Drums, Depression and Learning Disabilities: How Learning Drums Saved My Life
I am a drummer in a cowboy church band and a female in her late 50’s. Many people who come to the church tell me that they have never seen a lady drummer before (female drummers are not really that rare although male drummers probably outnumber female drummers by some estimations to about 98.5% to 1.5%). If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would become a drummer, I would have turned around to see who else they were talking to. I certainly wouldn’t have believed they were talking to me!
How it All Started
I never had any interest in learning to play the drums until I was 54 years old though I did some have music in my background. I started playing the flute in fourth grade and continued with it by playing in the marching band in both junior high and high school. I also started playing the guitar in my mid-teens and continued with it for many years until other things in life crowded it out around 2000.
Out of the blue I started becoming interested in the drums about six years ago. It was during a time when I was going through very severe clinical depression. I started closely observing the drummer in my church, and I started attending avidly to the drums in any music I found myself listening to. All of a sudden, it hit me one day: I HAVE to learn how to play the drums! Then I asked myself, “Why do I want to learn to play the drums? Where did this come from? I’ve never had any desire to play the drums in my whole life until now.”
Then I thought, “Maybe God wants me to play the drums.” And then, “Why would God want ME—a woman in her 50s—to start playing drums?” I had always thought of drums as largely the domain of guys. Most drummers were guys who started playing very young. Drums were noisy and boys like noise—I know because I raised two of them.
So I said to God, “If you want me to play the drums you will have to show me what to do because I don’t see how I could fit music lessons in my budget right now.” Immediately the thought came into my mind that I should ask the drummer at my church about lessons. I wasn’t sure if that thought came from within me or from God so I concluded, “Even if he (the church drummer) was willing to teach me for free, I wouldn’t feel right accepting it.” So I just blew off the idea for the better part of a year. Besides, the whole idea of an older lady taking up the drums when she was close to being a senior citizen seemed really wacky to me.
About nine or ten months later, one Sunday morning I was in church doing some tweaking to the Power Point slide show during the half hour between the two services. Most everyone else was outside drinking coffee and eating donuts and socializing. I was inside making some changes to the Power Point presentation which we used to put up the words to the songs we sang as well as the church announcements. I had been doing this for four years and was frankly getting rather tired of it. I was ready for a new challenge and to let someone else have the honor and the privilege of creating and executing the weekly slide shows.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I received a strong and clear inner prompting that I should immediately stop what I was doing and go outside and ask Tommy (our church drummer) about drum lessons. I knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to me. I started to argue with Him mentally. “I still can’t afford to pay him!” I replied in my thoughts. He quickly responded to my thoughts, “Then pay him with home cooked food!” My internal response: “Oh! OK! I can do that!” So I immediately left the slide show to go outside to talk to Tommy who was outside socializing. He was a young man in his early twenties who had gone to school with my youngest son.
I asked him if I could speak to him. In his usual respectful manner, he stepped aside and gave me his undivided attention. I asked him if he gave drum lessons. He said yes. I said, “Well, God told me I’m supposed to learn how to play the drums. What do you charge? In his characteristically humble manner he said, “I don’t feel like I can charge anything because I never took any lessons, I just taught myself.” Tommy belongs to an exceptionally talented musical family. This boy just picked up some drum sticks one day and suddenly he was a drummer par excellence. I said, “Well, can I pay you with home cooked food?” He eyes lit up and he said, “Sure!”
So that’s how my drum lessons got started. Tommy would spend two hours or more at a time with me once a week. At my age, I didn’t catch on to the technical aspect of it as quickly as these young guys do. I had to REALLY work at it. But it was fun! I really enjoyed it. God eventually did provide the money for me to pay Tommy for lessons (O me of little faith!).
I got my first opportunity to play in church seven months later when Tommy and a couple other young people who also took turns on the drums at church went on a youth retreat. My pastor, who is also the music leader, said I did very well. For the next two years I got the opportunity to fill in every couple months on the drums at church. Eventually, I also took some drum lessons from my pastor who also gives music lessons. He helped me a lot with timing and technique.
The entire first year of drumming, while enjoying it immensely, I still was baffled as to why God chose me to be a drummer. But after I had been playing for a year, I started noticing some changes taking place in my brain. Before I go further into that, however, I need to back track a little bit.
