Tag Archives: autism therapy

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. 

Case Study: 11 Year Old Male with Autism, Verbal Apraxia, and Sensory Processing Disorder

James was diagnosed with ASD (specifically, PDD NOS) with complicating diagnoses of verbal apraxia and sensory processing disorder. His most significant issues were:

  • Anxiety. Generalized anxiety as well as fear of changes in routine and unfamiliar places.
  • Sleep Problems.
  • Self-stimmulatory behaviors such as vocal noise-making, pinching, hand-flapping.
  • Poor social engagement.
  • Apraxia and lack of verbal communication.

James began listening to his custom REI recording in the evening while he engaged in quiet play. He was initially resistant to listening (sometimes he would say “no music!”) when the music was turned on. This resistance lasted less than two weeks while, during this time, he made significants gains.

During the first two weeks,  James began sleeping through the night, something that he had not been able to do for the previous few years. His anxiety also reduced profoundly, most notably he stopped compulsively asking about the the day’s schedule and worrying about his next activities.

During the third week, his mom related, “For the first time James started asking the ABA therapists to keep playing when the session was done. He also, on his own volition, chose to start playing with his trains and Rescue Heroes. Usually he only wants to draw all day.”

After four weeks on the REI Custom Program, his mom and therapists noted that James’s vocabulary was increasing, as was the length of his sentences.

After 6 weeks James was reported to show the first signs of pretend play. His mother wrote, ”The other day he said ‘elephant’ and used his arm as a trunk and stomped around the room! Also did a similar thing with ‘giant.’ Very exciting!”

At eight weeks, James’s mom reported more behavioral gains. He was doing less drawing and the drawings that he did create were of broader subjects. She noted that he was able, with prompts, to sit through his brother’s baseball game, a first. While the family was out sightseeing they got caught in the pouring rain. “James did not like it, but was okay”. To his family’s surprise he did not have the customary meltdown.

After 16 weeks of listening to his REI recordings, his mother requested a revision to his program that focused more on his issues with inflexibility and difficulty with transition. He started listening to the revised CD in mid October.

After 20 weeks, it was noted that James was continuing to make behavioral gains. His brother was having a bar mitzvah and the whole family was worried about how James would tolerate the very stimulating day. He handled the day surprisingly well, his mother reported, sitting through the entire religious ceremony and staying calm among all the guests. Most surprisingly, James allowed himself to be photographed. Until that day James would get very agitated when a camera was pointed at him and always refused to stand for a photograph. On this day, not only would he allow many photos to be taken, but even smiled on command!

Over the next month, his mother reported that James was using more spontaneous language and appeared “more connected” with his feelings. For instance, she related that when his teacher asked him what was wrong, James replied,  “I feel angy”. When asked why he was upset when he had to go to a mainstream class that he did not like (because the sound of the classroom music hurt his ears,) he replied “because there was music.”  On another occasion, he told his mother that he felt “nervous” when his school bus took another route home one day.

Fifteen months after completing the REI Custom Program, in an interview with his mother, James was reported to be doing well, with continued growth in his ability to verbally communicate his needs and to socialize more appropriately. He has maintained all of the gains he made while on the REI Custom program, including decreased anxiety, especially about his schedule, increased spontaneous play, and use of verbal communication to express his feelings.

Learn more about the REI Custom Program here

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

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.”

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

Different Drummer Book, Excerpt #2

Note: You can find the previous excerpt here

Chapter 1, Part 2

“Where are we going?” I asked, as I climbed into the waiting car.

“To meet a little boy”, Lloyd said. We were on one of our many “field trips” where Lloyd would show me a side to drumming that I was unfamiliar with as a player of popular music.

Over the previous six months Lloyd had taught me the traditional rhythms he and his ancestors had used for centuries. He taught me their origins and was beginning to initiate me into the healing aspects of drumming. These healing powers, he described, were based on a connection to the sacred and tied to behavior.  I’d learned to trust Lloyd and, though I was uncomfortable with some of the spiritual connections he talked about, I was traveling a path that many drummers had followed before me and I was enthralled by all I was experiencing. This field trip was my first glimpse into a world where drumming was used to affect behavior.

