine. Please keep playing,” he answered between sobs. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

I looked at him, not sure what to say or whether to believe him. Jamie, I would learn was a dramatic guy. He did everything in a big way and crying was no exception.

“Really,” he sniffled, “I feel this deep well of grief and sadness purging from my body. Please keep playing.”

“Okay, but tell me if you need me to stop.”

I began playing again, searching for the most uplifting rhythms I could think of, careful not to deepen his mood. I understood catharsis and knew he had a great support system in place so I wasn’t concerned about him in general, but I was a little uncomfortable with such a dramatic show of emotion.

I kept playing until our session time was up. Jamie blew his nose, wiped the streaks from his face, gave me a hug, and left with a smile and a bounce in his step.

I met with him once a week for most of the summer, each session mirroring the others, with Jamie sobbing while I played and then leaving uplifted.

In mid-September he arrived at his last session and handed me an envelope. “This is my new address,” he said. “I’m following my dream and moving to San Francisco. I’m not going to let this disease stop me from living my life. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” I said as he bounced out of the room. I never saw him again. I don’t know what impact our drumming sessions had on his overall perspective and life choices, but I learned a lot about how to play for someone who was grieving and how to stay with someone as they moved through their emotions.

REI and Language: An excerpt from my upcoming book, Different Drummer

For this installment, I decided to change tacks and chose not to go in order, but instead to focus on a specific symptom area: Language. I hope you enjoy it.

You can read previous excerpts from the list on the right.


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.

more coming soon…

Different Drummer Book, Excerpt #5

“Are you talking about spirits here?” A woman asked incredulously from the back of the room. 

I was in New Orleans giving a talk at the Autism Society of Louisiana’s annual conference. My session was standing room only. Several hundred people were waiting for me to answer this challenging question.

“Historically, yes,” I said, pausing to let my audience take this in. “But the language used then was very different than what we use now. We know so much more about human behavior and today we have an entire lexicon of terms for these conditions. We have no need to view aberrant behavior as having a spiritual cause.” 

Here I was in the heart of the bible belt, in the largest American city where vestiges of the African religious diaspora mingle with the conservative values and deep religiosity of the south. To top it off, New Orleans is a music town, lying at the crossroads of spiritual and secular music.

Blues, gospel and jazz, music that New Orleans is know for, each developed out of African spiritual traditions that blended with Catholicism to form musical styles that would eventually change the way we experience music in the West. Rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, all owe a debt to the spirituals sung by the slaves as they toiled on the fields of a new America. 

The Africans that were brought to the new world had long and deep spiritual traditions that consisted of an intricate musical landscape. Like with many cultures around the world, music was tied closely with spiritual and religious practices. Most every religion and spiritual practice around the world has employed music to express and deepen one’s faith.

For example, early Christian carvings, sculptures and paintings regularly show angels playing harps or drums, hymns are sung at nearly every service, and music has become an important addition to a church’s identity. Even my Midwestern, conservative Lutheran church had a band that played contemporary Christian music to praise and honor God. Other Christian faiths such as Baptist and Evangelical, often put more emphasis on praise with music than my highly conservative Lutheran upbringing. In fact, today the super-churches often spend enormous sums of money on their musical stages, equipment, and musicians. 

Music touches us deeply and allows us to express ourselves, so it makes sense that it would be part of our connection with the sacred. However, many of us in the West are suspicious of music that feels too tribal. And nothing sounds as tribal as a beating drum. And it’s this association with tribalism and drumming that this woman spoke to. Her visceral response was that of fear. 

Given the Hollywood images of tribal drumming associated with voodoo and the prevalence of voodoo in the consciousness of most New Orleanians, it made perfect sense. And because of this I came prepared to answer her question.

I should say that this woman’s question also spoke directly to my own concerns when I studied the traditions and developed my techniques. And it wasn’t the first time I was confronted with others’ suspicions of the drumming, especially when it was also connected to the sacred and spirits.

Several years before, when I was first exploring using drumming for calm, I worked with a 4-year-old girl with a condition called, agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC). This rare condition, occurring in roughly one out of thousand people, is where the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain doesn’t develop. 

