Drum lessons soothing disturbed teens

In a tight circle of African drums and attentive teenagers, one girl struggles to keep up with the steadily building beat but quickly gives up. She pushes away her djembe and slumps into her desk, only to return minutes later.

Another student has awaked from a medication-induced slumber long enough to drowsily tap the Cuban conga propped between his knees.

Still another watches the drum instructor intently, hands moving in time with hers, his face relaxed for the first time all morning.

Then the music stops. And almost instantly, they remember their insecurities, their inhibitions, all the reasons they feel they can't succeed at anything, including this.

Then professional drummer Simone LaDrumma dives into another contagious rhythm, nodding reassuringly to each student, again drawing them in.

The is the scene twice a week at Store Front Alternative School in Redmond, a Lake Washington School District program for students 13 to 19 with severe emotional disorders.

The program has a modest budget to pay for such "extras" as rock climbing and drumming lessons, almost anything that Bob Jameyson thinks will help his 11 students learn what comes naturally to most kids: how to interact and trust people.

Neither the rock climbing nor the drumming, however, has come easily for the students. Even forming a circle to play drums with their classmates was a challenge at first, he said.

"With emotionally disturbed kids, they need a lot of personal space and they are uncomfortable with eye contact and body language," Jameyson said. "So, one step at a time, we're trying to match them with rhythm and the pulse of someone else."

This is why Jameyson invites LaDrumma to teach his students rhythm. Rhythm of the drum. Rhythm of life.

Jameyson, who has taught in the district's alternative classes for eight years, knows that bringing in a drum teacher for an hour twice weekly isn't going to change lives. But, he says, it is one more tool that is helping them lower their guards and interact with each other.

"I want to give them what the drum has given me — joy, self-esteem, confidence," said LaDrumma.

Jameyson says he's always looking for ways to expose students to music, art and sports, things they may not have access to outside of school.

"Some of these kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are real rigid, and I'm always hoping to pull them out of their shells a little," he said.

LaDrumma, who teaches drumming at the University of Washington's Experimental College, in private sessions and in libraries, schools, prisons and nursing homes. She said working with special populations — whether adults or kids — takes a different approach and patience.

"The Store Front kids have a hard time accepting they make mistakes," she said, "and the whole process of learning to play is about making mistakes."

On "off" days, LaDrumma said, she has to step back and tailor the lesson to the group's mood. She may weave colorful stories of the origin of the djembe, or African drum, or talk about the drums' healing ability to sooth frayed nerves.

But mostly, in a tight circle, they drum. Above the beat, LaDrumma reminds them to focus on their breathing. She tells them when they've fallen into rhythm, the group is one.

"Think of the heart," she said as they held a steady, calming beat. "The heart connects all of us."

At the end of the hour, it is clear the drumming has had a calming effect. The students seem less agitated, more relaxed.

Eighth-grader Shanan Cenotto said he enjoys the lessons because "it helps me improve my self-control and balance, and I guess it makes me calmer."

He said it's easy to learn from LaDrumma because she is patient and has confidence in them.

"When we're in the rhythm," he said, "it feels like we're part of one person, but split up."

As LaDrumma's 12th and final session next week draws near, Jameyson says he sees a difference in his students and thinks the sense of calm and rapport lasts even after she leaves. He hopes to invite LaDrumma back.

"We've met our goal of a positive rapport and instilling some confidence," Jameyson said. "They're smiling and joking with each other. These are kids who don't trust anybody, and suddenly they're forgetting themselves and getting into the rhythm."

Colleen Pohlig can be reached at 206-515-5655 or cpohlig@seattletimes.com.