“Logan came home the other day from school, ran straight into his room, and turned on his CD. I asked him what he was doing and he said that listening was his reward for getting an A on his math test,” described Kim, his mother.
“That’s great. It’s always a good thing when teens take the initiative to play their REI music on their own,” I said. “That’s a big change from last month when he wouldn’t listen at all.”
“Absolutely. He has taken ownership of the process. I can see his mood lifting. He cares about his schoolwork now and he’s getting involved again in activities at school. Before he started listening to the drumming, he just wanted to come home and stare at the screen.”
Logan was having difficulty in school, socially more than academically, when he began the REI Custom Program. He was slightly shy, though he had a couple of friends. Having recently turned fifteen, he had become moody and withdrawn.
Teenagers can be hard to reach. Whenever I run into a clients’ resistance to listening to the drums, it’s usually with teens. Logan was initially resistant, saying that he didn’t want “anyone messing with his head”.
Because Logan was not interested in the drumming – he often told his mother how weird he thought it was that she attended my drumming classes – we decided that I wouldn’t play for him live. Instead, she and I would talk about Logan’s issues and her goals for him. From that, I would make a recording that Logan would listen to before going to bed.
“He doesn’t want to do anything. He used to be so bubbly and energetic, but now he is so lethargic and down. Getting him up in the morning is impossible and he just drags himself through the day. His grades have slipped and he is distancing himself from his friends,” explained Kim during Logan’s intake interview. “Do you think the drumming can help?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. This was fairly early in the process of developing the REI therapy and I hadn’t yet worked with any teens with mood issues. I knew I could help with anxiety or attention and I told her that, but the mood would be something we’d have to evaluate as we went along.
“If you’re okay with feeling our way through this, I’d love to give it a try,” I said.
“I usually feel so good after the drumming class that I can’t imagine it wouldn’t help Logan,” she replied. Kim had been coming to my drumming classes for a few months. This was the reason she approached me about working with her son, even though he didn’t have autism or ADHD, the conditions I would often talk about during class.
This wasn’t an unusual request. Even from my earliest days of exploring how the drumming may work outside of its cultural context, people approached me and asked if what I was doing could help them or their children. This led me to work at Pathways, a center for people with chronic illnesses where I worked with clients with a large variety of chronic conditions, from pain to HIV, CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) to depression.
One client, Jamie, was recently diagnosed HIV-positive and was feeling pretty hopeless about his life. He was 28 years old, generally healthy and not symptomatic, but he felt that he really had no future. I was worried when I first played for him because the entire time I drummed he sprawled on the couch and cried. These were not quiet tears, rather they were plaintive wails with full-body convulsions.
“Are you okay? Would you like me to stop playing?” I asked, as I stopped, concerned that I was making things worse.
“No, I’m fine. Please keep playing,” he answered between sobs. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
I looked at him, not sure what to say or whether to believe him. Jamie, I would learn was a dramatic guy. He did everything in a big way and crying was no exception.
“Really,” he sniffled, “I feel this deep well of grief and sadness purging from my body. Please keep playing.”
“Okay, but tell me if you need me to stop.”
I began playing again, searching for the most uplifting rhythms I could think of, careful not to deepen his mood. I understood catharsis and knew he had a great support system in place so I wasn’t concerned about him in general, but I was a little uncomfortable with such a dramatic show of emotion.
I kept playing until our session time was up. Jamie blew his nose, wiped the streaks from his face, gave me a hug, and left with a smile and a bounce in his step.
I met with him once a week for most of the summer, each session mirroring the others, with Jamie sobbing while I played and then leaving uplifted.
In mid-September he arrived at his last session and handed me an envelope. “This is my new address,” he said. “I’m following my dream and moving to San Francisco. I’m not going to let this disease stop me from living my life. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” I said as he bounced out of the room. I never saw him again. I don’t know what impact our drumming sessions had on his overall perspective and life choices, but I learned a lot about how to play for someone who was grieving and how to stay with someone as they moved through their emotions.