This child, Lily, had developmental delays, anxiety, and sleep problems, not unlike other kids that I played for on the autism spectrum. Due to my success with Stacey, I was asked if I could help Lily. She was a very anxious child, tantrumming often, especially when asked to transition from one environment or activity to another. She also had a very difficult time getting to sleep and woke often at night. I had seen that I could help calm and also suspected that, by extension, may be able to help with her sleep.

I played live for Lily in the same manner I had with Stacey and, like with Stacey, observed Lily calm down as I played. Her parents and I were encouraged so I made a tape of rhythms that they could play when she was anxious and when she went to bed. Lily fell asleep while the drumming tape played the first night and by the end of the second week she was sleeping through the night most nights.

But then I ran into a glitch.

Different Drummer Book Excerpt #3

You can read the previous excerpt here

Chapter 2, Part 1

“What do you think about doing a study on this?” asked Karl.

Karl was attending my African and Latin group drumming classes where I’d been telling the group about my experiences drumming for Stacey and other kids with developmental disabilities. Everyone was intrigued by the idea of using drumming for children with developmental disabilities, especially given the children were not asked to play the drum and only listened as I played. Karl, as it turned out, was the staff psychologist in a school district that contained what was considered one of the most progressive autism programs in the state.

“I think you have something here”, he said, “Maybe we could do the study at my school. It has a great autism program and the director is progressive. I’ll help you write a proposal and submit it. If we’re lucky we can do it this year yet.”

“That sounds exciting, but I don’t know how do write this type of proposal”, I confessed. “What does it need to look like?”

Up until this point, I had written articles about therapeutic rhythm-making, but nothing along the lines of what I would need for a study proposal. Karl went on to describe the key points of a research proposal and I went to work on a first draft.

As I was writing the proposal we hit a snag.

“You need a name,” Karl said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A name. For your therapy” he replied.

“What do you mean? This isn’t really a therapy yet. It’s an idea. An experiment.”

“I know, but the school board will want to it be more concrete. You can’t just call it drum therapy. How about something more clinical?”

“Okay, let’s see… AIT stands for Auditory Integration Training. That’s a mouthful,” I said, thinking out loud. ” And it sounds clinical and serious.”

AIT was an auditory therapy that was popular for autism in the early 1990’s. I was aware of it mainly because my client Stacy had gone through AIT several times. Her mother was well-versed in the process and had explained it in detail to me. Stacy’s mother was also a friend of the researcher conducting what would end up being the largest study done on an auditory intervention for autism.

It was the knowledge of AIT, along with my experiences with my drumming teacher Lloyd, that got me thinking that maybe I could be able to help with the condition.

So with AIT’s name as kind of model, Karl and I brainstormed.

“What is the drumming doing?” asked Karl.

“Well, I think it’s entraining the brain to a calm state,” I answered.

“Entrainment is a fancy word for synchronizing”, I explained. “There has been speculation that repetitive drumming can make the brain pulse in synch with the tempo.” I was referring to a study I had just heard about that documented what researchers had been speculating for a couple of decades. In this study, repetitive drumming at four-beats-per-second induced a corresponding four-beat-per-second theta wave in the listener’s brain. This discovery also fit with a series of studies done where rhythmic pulsations, in the form of binaural beats, were shown to induce a similar effect. This effect is often referred to as brainwave entrainment.

“Okay, you use rhythm to entrain”, surmised Karl. “How about calling it rhythm entrainment therapy? He paused and thought. “Not therapy. Intervention. Yeah, intervention. That’s better.”

“Rhythm Entrainment Intervention,” I pondered. “I like it. But I think it should be Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention, because the other entrainment approaches use beat frequencies. This sounds more precise.”

“Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention… REI. I like it”, Karl said thoughtfully.

So, we had a name. We had a study design and a protocol. Now what we needed was approval to do this in Karl’s school.

Schools are notoriously non-receptive to experimental programs, especially where kids were concerned. First we needed tentative approval from the program director and buy-in from the teachers. Then we would need consent from all the parents. From there, I was told, it would be on to the school board for approval. I was skeptical that we could do it.

“I’ll take this to the director and I let you know what else we need”, Karl said as he took the proposal.

The idea of a study intrigued me. I had been working with a lot of kids like Stacey over the previous year or so and had documented everything: The rhythms, responses and effects of various recordings. This study would be another step into trying to understand whether drumming had a place and whether specific rhythmic structures were useful for autism.

