This is your brain on drums

Sheri Luevano has been teaching music for over 20 years. For the past 7 years she has focused on teaching drums. She started teaching private drum lessons while completing her Masters degree in Music Education. Her thesis centered around music therapy for Vietnam Veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I found Sheri while looking for a drum teacher for my daughter who was willing to take on a student with learning disabilities.

Since starting drum lessons with Sheri (it has been about a year), I have found that my daughter’s mental processing speed has improved and she is having a slightly easier time with math. I decided to interview Sheri about her experience teaching alternative learners and the noted benefits she has seen for her students in the process.

 

EVERYONE learns differently, there is no real “normal” when it comes to learning to play an instrument

A: There’s been some research about the therapeutic benefits, both cognitive and developmental, from learning to play a musical instrument. In general it is seen as beneficial across-the-board with helping create neural pathways in the brain. Many of those pathways help kids process what they are exposed to academically, so playing drums (as well as other musical instruments) facilitates and supports other types of learning.

Pamela B. Tanguay, author of “Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home: A Parent’s Guide” describes her daughter’s experience learning drums while struggling with her Nonverbal Learning Disability.

“Several years ago our neuropsychologist encouraged us to have our daughter take drum lessons. I remember her telling me that we should continue to encourage activities which stimulate the right hemisphere. Apparently, music lessons and/ or playing an instrument do that.

Three years later, I am astounded with the difference music has made for our daughter. Not only has she become an accomplished drummer, but she plays electric, acoustic, and bass guitar. Each has benefited her in different ways.

When she started drum lessons, it was all very awkward and frustrating. However, with practice and an excellent instructor she grasped the ‘feel’ of the instrument fairly quickly. After two years of playing drums, we see the following benefits: she comfortably crosses midline, she is far more coordinated and spatially aware, she is far more physically fit, her thinking skills have improved, her handwriting speed has improved, her self-esteem is much better, and she has a physical outlet for her anger and frustration.” (pp 208-209, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home, A Parent’s Guide)

Since my daughter is a drum student of yours, and I am starting to see similar shifts in my own daughter as Pamela B. Tanguay saw in her daughter after starting to practice the drums, I wanted to talk to you about your experience in teaching drums to alternative learners; Kids who are not necessarily neuro-typical. What are your experiences teaching kids that have different learning styles?

S:  I would say right off the bat I have noticed and am most delighted by the fact that EVERYONE learns differently, that there is no real “normal” when it comes to learning to play an instrument.

I have been a musician all my life. My primary instrument used to be the flute. I used to teach marching band at a high school. Then I went back to school, got a masters degree and while I was in school, in order to keep working I started teaching private drum lessons and I just loved it.

My history with drums started back probably 25 years ago when we adopted one of my children. My son came to us at two days old. He came from Boise, Idaho and about 12 days after we brought him home to California, he started having seizures. When we took him to the ER, the doctors, not realizing that I was not his birthmother, asked me if I had been using drugs while I was pregnant with him. I said, “Well, we’re gonna have to ask the birthmother… I really don’t know.”

We are strongly suspicious that she was using (drugs) during her pregnancy and passed some addiction problems to her son. This led to some interesting learning issues for him. I think now, his behavioral issues would be classified as typical ADD behaviors. For example, if you give a kid with ADD two or three instructions in a row, they are only able to remember and complete one out of the two or three. They can’t follow through with the rest. That was one issue we had with him.

When he was about five years old, he was struggling in Kindergarten with his letters. We chose to hold him back a year so he entered Kindergarten for the second time as a six year old. He was still not recognizing letters and other things. At the time, he was diagnosed as being dyslexic*.

He just took to the drums

A: Sounds like he had a rough go of it at the start. Did you encourage him to play music as a counter point to the difficulties he was having academically?

S: I don’t remember exactly why we wanted him to learn an instrument. My husband is not a musician and has very little music ability other than he loves to listen to music. My son loved music and he still does. Now as an adult, he plays guitar, sings and writes music. He has always been very musical.

As far as how my son got started with playing an instrument, it may be that he knew other kids who were playing instruments and decided he wanted to give it a try. I just went with it. Of course I was delighted to encourage it being a musician myself.

