Imparting a Love of Music — But Does it Go Beyond Enjoyment?
I remember the feeling of euphoria the first time I played the drums. At 14-years old I thought I sounded world-class, although my neighbors probably would have disagreed! Practising for hours a day, over many years, I climbed my way to the top of my profession.
During my career, I have drummed for some of the world’s biggest pop stars. Playing on live television with artists like Lionel Richie, Ricky Martin, Rhianna, and Nelly Furtado came with prestige but also a great deal of pressure. When an artist performs on television they need to sound amazing to not only sell as many singles or downloads as they can but to maintain their reputation. The supporting musicians need to play their parts perfectly, leaving no margin for error! That being said, it was a great deal of fun sharing the spotlight with someone who had sold over 40 million CDs.
Playing live shows also means a lot of travelling and a lot of late nights. Once my first son was born I decided I wanted to stay closer to home so I could help raise him. In the past, I had been offered teaching jobs at schools but turned them down due to a hectic touring schedule. When my son turned 3 months old I was offered a job teaching drums at a school, the timing (which is always crucial in all aspects of music!) was right.
I truly found that teaching children gave me a powerful sense of fulfilment, one that I hadn’t found on the stage. It brought back the emotions I myself had felt as a child the first time I learned how to master a complex drumbeat. I was now experiencing this again but through other kids' eyes.#
Fast forward to the now, and over my 23-year career as a drummer, I have taught music to hundreds of students. Interestingly, this has included many with learning difficulties such as Asperger’s, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I find teaching these students simultaneously the most challenging and the most fulfilling. ADHD is especially interesting to me as it impacts attention span. Something crucial in learning, and especially in learning a musical instrument!
But more so what I have found over the years is that music really helps these children! Let me give you an example. I recently started teaching an 8-year-old boy who has ADHD. In our first lesson, I started with some warm-up exercises, playing a few simple rhythms on the snare drum and having the student copy. I was amazed at how quickly he was able to correctly replicate the rhythms I was playing.
During the lesson, his face lit up with joy each time he could play a new beat, and I could see the boy’s energy level change to the point where the drums made it easy for him to relax. This newfound ability he had tapped into boosted his confidence and made him smile from ear to ear.
Next, I wrote out some basic music notation which he had no problem understanding. He told me that drum music was like the maths he was doing at school. Spot on! This is because music notation is fractions; quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Making the connection between music and maths was a light-bulb moment for this young boy.
Fast forward a few weeks and I received a very emotional call from the boy’s mother, where she described her son’s prior struggles with learning and being able to focus on tasks. She then went on to explain just how engaged he was in the drum lessons, practising daily without being asked and the difference it had made to his everyday behaviors. He had found something that he was in tune with that brought him joy, and also focus.
Drumming is such a social instrument because of the interaction with other members of the band. Having to concentrate and focus on the beats to stay in time with the other instrumentalists takes a tremendous amount of skill. This sense of achievement can greatly help people with ADHD, as often those with the disorder can have difficulty making or keeping friends.
In fact, there is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that the practice of music is related to a number of cognitive benefits. Specifically, with regards to ADHD, scientists have found that musical therapy strengthens attention and focus, as well as social skills and it reduces hyperactivity.
Music provides a structure, through rhythm, which is very soothing to a person with ADHD who is struggling to regulate themselves to stay on a linear path. I think this is simply amazing, and while I wouldn’t suggest my life-long career could be considered a rigorous scientific experiment, I can honestly say I have seen these benefits for myself over the years.
I don’t profess to be an expert in learning difficulties per se, but after 23 years I’d like to think I have learned a thing or two along the way with regards to drumming! I have noticed several key elements that make a difference when teaching students music, especially those with learning difficulties.
I’d like to share some of what I have learned and maybe it might inspire another teacher, lead to the discovery of the next Dave Grohl, or more importantly help someone else navigate their ADHD journey:
For me, the most important thing to do in teaching someone with ADHD is to look for ways to actively engage them. Asking the students questions, having them write things out, and copying things that I do, I find really helps the students learn things in a timely and efficient manner.
Timing isn’t only important from a musical sense, but the length of a lesson also needs careful consideration. The attention span is one of the biggest variants in learning, and keeping students interested, is key. This is especially important in students with ADHD given the nature of the disorder directly affects attention span. I break down each 30-minute lesson into six five-minute segments. This means the student only needs to focus on 1 piece of information at a time, for a short amount of time. This very simple system has helped me over the years.
I have found it is a lot easier to keep the attention of a student with ADHD if they are learning music that they thoroughly enjoy! This probably applies to all students really, to all of us as we are learning! I always ask my students what their three favourite songs are. I then pick the one that has the most lively and funky beat and we focus on learning that. In general, playing upbeat music makes people feel good. The performer cannot help but feel lifted by the positive and frenetic energy of a great drumbeat.
Singing Music Notation
This is essentially ‘beatboxing’ where I sing the rhythm with my mouth instead of playing it on the drums. It is a lot easier for a student to do this initially because there is no coordination of the limbs. It is also a lot of fun! Singing drumbeats can make even the most sophisticated-sounding person sound like a caveman, “Boom, boom, cha, chuga,chuga, boom!”, and illicit a lot of laughs which we all know helps with anxiety and the release of tension.
None of the above components would work if music lessons weren’t fun! I always spend the last few minutes of the lessons letting students with ADHD play whatever they want on the drums. Regardless of if it is right or wrong. Playing the drums loud and fast gives many people immense joy. Me included!
Music is more than just sounds and enjoyment, it is a way for people to express themselves, to be understood, and to find a place for themselves in this world. Every student I have taught with ADHD has flourished while having this outlet in their lives.…
My hope in writing this is that it might spread the word a little more on the magic and power of music!