My teacher Lloyd had played for kids with issues similar to the kids I was playing for with autism. And I had watched Lloyd produce some pretty dramatic effects, especially with calming. I, too, had facilitated some great changes in anxiety along with improvements in other symptom areas; so I felt that this study may help me better understand the effects of the drumming, especially by collaborating with other people who had much more experience with this condition than I had.

Documenting case experiences and playing one-on-one were very satisfying for me for my own curiosity, but I really didn’t have much sense of what I should do with my music beyond this. However, I made a conscious effort to follow whatever path formed in front of me. This study could be an interesting one, I thought. One in which, I was sure, I would learn a lot. And I was all about learning more without any real expectation of where it would lead me (a trait that has been my guiding principle throughout my entire career).

After only a week Karl called and said, “We got it.”

“Got what?” I asked.

“Approval. Carrie, the program director, looked over the study proposal and felt it was worth doing. We presented it to the teachers and they’re all behind it. We’re now waiting for the last of the parental consent forms to come back. I figure you can start playing for the kids on Monday.”

“Wow,” I said. I really wasn’t expecting this to happen, and so quickly. “Okay I’ll see you first thing Monday morning.”

Now I was nervous. I had played for quite a few people up to this point, but a study? In a school? I was a drummer, not a researcher, at least not this kind of research. Up until this point research was something I did by myself for my own interest. Now I had a school involved in my weird idea.

I mean, drumming. To help kids with autism. How strange is that?


A quiet suburb outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. 7:30am Monday March 7, 1994.

It was unseasonably warm, which was a good thing because the top on my convertible was leaking and the heat in my old Volkswagen was never very good. Still, after a forty-minute drive I arrived chilled, my hands stiff. This won’t do, I thought. I have to be limber to be able to play for these kids.

This was my first day of a pivotal study that would forever change my life and the nature of my work. I was at the elementary school where we were going to track the calming effects of drumming on 16 children with autism ages 6-12. This school housed one of the most progressive autism programs in the state, and perhaps the country.

“We received 16 parental consent forms back for the kids,” described Karl when I met with him and the autism program director, Carrie. “That’s about half of the kids in the four classrooms. The kids range in age from 6 to 12, though most are between 8 and 11.”

He handed me the forms and gave me a brief overview of each kid’s issues.

“They are all so different,” I said, showing my lack of knowledge of the many manifestations of symptoms, abilities, and behaviors of children on the autism spectrum. “Some can talk, some can’t. Some are anxious, some are withdrawn. Some have seizures, some don’t.” I said, beginning to feel overwhelmed.

Could I actually do this? I wondered. Could my drumming have a noticeable positive impact on the kids? Sure, I had great success with Stacey and some other kids with similar issues, but the range of issues presented in these kids was astounding. I was feeling out of my depth. Who was I to think that my playing on a drum would help with a condition that professionals have been struggling with for decades and that even the multi-billion-dollar-a-year pharmaceutical industry was having limited results in being able to help?

Karl could tell I was freaking out. So he tried to calm me by putting the study back in perspective.

“Just focus on the calming,” advised Karl. “Try not to worry about having any dramatic effects. Just do what you did with Stacey and let whatever happen, happen. I’ll be in the room with you the entire time.”

I took a few breaths and we went to meet the teachers and aids. The introduction to the staff went well. Everyone was interested in seeing if the kids could be calmed. Anxiety and anxiety-based behaviors were the most significant and disruptive events during the day. So much of the teachers’ and aids’ time and energy went to managing these behaviors that very little learning actually happened. Anything that could have a calming effect on their students, I was told, was a welcome addition to their classrooms.

The vast resources that went into managing anxiety and anxiety-based behaviors is the reason that the most accepted therapy for autism centers on managing behaviors. ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) and other behavior-related approaches focus on re-directing behaviors through repetition, rote responses to stimulus, and an often arcane system of rewards and (sometimes) punishments. Behavioral therapies are time-consuming and labor-intensive – therefore expensive – and offer limited results unless implemented perfectly. A good behavioral therapist, working one-on-one with a client for 40+ hours a week, has to have the patience of a saint and the stamina of a marathon runner.