We decided to try him out on the piano. He did not like that at all, so, after a year of trying him out on a bunch of different instruments, I said what would you like to play? He said, “How about the drums?” He was seven years old at the time. I said, “Ok, let’s do it.” He just took to the drums. He was a natural. He still had to work at it, of course, like everybody else, but he was willing to do the work, which meant he really liked it.

While my son was learning to play the drums, I thought to myself, this looks like fun. I wonder if I if I could do that. I started taking lessons, I took the 1/2 hour slot after my son’s lesson. So we both learned to play drums together.

During this time, an interesting thing started to happen. I noticed that he had a quicker progression in terms of being able to recognize letters and numbers. About a year into my son learning the drums– he was eight and he was at a special school, the school started to talk to me about mainstreaming him.

By the time he was nine he was reading books like “Harry Potter” which was in stark contrast to where he was only a few years before. At six years old he couldn’t read at all. At seven he was still barely able to read. After he started taking drum lessons, slowly, his reading started to improve. By nine years old, he was reading these big, involved stories, like the “Harry Potter” series that take a lot of concentration and focus.

I thought there’s definitely something to this.

I think a lot of kids struggle with learning issues

A: What about the drumming do you think helped your son with his letter recognition, possibly the extra right brain hemisphere stimulation?

S: Well, probably most importantly, I think the drumming gave him a sense of self-esteem. He started to acknowledge that he is not stupid. Here was proof that he could do something that his peers weren’t doing.

I think a lot of kids struggle with learning issues. And because they don’t fit into a prescribed mold that fits a lot of the other kids in the classroom, they just assume that there is there is something wrong with them intellectually.

My son is actually very bright, like a lot of other kids with learning differences. It took about 2 years to see a shift in his reading ability. I mean, I can’t claim that it’s all drums, it could be that he was just a late bloomer and he needed more time, but I do think there is something to it. The working of the rhythm patterns, reading the notes on the page…

A: Well, when you talk to Occupational Therapists** and Developmental Pediatricians***, they all talk about working gross and fine motor skills to help set the brain up for academic work.

I see the progress in my own daughter during her lessons with you. We tried her on piano, and it was just too frustrating for her. She had the same issues that your son had with playing the piano.

She is an auditory learner so that so it’s really good for her to be able to associate hearing the sound of the drum concurrently with having a physical sensation of striking the drum head. It becomes multi-sensory experience.

You are working the bilateral coordination of all of your limbs in one go

S: Yeah. There’s a saying in drumming, “If you can say it, you can play it.” I really believe in that because I’ve seen it work so many times with my students. They will be frustrated with the beat and I’ll say, “You know what? Try saying it while you’re playing it.” All of a sudden it clicks and they are able to get that tricky beat. It’s one of the most magical things!

A: That saying, “If you can say it you can play it,” makes me think about eastern musical traditions. For example, when learning traditional Hindustani music (the music of northern India), you learn everything, the melodies and the rhythms by singing them first. Then you translate what you just sang to your instrument, whatever that is.

S: Right, so when I’m sitting there reading music with a student, I’m singing it in my head as I’m looking in order to check what they’re doing is correct. It’s like my way of keeping on top of what they’re playing. I think a lot of it is trusting the process.

Sometimes we have to use our muscles and let them guide us to create the rhythms. We practice things that we don’t understand. We don’t understand why we’re practicing them right at that moment, and it can be tiring and frustrating. Then, at some point, it all comes together.

You can’t see neural pathways being formed in your brain, but there is tons of evidence that it is happening. And those pathways invariably are used by the brain for other purposes in addition to when you are drumming, so it makes sense that other things are facilitated by practicing and playing a musical instrument.

When you are sitting behind a drum kit, you are using all four of your limbs plus your voice if you are counting out loud or singing. So you are working the bilateral coordination of all of your limbs in one go, it is such a complex task.

The only other thing I can think of that comes close is being a member of a marching band. Marching band members play their instruments while they’re moving their feet in time to the music, and move around together as a unit in a prescribed formation.

My first instrument was the flute and I always struggled to read the sheet music. But, when I started to pay the drums, I found that even sight reading the drum sheet music was much easier. I don’t know what it is. I think perhaps it’s that my whole brain is engaged when playing on a drum kit and maybe that facilitates my reading of music.