We drove along for about fifteen minutes before Lloyd said, “Remember during the healing ritual last week when the young woman starting acting out, throwing her body and flailing around?” He asked.

I nodded. Thinking back on my first real initiation into age-old drum-healing ceremonies. In this ceremony we drummed while a priestess (Manbo) invoked Orishas (spirits) to facilitate the healing of a woman with an illness (a process I describe in Chapter 3).

“In our world when someone is acting outside of the community’s norms they are said to be possessed. It’s our job as drummers to help people keep clear of possession. We do this by using the power of the group, through celebration and ritual, to keep the community cohesive and to see the signs that someone is not acting right. Then if we observe this or a community member alerts us to inappropriate behavior, we intervene. That’s what we’ll be doing today.”

We drove along for another fifteen minutes before Lloyd said, “We’re going to meet a boy who is aggressive, often violent, doesn’t follow directions, doesn’t communicate, won’t be touched and screams when asked to come out of his shell.”

“So, how are we going to help?” I asked. “I know we can influence behavior by drumming, but this sounds like a mental disorder, not some spirit thing.”

“Well, it is.” He answered. “In Shango we frame any acting out or non-conforming behavior as having a spiritual cause. This is a holdover from a time when we didn’t have the language to describe these things in the way we do today. This is just another way a viewing what is now considered psychological or mental health issues.

Think if it this way, when you’re feeling down sometimes you may say: ‘I don’t feel like myself’. In village culture your loved ones may say that you are suffering from a illness of spirit. It’s the same thing. And it doesn’t matter from our perspective. We do the same work either way.”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“We play the drum,” he said. And that was the last he said until we arrived at our destination.

We were in an affluent part of town in west LA. The house was large and imposing and was entered through a locked gate. There were 2 beautiful foreign luxury cars parked out front and the views of the LA basin and Pacific Ocean were astounding. This was in large contrast to the run-down church we played at just a week earlier in San Pedro’s shipping district.

We were met by a familiar looking, stunning black woman. She gave Lloyd a hug and said, “Nice to see you again, Jeff. Are you ready for another initiation?” Hearing her voice I finally recognized her. She was the manbo!

“Um, yeah”, I mumbled, not sure how to respond.

She guided us into the house where a young family was seated in the sunroom. There was a boy of about 6 sitting on his knees on the floor pushing a Lego truck back and forth while rocking and humming to himself. The man and woman stood and we all said hello. The boy continued to sit, absorbed in his ritual.

“Ty”, the woman’s said to the child. “Say hello to master Lloyd. You remember him, don’t you?”

No response.

Lloyd leaned down and touched the boys shoulder. “Hello, Ty. It’s nice to see you again. Do you mind if I play my drum for you?” he said.

Again, no response. No one seemed surprised by this and no one forced the boy to engage. Lloyd simply asked me to get the drums and set them up by two chairs. I did as he asked, while he quietly chatted with the parents.

Once set up, Lloyd sat behind two drums (barrel-shaped drums that originate from Cuba, a conga and a tumba) and began playing. Slowly, quietly he centered on muted tones seemingly being careful not to startle the child. I sat and watched.

Lloyd played quietly for a while then slowly he increased the volume and intensity, adding some slap tones and bass punches to the mix. I noticed that once in a while the boy looked over toward Lloyd. Then after 10 minutes or so the boy got up.

He moved around somewhat aimlessly for a few minutes until he went over and sat on his mother’s lap. Lloyd continued playing but toned down the rhythms a bit. The child sat rocking and humming against his mother while she held him. She began to cry.


I sat looking at Stacey as she sat contentedly on the floor still playing with a toy. Her mother returned from the kitchen, her phone call over, settled onto the couch next to me, and smiled as she watched Stacey.

“I’ve not seen her this calm in a long time,” she whispered in my ear after a while.

I noddod and took it as a sign that I should call this an end to our first session. I slowed my rhythms and progressively dropped the volume until my drumming faded away.

I’ve come full circle, I thought. Just a decade earlier I was in a similar situation when Lloyd showed me for the first time what it meant to calm an anxious disconnected child with fast, complex drumming rhythms when he played for Ty.


“Hello, Ty,” Lloyd said as we entered the house. Ty was spinning around the entry eyes at the ceiling two stories above. Ty offered no response. Lloyd motioned for me to go to the sunroom and to set up the drums where we had the day before.