If this study could offer any observable improvement in calm, it could make the kids more at ease and receptive, potentially opening a door for learning and internalizing well-implemented behavioral approaches. Of course, thinking this way made me anxious again. It’s a good thing that at this point I was asked to perform a little of the type of drumming I would be doing. The staff wanted to get a sense of what my drumming was about. Up until now, no one but Karl had actually heard me play.

This is always the fun part for me. In instances like this I prefer to jump right into rhythms at my typical eight-beats-per-second pace rather than slowly speed up. This is partly for effect and partly because the sooner I can get the group to shift, the deeper I can take them in the few minutes I’m usually allotted for my demonstration.

Listeners always go through four distinct stages when they first experience me banging my drum. The first stage of listening to my REI drumming is disbelief, especially if listeners are expecting calm. Eight beats per second is fast. And the drum I play is fairly loud (I can make it painfully loud if I want to, though I don’t this day), so uninitiated listeners tend to get a little tense at first. This day was no exception. I actually saw some eyes go wide as I started playing. Several teachers looked over at Carrie, the program director, clearly wondering what this was about. Carrie, in turn, looked toward Karl, who just smiled and nodded in time to my playing.

After an initial shocker rhythm (yes, I can be provocative when I play – it makes people remember their experience), I settled into a calming groove based on the African afuche rhythm. This is a simple two-beat pattern that has a forward-driving feel similar in effect to a Mambo beat. Two-beats, by the way, are a two-quarter-note pulse, with me playing sixteenth notes. This means that there are 8 individual drumbeats in this pattern.

This simple groove brought up the second stage of listening to live REI drumming: Amusement. Some teachers smiled, some began to sway to the rhythm. I kept the two-beat pulse going until I saw most of the staff begin to relax and engage with me. Some of the same teachers who looked at the program director with concern now looked at her with what could be best described as, well, amusement. They were having fun but didn’t see how this was going to be calming for their students (or even themselves).

I began to morph my rhythm, turning this simple two-beat pattern into a complex arrangement of odd-meter variations that had no discernible beginning or end. Instead it appeared to be a stream-of-consciousness improvisation with no real goal. There was a goal, however. And that was to usher in the third stage of dealing with my REI drumming: Bemusement.

Now, nearly five minutes into my performance, I watched the gears in people’s minds clog and jam as they tried to understand what I was playing. This was especially the case with those trained in music. What I was playing could not be understood intellectually in the moment – it was too unpredictable and went by too fast to analyze – so confusion fell across people’s faces. At this point, I saw Carrie look at Karl, questioning her decision to let me be there. Karl nodded reassuringly at her.

I took this as my cue to help drive my bewildered listeners to the final stage of the REI drumming indoctrination: Surrender. Once the analytical mind surrenders and people stop “listening” and allow the drumming to waft over them, they let me take control of their brain. I’m just kidding (sorta). I’m not taking control in classic sense of leaving my listeners without a choice. I’m taking control in the sense they are open to allowing their brains shift.

REI drumming does require the listener’s brain to attempt to decipher the patterns I play. But REI also requires that the listener’s brain entrains (synchronizes) to the pulsations of the underlying patter of my rhythms. This can’t happen when people are trying to intellectually process what I’m playing. Many people will stop listening for understanding pretty quickly because they enjoy the feel of the music. Others, mostly people with musical training, will hold out until the constantly changing nature of my playing goes on long enough that they get tired of trying to count it out and make sense of what I’m doing.

Auditory driving research has shown that it can take a few minutes before the initiated brain synchronizes to the stimulus. This time can be shortened if I am able to break homeostasis. The brain wants to remain in its current state, but novelty and anticipation make the brain easier to influence. This is why I always start off with loud fast drumming – it shakes the listener and allows me to break homeostasis. Then I take my listeners on a journey from simple rhythms to progressively more complex rhythms until I have their brains engaged. This can happen in less than ten minutes.

I saw this shift take place as eyes drifted off of me and started to close or the swaying and tapping to the music stopped. This is my favorite part of my performances, because my listeners are with me, fully engaged with my drumming. And this is where I begin to see the calm. No longer were the staff looking over at Carrie or Karl with concern. Most weren’t really looking anywhere. They were just experiencing the drumming. I kept playing for a few minutes as I watched everyone settle more. Then I slowly faded out and stopped.