My History of Mental Difficulties
All of my life I have had some significant mental difficulties. I have always had difficulty processing information in my brain, particularly auditorily. This meant I had slow reactions to things. This annoyed people who tended to think I was ignoring them, particularly authority figures. It also affected me somewhat visually, especially in my reaction time. I endured a lot of emotional pain in physical education classes throughout my grade school years because I was afraid of balls. I couldn’t react fast enough when a softball or a volleyball was coming my way to either catch it, hit it or get out of the way so it wouldn’t hit me. Team members would disparage me because they interpreted it as indifference on my part about helping the team win.
This processing difficulty affected me negatively in all areas of my life. It basically meant that I had a hard time figuring out what was going on most of the time. This caused me a lot of social rejection and, as a result, I never had a lot of friends.
Of course, I had no idea at the time why I was having these difficulties. It was only after I was well into adulthood and received training in learning disabilities and how they affected brain functioning that I understood. All the years I was going through it, I thought I was a defective person and it resulted in extremely low feelings of self-worth.
Strangely enough, however, I never had trouble academically. Math was always my best subject. And I also did very well in language arts. I’ve always loved reading and writing. Through the years a number of teachers encouraged me in the area of writing. I remember when studying American history in elementary school I learned that when Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, met President Abraham Lincoln, he said to her, “So this is the little lady that started this big war!” I remember thinking how much I would like to write a book that would have that much impact (not that I want to start a war, although that war was necessary).
Another difficulty that I had was in applying what I knew to real life situations and figuring things out that other people seemed to know instinctively. I lacked in what people usually called “common sense” which I later learned in graduate school is actually the ability to draw information from different parts of the brain and synthesize it to create new realities.
For example, when I took chemistry in high school I did very well on all the written tests. As a matter of fact, the teacher wanted to curve the tests because most of the class did poorly on them, but I always ruined the curve because I always made ‘A’s’ on the tests. I know it was for that reason that the teacher paired me up with a “D” student as a lab partner for the weekly Friday labs, thinking that I would be able to help him. Boy, was she ever mistaken. I couldn’t figure out any of those labs to save my life. It was only because I was constantly watching what the other students were doing that I managed to get “C’s” on the labs. If I had been left entirely to myself, I would have probably failed them all!
Although I’ve always loved reading, during my grade school years I tended to read books at a lower grade level because of my limited vocabulary. Since then, I have learned that low level vocabulary is typical of individuals with ADD or ADHD. In addition, it took me longer than average to read books because I was constantly losing focus. I would be going along and suddenly realize I hadn’t been paying attention to what I had read the last few pages, so I would have to go back and constantly reread. Surprisingly though, this never discouraged me from reading. It just frustrated me because I couldn’t get more books read!
I remember when I was about ten or eleven my parents gave me a set of classic books for Christmas. I was thrilled and I wanted so badly to read every one of those books. The titles included: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Kidnapped, Treasure Island to name a few. There were about twenty of them. However, they were unabridged and the vocabulary and writing style of the books were of the 19th century vernacular in which they were written. I plowed through a few of them with great effort but never managed to finish most of them. I remember being very disappointed in myself. Due to my love of reading, however, my vocabulary has improved considerably over the years though I still lose focus at times and have to reread.
I remember one time in college in my late teens when I was feeling discouraged about my mental challenges. Although I was having no difficulty with the academics, it was affecting me so much in the practical areas of life and especially socially. I remember a type of visual imagery that came into my mind. I saw in my mind a picture of myself going through life hamstrung: my right leg was tied to my right arm from behind the knee and around the crook of my elbow. This meant I had to go through life ‘hopping’ and virtually unable to use my right leg and arm effectively. I don’t know why this image came to me but it pictured how I felt mentally. I felt like I was going through life hamstrung mentally.
As I entered adulthood, it significantly affected me in the area of employment. It made it difficult for me to make intelligent decisions regarding what profession I should pursue and how to get there after I finished college. I had great difficulty obtaining jobs and keeping jobs and the jobs I got didn’t pay much.
The Reason for My Difficulties is Discovered
When my youngest son was in first grade and began having behavior difficulties in his strict Christian school, my pastor at the time, who was also a trained psychologist, told me my son had ADHD. At that point, I had never heard of ADHD. I started doing research on it and discovered some things that sounded a lot like what I had experienced all my life, things like not being able to pay attention and focus when I needed to. I learned ADHD was a type of learning disability.
