World Percussion and Rhythm Magazine recently published an interview with Strong Institute Director and REI creator, Jeff Strong. (You can also click the link below to download the article).
WPR: Before we focus on Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention, can you give us a quick introduction to your back- ground in percussion?
Strong: I’m a classically-trained musician. I spent 8 years studying classical percussion — rudimental drumming, tympani, and xylophone mainly — and playing in several symphonic bands. I won a few awards for my snare drumming solos at state competitions in the 70’s. I was also very involved in traditional jazz music through my teens, playing in my middle and high school jazz band. At the same time, I began playing professionally at age 14. I was lucky enough to land with a band that had a house gig at a local club and got to play pretty regularly until I was old enough to join the musician’s union and referral service at 16. At that point I became very busy playing typical “jobbing” dates at the local country clubs. This was mostly pop, jazz and country music. Nothing too challenging, though most of it was sight-reading from jazz standards books, so I got pretty adept at reading music. This gave me the advantage of being able to show up at almost any gig and be able to play with people I’d never met before. I liked this because it kept me interested. I had a very short attention span and got bored pretty quickly playing with the same people and playing the same music all the time. At 18 I toured with a pop/R&B group for a year and then decided to go to the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles where I studied under some of the best studio musicians at the time. Joe Porcaro, Ralph Humphrey, Efrain Toro, and Alex Acuña where my main teachers. I graduated from MI in 1983.
WPR: What has been most gratifying to you outside of the REI Institute?
Strong: In the 1980’s I first worked in and then owned a recording studio in Minneapolis. My focus was on producing and recording demos for up-and-coming R&B artists. I loved this because I got to play on all the recordings and I had a hand in developing the artists and crafting their sound. I was very busy at this time because Minneapolis was a draw for R&B artists in the 1980’s due to Prince’s Purple Rain movie. I also toured and played with a variety of bands. The most notable were the country-rock Daisy Dillman Band, the reggae band Macumba, the pop singer Gene Pitney, and the lead singer for Lips Inc (think, Funky town), Cynthia Smith.
WPR: What sparked the interest for you in exploring the possibility of drumming as healing?
Strong: I never intended to get into the therapeutic end of drumming. I stumbled on it after my first semester at the Musician’s Institute. One of the things that drew me to the school was the focus on latin (Afro-cuban and Brazilian) drumming. I didn’t know, however, that all the Latin drumming at MI was centered on the drumset. I wanted to be a studio drummer and felt that playing hand drums would make me more employable, so I sought out a teacher to help me there. As it turned out, I lived in an area of Hollywood where I had to walk past a city park on the way to school. There was often a hand drummer playing in the park and, after listening to him almost everyday for a few months and noticing that he was playing things that I didn’t know, I asked him if he would teach me. He refused at first but relented when I agreed to take seriously his teaching me history as well as techniques. He was from Trinidad and came from a long line of traditional drum healers in the Shango Baptiste tradition. Shango Baptiste is a syncretized (blended) religion based on African Orisha worship and Catholicism that developed from the slave trade in the Caribbean. Drumming was important not only in the ceremonies of this spiritual practice but also in helping its members achieve and maintain health and balance. In studying with this teacher I learned the purpose of the traditional rhythms for spiritual connection as well as how to use rhythm to affect behavior. The drummer in this tradition is charged with keeping its members in line. People who behaved outside of the group’s norms were either extricated or “healed” to integrate back into the group. One of the ways to do this was to drum for them and, as they often referred to it, “drive the spirits away” that were thought to be causing the disturbing behavior.
WPR: In the provider training you stated that the concept for REI evolved from traveling to treatment sessions with traditional drum healers and observing their methods. How did this opportunity arise?
Strong: Part of my studies with my Shango Baptiste teacher included the opportunity to play in healing ceremonies at his church and to witness him working with people with a variety of what we would term psychiatric conditions. These would be behaviors you see in autism, ADHD, oppositional-defiance disorder, anxiety disorder, and others. I became fascinated by his ability to affect observable change by simply playing the drums for someone. He would essentially sit in a room with the person and play certain rhythms. He would then change and evolve his rhythms based upon what he observed in their behavior. He would often play for them daily for a period of time in order to solidify the changes he was making. At one point, probably a year after starting my studies with him, he let me play for some people and guided me in helping them. I got pretty good at this after a while. This experience stuck with me as I moved on with my professional music career and several years later, after having been diagnosed with depression and ADHD, I began experimenting on myself with the rhythms and techniques my teacher taught me. I noticed an almost immediate improvement in my symptoms using these techniques. This led to me playing for other people and gathering data about their responses. It’s been over twenty years and I’m still gathering data. During this early research I also studied with a traditional shamanic practitioner and learned those techniques. My apprenticeship lasted almost 5 years and covered the intricacies of using the drum to alter consciousness.