I sat quietly and didn’t say anything for a while. Partly because I wanted everyone to be with their experiences for a minute and partly because I was speechless (this often happens to me when I play). I was calm. I sat with a big smile on my face. I tried not to, but I couldn’t suppress it. I felt a deep sense of peace inside. I was finally ready to begin this study.

I went through the usual gauntlet of people thanking me for my playing and telling me their observations of their experiences, but I cut this short because I wanted to get to the testing room as quickly as I could in the hopes that I could remain in my own peaceful state.

I rushed to my room and set up my equipment while the kids arrived at school. Karl began the process of lining up which student will come at which time over the next two days. I would play for eight kids each day, recording the sessions and making notes, after each student leaves, of any thoughts and feelings I had as I played for them. Karl would keep the kids in the room and re-direct any behavior he saw as being disruptive to the process. He would also alert me to any potential problems he may see coming or that I may have unwittingly initiated. He would also take notes of his observations of each child’s reactions to my playing. From these recordings and our collective notes I would go back to my studio and make a custom drumming tape for each kid.

“Steven won’t be able to tolerate the drumming,” his teacher said to me as she brought him to the room. “He is much too sensitive to sounds to be in this tiny room when you play that loud drum,” she added, looking at Karl hoping, I think, for him to agree with her and let her take Steven away. Karl took Steven’s hand without a word and guided him to a chair across the room from me.

“I’ll play quietly and Karl will remove him if he is bothered,” I replied.

She nodded but looked at me and Karl with doubt and concern. Reluctantly, she left, but stood by the door. Karl gave her a reassuring look as he gently closed the door and settled in a chair next to Steven.

Our testing room was small, about eight feet square, with cinder block walls, a suspended acoustical tile ceiling and a linoleum floor. Typical mid-century industrial drab construction. The reflective walls and floor created a booming sound with the bass of the drum and the tiny space made volume a real issue if I wasn’t careful.

I was careful.

“Would you like me to play the drum for you, Steven?” I asked.

No response. He stood, left side facing me while looking at the wall and running his finger along the mortar line.

A scream erupted from outside of the room. Steven grabbed his ears and began to rock. His teacher, seeing this through the window of the door, started to enter but Karl waved her off and signaled me to start playing.

I tapped a slow bass tone, pushing my right palm into the center of the drum at a tempo in time to his rocking. He kept rocking and after a minutes dropped his hands from his ears. I continued this pattern for another minute or so and then added a quiet syncopation with my left hand in time to the bass tone. Simple at first, slowly growing in tempo and complexity. Steven turned my way.

I changed my rhythm to a faster triplet-based feel, one that often excited the children. I was looking to get him engaged with the rhythm, so I added some bass and slap tones and played a odd meter variation on a Brazilian naningo rhythm. This rhythm has a smooth half time triplet feel.

Steven made his way along the wall and toward me and, more importantly, my drum. Next, I added some bouncy fills to vary the rhythm. It took him a few minutes of moving along the wall, but soon he was standing right next to me when he stealthily moved his hand to the drum. He lightly touched the edge of the rim with his palm and let his fingers drape onto the head. He held it there as I kept playing this triple feel rhythm. He had a flat affect, showing no sign on his face of liking or disliking my playing as he stood touching the drum and it’s head.

He stood unmoving for several minutes, so I switched to a calmer rhythm, one that many children have sat or laid down to, in an effort to illicit a response.

Nothing. He continued to stand facing the wall with his hand on the drum. I switched to a bass-heavy rhythm, knowing that he would feel a strong sensation in his fingers.

He smiled and moved his hand further onto the drumhead. With his hands in the way it was getting difficult to play and Karl, noticing this, tried to distract Steven and pull his attention and hand away.

Steven pulled back from Karl, keeping his hand on the drum. He began rocking again. I moved my hands to the edge of the drum and played a light soft rhythm, partly to get my hands away from his so I could keep playing and partly because I wanted to keep him from getting anxious or reacting negatively to Karl’s redirection.

Karl was eventually able to redirect Steven and have him sit quietly next to him as I continued playing. Once Steven was sitting I increased the intensity and volume of my playing. Steven sat and listened. I kept building volume and rhythm speed. Steven sat quietly. Again, I raised the volume. Steven sat. With a volume that was high for the room and despite what I was told he could handle, Steven didn’t seem bothered. I dropped the drumming to a whisper. Steven looked my way.