What I see in my teaching practice is this; I end up with a lot of students that have tried many other instruments before coming here to try the drums. Here, all of a sudden, they’re successful in being able to play the instrument.  Maybe, like my flute playing, the other instruments they tried out laid some important groundwork in the brain, and the actions of playing the drums are building on the pathways that were already there.

A: And perhaps it’s the combination of having some prior musical experience and the fact that drumming is a whole body/ whole brain activity that leads the students to some early successes? And also perhaps why so many kids with ADHD/ ADD and other related learning disabilities gravitate towards the drums?

Drumming is a whole brain/ whole body activity

S: Yeah. You know how the kids with ADHD/ ADD, Autism, NVLD**** and Dyslexia have problems focusing?  With drums, because its a whole brain/ whole body activity, there is too much going on to lose focus. It requires all of your attention and your brain can’t afford to check out. It’s like you’re in hyper-focus mode, which happens to people with ADD. That is the gift, if you want to view it that way. It is in that hyper-focused mode where a lot of people with ADD and related conditions get their best work done. Many people with ADD/ ADHD get their best work done after midnight because their body is exhausted, and their brain can finally let go of everything else in order to get the one task done.

A: Do you run into problems  figuring out a way to teach the kids with learning disabilities? Kids who, if they are not actively playing the drums, they are unable to focus on your verbal instructions?

S: There’s another saying that comes to mind when I teach the kids who have ADHD, “The fastest way to learn something is to slow it down.” That can be applied in many many different levels and to many things. I have the kids practice a new beat slowly, until they get the pattern, then I have them speed it up, and sometimes I find that they play the beats even better when we speed things up.

Sometimes, the speed shift happens not just with the tempo of the beats I give them to practice, but also how quickly I give them the verbal information. One of the reasons I love teaching drums is that it taps into the creativity of how you present the material to fit your student’s learning profile. You constantly have to be re-evaluating how you teach.

A: It sounds like you actually enjoy having different types of learners in your space because they force you to have to think outside of what may be more engrained teaching patterns.

S: Right, I think in a different way in order to get the information to them so that they can comprehend the lesson.

Their smile is my smile

A: What have been some of the most satisfying moments teaching drums to alternative learners?

S: Right now I have a student who is extremely autistic. He comes in the room and is jumping up and down and is largely nonverbal although I can get a, “Count it out, 1…2…3…4…,” out of him.  I’ve been working with him for about six months and I just break things down one thing at a time, to match his processing speed. We are slowly creating those brain pathways, helping him to recognize certain symbols on the sheet music. It is slow going but I get very excited because you can see such incredible jumps in his learning week to week.

Seeing a little smile on his face is worth a million bucks to me. Hearing him have the forethought to say, “Merry Christmas!” to me on his way out of the last lesson before the holidays was just so cool.

I feel like anybody can learn the drums. It is an instrument that is so accessible. You have to be patient and go at your own pace and for some people it’s going to take longer than for others.

Some people don’t even need lessons, they can just sit down at the kit and play.  I’ve seen people like that, they just somehow figured it all out on the fly. I was not one of those people, and 99.9% of my students are not either. So I teach to the individuals pace. Seeing their success is the most satisfying thing of all. Their success is my success and their smile is my smile.

A: Thank you so much for sharing your time and teaching experience with us! Happy Drumming!

S: Thank you!

 

*Dyslexic/ Dyslexia: a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.

** Occupational Therapists: a therapist that specializes in exercises that enhance cognitive, gross motor, and fine motor skills that facilitate everyday life activities.

***Developmental Pediatricians: also known as Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician. A DP or DBP is a Pediatrician with advanced training in the physical, emotional, behavioral, and social development of children.

****NLVD/ Nonverbal Learning Disability: a disorder which is usually characterized by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial and social skills.

For more reading about music and brain function:

Music With the Brain in Mind by  Eric P. Jensen

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

 

Sheri Luevano is a musician, private drum teacher, and mother to two grown boys. As a drum teacher, every day is different and every lesson keeps her on her toes. That’s what makes her job the best job in the world!

visit her website: www.rocknrollschool.com

 

 

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