Working With Challenged Students by John Jamison

One of the most rewarding opportunities I’ve had as a teacher has been working with students that are challenged. I’d like to share some stories and ideas so that some of you who might be hesitant to take on these students may think twice and welcome them as I have!

My first experience was with a young man called Eric*, who was born mildly mentally retarded. In his teens, a tetanus shot caused brain damage. His mother brought him to me, explaining that he really didn’t have the faculties for retention or normal learning, but that he loved music. I realized I would really have to improvise with Eric to find something that he could relate to.

It turned out that Eric was able to mimic some of what I was doing and I found that he could play some blazing single strokes with serious stamina. I set up a line of drum pads, snares with pads and closed hi-hats in a semi-circle all at the same height around him, with me sitting opposite. Eric’s mom brought a tape of music that he liked, and we would “play” along with the tape for the full half-hour. As the song styles would change, so would our rhythms, and I would move around the pads and he would follow. I was never sure how much of this Eric was taking in, until the week that they forgot his cassette. I brought in a tape with a wide variety of songs and styles. Eric and I spent our regular half hour playing along to my tape and I thought he enjoyed it. The following week they forgot their tape again, and I thought it best to give him some repetition so I brought in the same tape. In the middle of the first song, I realized that Eric was mouthing the lyrics to the song as he played. Coincidence? Not when he continued to do it for the full half-hour (Remember, these were all different songs, all different artists)!

So, while Eric appeared disabled to the outside world, it was obvious that there was an incredibly strong connection - almost with a photographic memory - to music and drumming that transcended his disabilities! Eric was a tremendous learning experience for me and helped shape my future approach to working with disabled students.

In the high school drumline that I teach, I’ve been working with a student that has Down’s Syndrome. He has been able to learn different concepts of playing, although he can’t read music in a practical way. By working closely with him, and by using a practice cassette of the show music, he was able to be an effective and important player with our pit percussion. More importantly, by being around the enthusiasm of the kids in drumline, – who were always pitching in to help him and guide him – he experienced a social acceptance he hadn’t perceived before. That pride compelled him to want to achieve a higher level, which he did!

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to work with Stephen. Stephen has cerebral palsy, which has strongly affected the left side of his body. My routine with him typically consists of three things: learning rudiments which he is memorizing, playing “copycat” around the drumset, and playing along with his favorite songs. We typically add a new rudiment every two or three weeks and review the old ones. For copycat (which I also find to be a very effective tool for many young and beginner students), I’ll ask him to copy rhythms and stickings that I play accurately, with the major emphasis on integrating his left hand into routines. His physical therapist has remarked to Stephen’s mother that since taking drum lessons, she has noted improved function on his left side! I’m hoping that soon I’ll be able to have Stephen play some familiar drumset beats, learned by rote, at least with his hands. He, too, reminds me of how much people don’t see past the face of the disability. Stephen’s mother has told me that with all the different therapies they have, drum lessons are the one thing that he has energy and enthusiasm for!

Regarding my “normal” students - many parents have come to me after their child has studied drums for a bit, and asked me glumly about their progress, assuming it to be minimal because they have ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. The answer I have for almost all of them is the same - surprise that their kids have such a condition! My experience has been that when a student is connecting to music and drumming, that, frequently their disability, however great or small, doesn’t manifest itself the way people expect it to. I believe music to be one of the primal things that everyone relates to, and drumming becomes the fun, exciting way that ANYONE can express themselves!

When it comes to working with students that are challenged, I firmly believe that any teacher will find that if they take the time and have the interest, this will be a learning experience and connection with someone where both sides win big!

John Jamison is an active educator, adjudicator, clinician, arranger, composer, drummer and studio musician. He is the Percussion Director at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod and also teaches for Thom Hannum's Mobile Percussion Seminar at UMASS Amherst.