Saturday, July 31, 2010

Drumming Via Webcam And With Special Needs Kids

I’ve been asked a few times about long distance drumming over the web with video camera programs like Skype. My experience, despite some of the technical issues, that it’s a very effective way to teach drumming across the country from the comfort of your home.

A family contacted me some time ago that had an 8 year old child with Cerebral Palsy. They had spoken with numerous doctors and specialists about finding ways to help strengthen his weak arm and hand. Because if he could begin using it more at this young age it might help him to work through it a little, or even help it to heal a little bit.

Please keep in mind that this should be okayed by the person’s doctor. This case was actually a referral from the child’s neurologist. While I have seen multiple people improve through drumming, it is certainly not a cure and every one is unique, so the outcomes do vary. I am just sharing an experience here.

I started by speaking via webcam with the parents about it, and they explained that they wanted to try drumming as a possible solution. I explained that I only teach drumming. I’m not a therapist, and I have no medical degrees. I’m a musician, and I will help to teach him music. Obviously each child, and medical condition has to be approached differently, and that we have to find the right style of drum to suit each individual’s needs.

I suggested that we try a couple of drumming lessons and see how things go. If it works out for him, that we could do a webcam drumming lesson once a week, or twice a month. They could continue as long as they felt he was benefiting from it. I’ve worked a lot drumming with special needs children and adults, both individually and in groups, so finding the right approach and style of drum unique to each person is very important. Most of the time I would just let them choose a drum or percussion item and, later on, suggest they try a different one out.

With this particular child the wish of the parents was to teach him drumming to strengthen the weaker arm. At the time he couldn’t really do anything with it, and didn’t really want to.

I suggested one of those smaller very lightweight aluminum doumbeks. The reason was he would need to grasp the body of the drum with his weak arm to play it, and he could play with his stronger arm. I figured when it got stronger that maybe a set of bongos on a stand might be the ideal drum. I’ve seen people at some of the drum circles I hosted with Cerebral Palsy strengthen their weak hand over the course of just a couple of months by playing the bongos. One person in particular was in a wheelchair and he would just set it on his lap and play. I was rather surprised how quickly the weak arm improved and he could begin to tap out rhythms on the bongos with both hands. It happened so quickly that he could play a rhythm as good as anyone else in the group. One of the keys to it was suggesting a basic foundation drum rhythm, and encouraging them to improvise whenever they felt comfortable. This gets them out of their head, and frees them up to not think, and just have fun playing and improvising.

So that was my thinking looking forward going into this. My approach needed to be different than drumming in the room with someone, because they are in New Jersey looking at me on a computer screen, and I’m down here in Florida. With any 8 year old child there is an attention span issue, so my approach was just to encourage him to have fun drumming. I used very basic drum rhythms with word association. I just wanted to make it fun for him so he would enjoy playing and not think about his condition. I gave him a few hand technique suggestions so he wouldn’t hurt his hand. I chatted with him a little and found out what his hobbies and interests were so I had something to work with. He liked rock music, and the NY Jets. So examples I used were: “We Will Rock You’, “J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets” And we played to those. Just bass and tones. He loved this one: “I like choc-late cake”, - (bass-bass, tone tone tone)

With the long distance thing, and attention span, I felt that a 5 minute drum rhythm jam was plenty, unless he wanted to play it a bit longer, but I tried to keep them short so he wouldn’t get bored. After each rhythm we would talk for a few minutes, so he could rest, and then try another one out. An hour is a long time to drum with one child, but this ended up working very well. After a half hour he was suggesting jingles, sayings, songs, names, phrases, and raps to play, so that’s what we did. We ended up taking turns suggesting them. Again I encouraged him to improvise and play whatever he felt like playing as I held the support rhythm. That first lesson went very well. At the end I asked to speak with the mother for a quick review, and we continued with a 1 hour drum lesson for 4 weeks.

One thing that came up was at times he would get frustrated, and that’s when hobby talk, or things he was interested in would be worked in. Then we could get right back to drumming. It takes a little more extra patience than normal, because kids get aggravated, especially when they have physical limitations. Life is harder, school is harder, and keeping that in mind is important.

At the end of the forth drumming session the mom got on the cam and was delighted to tell me that he was now doing tasks around the house with his weak arm. Simple things like opening the refrigerator door, etc. but is was a progress they hadn’t seen from all the therapies they had tried previously. Keep in mind, he never actually played the drum with his weak arm, he just held onto it while he played with the other one. But this helped to strengthen his arm without him having to do a deliberate task to do it. And that seemed to be the block holding him back.

From there I suggested we upgrade to a set of bongos with a stand. That worked out great. He was excited to play full rhythms with both hands. At first it was barely a curled hand tap, but after a couple of more lessons he was playing some decent beats and now actually playing with the weak hand. I have to say, I was thrilled to see such quick progress with his condition in less than 2 months.

I hoped that he would take such a liking to playing music that eventually he might join the school band like I did. I was a hyperactive child and my parents got me a drum instead of Ritalin. I loved drumming and went on to join the school band as soon as I was old enough.

We continued on for a year or so, with 1 to 3 lessons a month, as the parent’s time allowed. They had 3 other children so being flexible and trying to accommodate their busy schedule was a factor. Slowly during the lessons I would work in a bit of music theory, how to read music, meter, some different time signatures, musical terms and what they meant, tempo, crescendo, decrescendo, etc. It continued on as long as it did because he loved drumming.

After that first year, they were planning a Florida vacation to our area, and wanted to meet me to say hello in person. I suggested that we all go to an open drum circle at the beach. They loved the idea, and it worked out great. I piled up the van with drums and my percussion gig bag, we all went down there and had a blast. It was a very pleasing experience for me. Plus, they bought me dinner at a snazzy restaurant I can’t afford to even go to. We all said goodbye, and the online drumming lessons continued once or twice a month. He was playing on his own now in-between, but still wanted to hang out and jam now and then.

My goal evolved to the point where he wouldn’t need me anymore, as much as it saddened me to think of it. I explained to the mom that’s where I wanted him to get to. Coincidentally, soon after that he joined the school band. I was absolutely thrilled. We had reached that point, where they really didn’t need me for lessons anymore. He was the percussionist in the band, and was musically way ahead of the other kids.

So it was goodbye. I was happy but also sad. A month later they contacted me because he was going to do a school performance in the school band. They gave them a pretty heavy duty scored piece of instrumental music they had to perform live. The mom faxed it to me and I was surprised how advanced it was for a 10 year old group of kids to play. I didn’t see anything like that until I was in high school. I was pleased they were teaching advanced music at such a young age.

But he was stressing over performing it because it was really complicated looking at it from a kids point of view. So we sat down on the computer and went back to the basics. I used word association for musical phrases, we broke it all down measure by measure and slowly put it all back together. It took about 3 lessons to where it all made sense for him, but he got it.

Then I added a little of my experiences with live performances. Things do go wrong, about playing with confidence, and working past mistakes if he made one. To just act like he meant to play that measure that way. His block was that he would want to stop altogether if he got lost, or thought he might have played something wrong. There was a lot of pressure on these kids. But I think it was good for the musical director to challenge them like this. And he was reasonably confident to go perform that in front of a crowd.

I have to admit, I was stressing a little at this point, waiting to hear how it went for him. I so wanted him to do well. Look how far he had come in less than 18 months. From not even being able to move his arm, to playing written music with both hands…Live in front of people. Two longs days went by, and the mom emailed me a short video of the school band performance. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

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