Encouraged by his response, I lightly tapped the edge of the head at a barely audible volume. Steven watched my hand intently as I fingered some double tempo patterns.

With Steven watching my hands, I stopped and placed my hands on the drumhead. He watched my hands for a minute and then got up and came over to the drum. He put his hands on mine and stood in front of me, looking off into the distance at the wall. We stayed that way for a few minutes until Karl came over and gently guided Steven back to his classroom.

I was feeling pretty peaceful about now and enjoying the silence of the room when a tornado came in. Her name was Nina. She was a highly verbal, highly anxious 9 year-old with Asperger’s syndrome.

Asperger’s syndrome is a subset on the autism spectrum and is the form of autism that Stacey (Chapter 1) had. Nina was a lot like Stacey. She had a large vocabulary that she felt free to use, though most of what she said was not appropriate or sensical. With Karl on her heels, she burst in my room and walked directly to me.

I introduced myself to her, showed her my drum, and asked if she minded if I played for her. She said that she didn’t and then began vigorously beating the drum. So vigorously, in fact, that it was impossible for me to play at the same time. While I held the drum, I let her play for a few minutes until she seemed to settle a bit. She didn’t stop on her own, however, and required Karl to redirect her before I could play.

As I discovered, this experience was a good introduction to Nina’s overall personality and behavior. She, the school staff described, was an intense, uninhibited child. She was verbal and tended to perseverate on whatever came to mind. She talked almost constantly about anything and everything, much of it running together and making little sense. She was also highly anxious and sometimes aggressive to others. Her teachers noted that she was disruptive to the other students and they found it difficult to get her attention and keep her on task. It wasn’t uncommon to need to separate her from the other children and to work with her one-on-one to get her to attend to her schoolwork.

When I began playing, Karl was playing a hand game with her while she continued to talk. She paid no attention to my playing initially, but after a few minutes she focused her attention on me when I began playing a rhythm that I often found helpful for people who were anxious or engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. This rhythm, one that I had just successfully played for Steven, was based on a Brazilian Naningo. This pattern starts in a 12/8 time signature with accents on the first (bass tone), third (bass tone), sixth (open tone), seventh (slap tone), tenth (open tone) and twelfth (open tone) beats and evolves into a 23/16 rhythm by dropping the last beat of the second measure. This rhythm then drops another 2 beats to repeat a 21/16 time signature pattern.

After settling into this 21/16 portion, Nina sat down in a chair next to Karl and watched me play. I continued this rhythm and some variations on it for several minutes during which time Nina became quiet and attentive to what I was doing. I played for another 6 minutes using a variety of similar rhythms while she stayed quiet and sat in her chair, watching me play.

When I ended, she remained quiet while Karl led her back to her classroom. Her teacher later reported that she was calm the rest of the morning, until lunchtime when she became agitated by the change from the quiet of the classroom to the commotion of the lunchroom. The rest of her day was similar to other days, with her teachers struggling to keep her from acting out and becoming disruptive to the other students.

Nina was followed by her opposite: Marcus. Marcus was a small, quiet 8 year-old. Where Nina was high activity, high anxiety, Marcus was non-verbal, and largely non-responsive. Karl led him in the room and he sat, or more accurately, melted into the chair.

Like with all the kids, I started by playing very quietly for Marcus. He sat motionless for the longest time until, when I was playing a bouncy rhythm in a 19/8 time signature, he got up and walked over to the drum. He put his hands on the side of the drum as I played. I then switched to a simple samba-like pattern consisting of two bass tones followed by two quiet open tones. This rhythm bounced along until I dropped a beat here and there to create a more syncopated samba type feel. With the heavy bass tone pattern, Marcus laid down and crawled under the drum. He positioned his stomach directly under the bottom of the drum.

I dropped the volume a little so as not to hurt Marcus’ ears but kept playing an abundance of bass tones. Marcus stayed on the floor for the rest of the time I played.

When I stopped Karl, picked Marcus up and took him back to his room. He came back with nine-year-old Sammy. She came into the room and didn’t say a word to me as I introduced myself. Karl had her sit next him and nodded at me to begin.

