Category Archives: Different Drummer Book Excerpts

Stopping Aggressive Behavior with Drumming

I have been exploring how drumming can be used to calm aggressive behavior since 1983. In this week’s blog, I offer two resources sharing what i’ve learned.

A Video Showing How I Use Musical Phrasing to Calm

How do I stop tantrums, anxiety attacks and escalating aggression with a 16 bar phrase?Novelty, that’s how. Rhythm can do more than just calm the average person.

An Excerpt From My Book, Different Drummer

Different Drummer bookThis excerpt explores how my mentor and I use fast complex drumming to calm aggressive behavior.

You can learn more and order the book here

You can learn more about the REI Custom Program here


I could hear the screaming as we pulled into the driveway.  I looked with concern at Lloyd, who simply raised an eyebrow.

Knowing they were expecting us, Lloyd and I walked right into the house and were immediately confronted by Ty who was running through the entryway screaming and flailing his arms.

His mother was following behind, trying to catch him.

Lloyd motioned for me to set down the drum and grab a chair for him as he took stock of the situation. Then he sat down behind the drum and began playing.

He started with a loud slap to the head. The drum’s shout filled the huge room and reverberated off the hard surfaces, drowning out Ty’s screams. Lloyd paused then gave the drum another hard slap. 

Ty turned to look, but continued screaming, hitting and pushing his mother away as she caught up to him and tried giving him a hug. 

Lloyd tapped the head with the tips of his fingers, laying down a soft patter that was barely audible in the midst of the chaos in the room. 

Once out of his mother’s arms, Ty made another lap around the room then came running toward Lloyd and grabbed at the drum. Lloyd was unfazed and kept playing, holding the drum between his legs as six-year-old Ty pawed at it.

Ty’s mother took advantage of Ty’s focus on Lloyd and the drum and was able to get a hold of him. Ty squirmed, but didn’t put up much of a fight as Lloyd raised his volume and began playing in earnest. 

I was still stunned by the difference in Ty’s behavior from the last couple of sessions with him. This was our third meeting with Ty; and although Lloyd had told me before we met Ty that he was prone to aggressive outbursts, I hadn’t seen one yet. The Ty that I had observed up until that point was a quiet boy who was intent on occupying his own world, generally oblivious to everything around him. The screaming, running, and lashing out where new to me.

These behaviors, however, were something that I became intimately familiar with in the following decades.

I thought of Ty’s screaming and physical aggression as I entered the yard of the residential facility where I was getting ready to conduct a study. Located in a rural area not far from where I was living in Arizona, this home for adults with autism had been profiled in a newspaper article. I called the home, hoping to be able to play for the residents. Only a year before, I had seen the remarkable calming effects of one of my tapes when it was tested at an adult vocational center. (I talk about that research project in Chapter 9). I was told that this facility was having troubles with its residents’ anxiety and aggressive behavior; I hoped to make customized recordings for each resident to see if my drumming could help. 

Once through the entry gate, I saw a man coming toward me. He started yelling obscenities as I approached, his pace toward me quicker than my pace toward the administrative office. I started to say hello and ask him where the director was, but he simply continued on in great detail about how he was going to hurt me—punch me in the face, kick me in the groin, elbow me in the chest—if I crossed him. 

This was Charlie, one of the residents and one of the reasons I was at this facility. 

His threats were directed to me at a high volume and without making eye contact. By my observation and experience with other men with autism, I didn’t feel that he really intended to act on his threats. He had the characteristic monotone, lack of eye contact, and overall flat affect that characterizes many with this condition. He also lacked the usual intensity and in-your-face aggressiveness that typically precedes such an attack.

Nonetheless, given his history of unprovoked aggression, I was careful not to get too close or to upset him if I could avoid it. I did, however, sit down on the bench near the garden and pick up my drum, which he regarded curiously, and begin to play, which prompted him to watch me even more closely. I was pretty confident that he had never encountered anyone entering his space and drumming. The novelty of this situation seemed to disarm him, because he stopped talking and watched me.

I began by quietly playing calming-type rhythms at the characteristic REI eight-beats-per-second pace. Over the next few minutes, I slowly built up the volume of my drumming and before long he sat down next to me. A few minutes later he put his hand on the shell of the drum. 

After approximately four minutes, I began a series of more intense rhythms to see if his behavior would change. This is what Lloyd used to do to invoke a response in a listener and to gauge their level of engagement in the rhythms. Within less than 30 seconds, Charlie grabbed the hardware lugs that tension the drum and tried to pull the drum from my lap. Because I have become accustomed to anticipate a reaction of this sort (I’d lost hold of the drum many times before), I pulled back and just barely managed to hang on.

After a short struggle, he let go of the drum and leaned away from it, though he stayed on the bench. Using the calming-type rhythms I started with, I began playing again. He settled back on the bench. I continued playing for another ten minutes or so, careful to not play rhythms that were too intense or chaotic. He noticeably calmed during this time and was sitting still, gazing off in the distance as I stopped playing and walked away.

Charlie’s response was not unlike Ty’s when Lloyd finally got into a groove. With his mother’s arms around him, Ty stood holding the drum as Lloyd played. I stood in awe as Ty was drawn into the pulse and power of Lloyd’s drumming. Lloyd played for almost ten minutes and all the while Ty stood and held the drum. Ty was calm and allowed his mother to hold him by the time Lloyd stopped playing, so we decided to call it a session and leave.

When we got to the car, I asked Lloyd what he did to calm Ty down. 

“I hit the drum with intensity to get his attention. The first slap didn’t do anything. So I played another,” he described.

“That’s when Ty looked at you,” I said.

“Yes, but he was still out of control. I needed to do the unexpected, so I played exactly the opposite way next. Instead of yelling, I whispered.”

“I could barely hear what you were playing. What rhythms were you using?”

“Nothing special. The whisper was the important thing. He needed to search for the sound.”

“And he did. He came right over to you. It was amazing.”

“He was still out of control, though.”

“Yeah, I noticed you switched rhythms or something. The sound was so, I don’t know, pleading.”

“I was talking to him. Asking him to join me. To surrender his violence.”

“Then he just stood there. His mom held him and he didn’t move. Why did that happen, and so fast?”

“He surrendered,” was all Lloyd said. I got nothing more out of him.

These experiences with my teacher and mentor Lloyd were exciting, and maddening. I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was talking about at the time. I was only 20, after all, and my life experience was limited. But somehow I learned enough to use as the foundation to grow on my own over the years.  

The drum was a curiosity and the soothing patter drew listeners in, shifting their awareness from the anxiety and aggression they were displaying while allowing their brain to entrain to the rhythms and into a calmer state (I talked about entrainment in Chapter 5 and about calm in Chapter 9). In both Ty’s and Charlie’s cases, calm occurred within a few minutes. 

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.

You can learn  more and order the book here

You can learn more about the REI Custom Program here


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.

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 playdrums.com

playdrums.com reviewPlaydrums.com, 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 amazon.com 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).

Buy the book on amazon.com

* To receive your free 30-day subscription simply email us your book purchase receipt. Also let us know the email tied to your BSR account if you already have one. Receipt must be dated between January 21st and Mach 31st, 2015.

 

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.

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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.

Nothing.

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.

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“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.

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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.

more coming soon…