“Ty seems a little more settled every day,” I heard his mother tell Lloyd. “Last night he went to bed without a meltdown. After his bath he climbed into bed and sat quietly while a read to him. Two books and I turned out the light. He slept until 5:30 this morning. We actually got some rest, too.”

She was excited and Lloyd seemed pleased. I heard him mention something about the purpose of the drumming but I was essentially out of earshot and needed to focus on setting up the drums and preparing the space, so I didn’t catch most of what he said to her. I could tell she was focused on what he was saying, often nodding in agreement and appreciation for what he was describing.

This is our fifth visit to Ty in as many days. This time I came prepared with a pocket tape recorder. I wanted to document what Lloyd played. For the last four days I sat and watched as Lloyd engaged with Ty in a way that  made little sense to me.

I noticed some interesting connections, though. First were the focusing effects I felt when I played certain exercises for my classes at MI and second was the similarity to some of the odd patterns Ralph Humphrey had in his book, Even in the Odds.

This book, along with Joe Porcaro’s Drumset Method and Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation For the Modern Drummer, had become my main references in school. These books energized me and helped me stretch my rhythm muscles in a way that playing common rhythms in traditional time signatures didn’t.

Most music, especially forms of popular music such as rock, blues, folk, jazz, and hip hop, follow common time structures. You essentially have two basic feels: Straight and swing.

So you can either count a measure in music as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, giving a straight two pulse, or you can count it as 1tu tu 2 tu tu 3 tu tu 4 tu tu, giving it a swing.

From these two basic underlying structures you can cover nearly every song played today.

When I was working as a gigging drummer, I played a lot of pick up gigs, where I showed up at a gig and played with people I often never played with before. As a drummer even if I didn’t know the song, if I knew the feel, I could make my way through the song. If the song swung, I’d swing, if it was straight, I’d played straight. If you can do this and if you focused on the rest of the rhythm section and supported the melody, you’d be golden and more than likely be called back.

This is all to say that the rhythms I was hearing Lloyd play, and found myself playing, were not typical, which was fine with me.

So, as I was playing for people like Stacey and recording and analyzing what I played for them, I was looking at the rhythms and their responses I was remembering what Lloyd said to me one time early on in my studies with him.

“Each rhythm has a purpose”, he said. “You have to find the right rhythm to draw the spirit out. You play the wrong rhythm, or even the right rhythm at the wrong time, and you won’t be able to hear your patient. Know your rhythms and you find your power.”

So, as I was making tapes for people I was looking for pattern in the rhythm and listener response. This was a monumental task and one that was without a roadmap.

I’ve always been really good at seeing patterns and with the two that I had seen so far I wanted to begin looking at them in a more focused and structured way. This led me down the path I’ve been following for over two decades.


“Stacey slept in her own room last night,” reported her mother when I showed up at her house two days after first playing for her.  I tried to explore this with her, but Stacey, accosted me at the door.

“Hi Jeff,” Stacey said looking past me and grabbing my drum from my hand. She struggled with the forty-pound case and nearly tripped over me.  Unfazed, she continued talking. “Belle likes books. I like reading books too. Do you like reading books? I like books, Belle likes books.” She said in a flurry.

Stumbling with my drums and recording equipment I said, “umm, yeah, I like to read. Who’s Belle?” I asked.

“Belle likes reading books just like me” she responded, not answering my question, while dropping my drum and grabbing a picture book. I disappeared from her awareness as she was drawn into the pictures and her own world.

I shrugged and continued setting up.

Belle, I later found out, is the main character in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, one of Stacey’s favorite movies, one that she watched over and over and would talk about endlessly if you let her. She created an entire inner world with Belle as her friend.

Stacey was much calmer this day. She was not clinging to her mom, though I could see that she was acutely aware of where her mother was and at one point I saw her tense up when her mother walked toward the kitchen.

I decided this was a good time to start playing so I tapped a tentative rhythm with my fingertips, making sure not to startle her. Her sister, who is two years older and typical, came into the living room and sat down near Stacey to read a book.