She sat quietly as I started playing the drum. After just a few times through a basic calming rhythm, Sammy looked at me and smiled. Over the next ten minutes, I played a large variety of rhythms, from simple, calming rhythms to complex, intensely focused rhythms. Sammy never stopped smiling. She did seem to prefer open tones on the drum and rhythms with triplet feel (these types of rhythms tend to have an uplifting quality to them).

After I stopped playing and Sammy was taken back to her class, the teacher described that Sammy rarely talked, though she was able to express her needs and desires when prompted. She was also very socially withdrawn and difficult to engage, had poor eye contact, and poor motor control.

Next came Lucas, another eight-year-old. Lucas was similar in some ways to Nina in that he talked a lot, often not making much sense, and he could be aggressive to other children if he got over-stimulated. He differed from Nina in that he rarely initiated contact with other children in his class, preferring interact with his teacher and aid.

Lucas was told I would be playing a drum for him, so when he arrived he immediately approached me and asked me what kind of drum I was holding. I told him as I tapped it, then asked him if he’d like to play it a bit.

He touched the head as he tapped it with his fingers and talked and asked me a series of questions. The questions came fast as he tapped, with no space for me to answer. But he didn’t seem to want any answers. This pace continued for several minutes until Karl redirected him away from the drum. At that point Lucas shifted his one-way conversation to Karl and I started playing.

I played quietly at first with the hope that he’d stop talking and focus his attention on the drum. I began with a simple calming rhythm that is a variation on a 2-beat long Brazilian mambo beat.

As a side note, short rhythms such as the mambo, need to be varied for people on the developmental disability spectrum, otherwise they become annoying to the listener and defeat the purpose of calming.

In this instance, the variation I used created a rhythm in a time signature of 31/16 (the typical rhythm is in 2/4). Lucas shifted his attention to me, but continued talking as I played. After about ten minutes of playing various rhythms, I settled into to a more complex rhythm and Lucas stopped talking almost immediately. I played this rhythm and some variations for a couple of minutes before Lucas came up to me and asked me how long I was going to play. I took this as a cue to stop.

Next came Tom. Tom, like Steven, was extremely sound-sensitive. He was very anxious and often aggressive. He was also non-verbal, which tends to contribute to anxiety and aggressive behavior for many children due to their inability to express their needs. Unfortunately, Tom often hit others without provocation. This was a problem and his teacher was hopeful that the drumming would help calm him down. She was concerned, however, because of his extreme sensitivity to sound, that he wouldn’t do well with the rhythms. After my experience with Steven, I wasn’t so worried.

With Tom’s sound sensitivities in mind, I began by playing very quietly. Tom grabbed my hands and stopped me on several occasions, sometimes tapping the drum himself seemingly to get comfortable with it and its sound. After about 4 minutes, he sat down next to Karl and watched me as I played.

I played a large variety of rhythms over the next 12 minutes and observed that he seemed to prefer rhythms that had a flowing regularity to them. The more complex, chaotic rhythms appeared to make him tense up a bit, though at no point did he cover his ears or indicate in any way that we was bothered by the drumming, even though there where a few times where I played very loudly.

By the time I stopped playing, Tom was sitting next to Karl and vocalizing along with the drumming. I couldn’t hear him as I played, but Karl reported that Tom began vocalizing about 2 minutes before I stopped. In reviewing the session recording, I noticed that at that point in the session I had been playing a rhythm with repeating groupings of 5. Tom stopped vocalizing after a minute or so of when I stopped playing.

He was the last person I played for that day. I left the school feeling pretty satisfied with the childrens’ responses, hopeful that I could have a positive impact with this study. The next day I played for the rest of the children in the study and was again encouraged by their responses to the rhythms.

All the children were calmed and sometimes engaged by my drumming, which was a good start. But our goal was to see if listening to a recording of the drumming would elicit the same calm as my live playing. I spent the next week making each child their own cassette tape by playing rhythms I had mapped out from the live recordings and notes. Each tape would be twenty minutes long. The following Monday I brought everyone their tapes. It was like Christmas, at least for me, to hand out each tape.

Karl and I asked the teachers to play each child’s recording once a day, preferably turning it on at a time when the child was anxious, then track their response. We would do this for four weeks at which time I would come back and see how everyone was doing.

You can read the rest of this chapter here