WPR: For readers who are unfamiliar with REI, would you briefly desribe the program and its therapeutic potentials?
Strong: Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention is an auditory stimulation approach that employs rhythm from percussion instruments to influence brain activity. We can accomplish a variety of things depending on the rhythms we use. Most of our work centers on a custom-made program called the REI Custom Program. This program is similar to the traditional method of playing for someone, watching for responses, and adjusting the rhythm accordingly. In this case we have a database of knowledge that tells us how to approach a set of CDs and make them specifically for each person based upon a comprehensive intake form. We then adjust (remake) those CDs to maximize the effect for each person. We also have some more generalized CDs and programs for people who don’t want to do a fully custom program. Therapeutically, we see changes in areas such as sleep, anxiety, mood, attention, self-abusive or self-stimulatory behaviors, language abilities, and socialization, to name a few. The list gets pretty long because we customize the stimulation for each person and stimulating the brain the way we do can have far-reaching effects, depending on what someone’s deficits are.
WPR: Of all the changes you have seen effected by REI, what has been the most profound and personally meaningful to you?
Strong: That’s a good question. Aside from the fact that I no longer have depression and I wouldn’t be diagnosed with ADHD today, I’m not sure any one thing stands out. I do have a soft spot for the children we work with, particularly those on the autism spectrum, so that’s the area that gives me the most satisfaction. This is especially true for the people who begin talking after starting REI. In one case—this isn’t a child but it illustrates the malleability of our brains—a 19-year-old man with autism who had never spoken a word in his life began talking the first time he heard his custom-made CD. From there, over the course of a year (and a few CDs later), he developed the ability to first express his needs and desires and then eventually be able to converse with others. This is a dramatic case that has been repeated in similar ways many times.
WPR: Can you say a bit about REI’s effectiveness in terms of its effects on alpha brain wave organization and why that is important?
Strong: Entrainment to alpha (or whatever brain state we choose) is universal, provided certain rules are followed. Shamans have used the drum for ten of thousands of years to entrain the brain, so where not doing anything new here. The shamanic technique focuses on the theta state of consciousness so its technique is much simpler than what we use for alpha. Alpha requires certain techniques be employed in order to keep the brain from shutting down and tuning it out. Alpha entrainment is important to REI because we need to first synchronize the brain before we can stimulate in the ways we do. This gets pretty complicated, but the main point is that synchronization opens the door to the pointed stimulation we use to create the long term changes we’re looking for. If we simply synchronize, like we do with our more generalized CDs, we can affect change but these changes only last a short while - only until some other stimulus changes the brain again.
WPR: When I completed provider training years ago, you said that clearly research supports that REI works, but the specific neurophysiological mechanism by which it has the effects it does is not yet identifiable. Have the advances made in cognitive neuroscience in the intervening years allowed you any more developed hypothesis in this regard? And have you started the high-resolution brain imaging studies yet?
Strong: We are in the process of compiling more quantitative data supporting REI, but brain imaging is not one of them at this time. We’re waiting for better imaging technologies to develop before we can do that. As far as seeing brain-wave synchronization, that’s easy. EEG will suffice. So, it’s the complexity of the rhythms we use for stimulation that we haven’t been to actually see. All we have at this time is correlative data showing the net effect of listening to the rhythms consistently over time. Since you trained, I have evolved my theories and understandings based on some good texts on the subject, particularly those on neuro-plasticity and neuronal activation. The core of it is that complexity and novelty are the key to activating the brain and, with repeated, directive exposure, the brain will change and grow in its abilities.
WPR: Glancing at your discography and bibliography—dozens of CDs, books ranging from Drums for Dummies to ADD and ADHD for Dummies—in addition to the REI Institute work!—leads one to wonder if you have created a secret rhythm that permits you to forego sleep? And will you share it?
Strong: I sleep, though probably not for as many hours as most people. I do get a lot done during the day and I’d like to attribute it to listening to my CDs, but honestly, I’ve always gotten a lot done. It’s just part of my personality. So, though I’m sure our CDs can help people function on higher levels I doubt they’d get everyone to work as manically as I do. I’m not sure I’d recommend it either.
WPR: And of course—what comes next?
Strong: A lot. I’ve been working on distilling our custom program into a series of semi-custom, individualized programs for a variety of issues. Our first one is for sleep, then we’ll have one for performance enhancement for people that function well to begin with. Then one for anxiety disorders. We have a brain injury rebah center wanting us to develop a semi-custom program for them, so that’ll probably be next. And then, of course, there’s autism and ADHD. After that, it all depends on what catches my interest. We’re also preparing a handful of our studies for publication. And my book on the development of REI will be done soon. Lastly, I’m working on a training program for people to learn how to play the drum for stimulating the brain, much like the traditional Shango Baptiste technique. This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and is of particular interest to me because I’m getting so busy that I can’t cover all the areas people are asking me to explore, such as Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s.