I eventually sensed that God was leading me to go back to school to get a Master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on learning disabilities so I could help my son. At least that’s what I thought was my reason for going back to school. I soon learned that God led me to go back to school for ME, to help me understand myself and all the challenges and difficulties I had had through the years. I was soon learning about how the brain works and how messages were sent back and forth to and from different parts of the brain and how this could affect a person’s functioning in everyday life. I began to realize that all the years I thought I was a defective person that there was actually a medical explanation for all I had been experiencing! I had a learning disability!
After God used this new found knowledge to help me, then he gave me the desire to use it to help others. It has made me very sensitive to and understanding of people with learning disabilities. It has enabled me in the years following to be very successful in working with children and adults with disabilities, especially in the area of tutoring.
My Brain Starts Working Better
Fast forward again to my drum lessons: After I had been playing drums for a year, I started noticing my brain seemed to be working better! I was able to pay attention better and keep track of conversations and this helped my social skills immensely. I began less afraid to talk to people I did not know well.
Previously, whenever I watched a high action movie, I could never keep track of what was happening because I couldn’t process what the actors were doing and saying quickly enough. So I would get lost in the plot. I started noticing that it had become easier to keep track of the movie action and I didn’t have to annoy people who were watching with me by asking them what was happening.
The Science Behind It
So I started doing internet research on drums and the brain. I learned that rhythm activities help with depression (which I suffered with for over 12 years). More specifically, I learned that playing drums helped with learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD in particular by increasing the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain that are required for good focus and concentration.
In my research online, I discovered there is a drummer with a learning disability who has actually started a drum therapy program called DAD (drums and disabilities) that has spread throughout the world. His name is Pat Gesualdo (patgesualdo.com) and he has a band named Iceland which tours to raise money for therapy for children with special needs worldwide.
I also discovered on the web that playing a regular drum set helps the two sides or hemispheres of the brain to work together because of the constant coordination of the four extremities that is required. This was a light bulb moment for me! I started thinking that maybe the reason I have always had difficulty applying knowledge was due to the fact that the two sides of my brain were not communicating properly. All of my life I have always had great plans and ideas in my head but was never able to put them into action.
My Dream of Writing Begins to Take Shape
Please don’t get the idea, however, that I am totally cured. Far from it. I am still struggling to find a decent job and support myself financially. But the really cool thing is that as I continue to play, my brain continues to work better and better. I eventually found that I could actually focus well enough to do some writing. I had wanted to write for years but could never get focused well enough to get anything accomplished. In school and college I could get writing done only because there were deadlines as to when it was due. I usually ended up staying up very late to get assignments done at the last minute. This is very typical of people with ADHD. Without a deadline it is very difficult for casualties of ADHD to get anything completed.
My new found mental abilities are what enabled me to get signed up on Hub Pages and write over 50 hubs! It still takes me a long time to write though. Some hubbers have stated that they are able to write several hubs a day while I struggle to get one written in a week or two or a month or two. But I am hopeful that as I continue to play the drums, it will get easier and easier!
God has continued to encourage me in my drumming and to affirm that he has a purpose in me playing. After I had been playing drums for three years, God led us to move from Hawaii to Arizona (August 2011). Due to a providentially arranged meeting between my youngest son and the music leader of the church I now attend, I was able to obtain a position as a drummer in the church band and even get paid for it! This has been extremely therapeutic for me and very helpful financially.
Some readers may be thinking that is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that drums saved my life. But in the deepest, darkest hours of my depression—when I felt like I had no purpose or usefulness left on Earth—knowing that I had drums in my life kept me going. Drums gave me hope that there would be a brighter tomorrow. Drums made me happy, drums ministered to me as I played along with healing Christian music.
Advice to Others Struggling with Mental Difficulties
And I have some advice for mothers whose teenage boys want drums but they are resisting because of the potential noise disturbance to the household or the cost of drums and drum lessons. If your sons have ADHD (girls too though not as common) or a learning disability, it may help them in school and in life in general! It might even change their whole mental outlook on life!
And if you who are reading this are struggling with mental challenges, you might consider trying the drums yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results!
- History of the Modern Drum Set
Please read my article on the history of the modern drum set