They both sat quietly as I played a large variety of rhythms, tempos, and volumes. I played for about twenty minutes and really didn’t see much of a response from Stacey at all. I noted that her mother wasn’t in the room the entire time I played and Stacey didn’t seem to care.

This was fine with me as it wasn’t always about getting a reaction. In this instance I was testing out a bunch of rhythms that I would put on a tape for her to listen to everyday with the goal of helping calm her down when she got anxious and to, hopefully, provide a longer term impact on her anxiety. 

This long-term change concept came directly from my studies with Lloyd and was something I was beginning to explore in a more formalized way. Typically I would meet with someone and play for them while recording the session and having someone take notes about responses to the different rhythms. Then I would come back two or three days later and play again taking notes and recording my session. Then it was back to my studio to analyze the recording and notes and to make a recording of the rhythms that offered the most positive response.

“Goodbye, Stacey” I said as I grabbed my gear and headed out the door. Just like last time she was engrossed in a toy and didn’t answer me or even acknowledge my exit.


Two days later I returned to Stacey’s house to drop off the tape.

“Are you going to play your drum today?” asked Stacey.

“Not today” I said. “I’m only here to give your mom a tape for you to listen to. Would you like to listen to a tape of my drumming?”

“Mommy turn it on now!” She replied.

She grabbed my hand and led me to the couch. “Turn on the tape mommy and we’ll listen.”

Stacey was insistent and excited and she listened intently for about 35 seconds before she was back on the floor with a toy. I moved to the floor with her to see if we could play together but she wasn’t interested, pushing me away when I tried to interfere with her play. She spun a toy on a book over and over again.

I got up and said goodbye to her mother, leaving them with the tape and instructions to play it at bedtime or any other time Stacey got anxious. I also left a tracking form for her mother to complete to see if there were any patterns to Stacey’s anxiety or reactions to the tape.

Obviously tapes were not possible in the days that this technique originally developed but in Lloyd’s tradition he would often either move in with his patient or the patient would move in with him for a while and he would play everyday for the person until the spirit possessing the patient would move on. This was impractical for me and, given that I also worked in a recording studio, I had the equipment to be able to make a tape for the person to listen to so I wouldn’t have to be available for her everyday.

Stephanie’s mother called me after 7 weeks, excited by an event that occurred the night before. She reported that Stephanie had a sleep-over at a new friend’s house, a first for her on several levels: First, Stephanie had never been invited to a sleep-over before, second, she was able to separate from her mother to actually to on the sleep-over, and third, the next morning she was able to describe in proper sequence what she did at the sleep-over. These were major milestones for her.

Stephanie was also perseverating less and engaging in more appropriate conversation. She was also making eye contact more often. After roughly 10 weeks, she was observed in class by the school psychologist who noted that, based on her behaviors, Stephanie was “indistinguishable” from the typical children in the classroom. As a result she was mainstreamed into the regular (non-special education) classroom.

As was typical, when I analyzed the recording and listened to the rhythms I played for Stacey I was surprised at the complexity of the rhythms I was playing. Many times I had to slow down the playback to figure out what I had played.

This was something that continually surprised me. Even the first time I heard Lloyd play for a patient.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter 2 here 

I’m posting excerpts from my new book: Different Drummer

I’m just finishing my new book, which was supposed to be my first book. The one I talk about here. This book is about my research and work with drumming and the brain, the stuff that informs my music and day job. This book could have been written earlier, but each year that goes by adds to the story. So, it’s okay that it isn’t finished yet.

However, now is the perfect time for me to finish it. The impetus for doing it now are two-fold:

First, I have time. The programs and CDs for my day job are automated, Brain Shift Radio is fully stocked with great music, and the BSR mobile App for Android is live.

Second, I agreed to start teaching drumming again. And this time it’s going to be therapeutic drumming or drum-healing, whatever you want to call it. I’ll be putting up video lessons for the basics soon and am in the process of creating a full certification program. Because my path is a key to the way I’m building the training program, it makes sense for me to finish this book in the process.

So, the time is now, and given the role of technology on my work in general, I thought I’d start posting bits and pieces of it here before it’s all rolled into one manuscript (and fully edited – read the excerpts at your own risk).

This book, titled Different Drummer: One Man’s Music and Its Impact on ADD and Autism, Anxiety and Attention, will be published in February 2015.