One, Two, Cha-Cha-Cha: Making Drumming Accessible For Milwaukee Students With Special Needs

Jun 11, 2019

There’s been a new opportunity at two MPS schools this year for students with special needs: the chance to learn drumming. The goal of a new "adaptive drumming" class is to make percussion accessible to all students.

The two schools offering the drumming classes are Frederick J. Gaenslen K-8 School in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood, and Neeskara Elementary School in Washington Heights.

On one particular Thursday, over in the special needs wing of Gaenslen School, Classroom 105C is groovin’. Some kids are playing tall, orange, cylindrical drums called tubanos. Others are sitting at short, squat red bass drums, called bahia — modeled after ones in Brazil. Yet more stand in the back with big silver drums called surdo, used in Brazilian carnival.

Students on tubano drums at Gaenslen School, in a drum class adapted for students with special needs by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
Credit Maayan Silver

These seventh and eighth graders are led by Wisconsin Conservatory of Music instructor and professional drummer Mitch Shiner.

"So, now, you all ready to level it up? Last day of drum class with Mr. Shiner? We’re going to throw it down. Are you ready? We’re gonna throw it down," he tells the class.

This adaptive drumming class is geared to make music as accessible as possible to students regardless of how they learn or experience music. The students in this class, like nearly 40% of the students at Gaenslen School, have special needs. So, the students tapping into this program are visually or hearing impaired, have mobility issues, are on the autism spectrum, or have one of a broad range of intellectual or learning disabilities.

Shiner says the drums here are adapted to help kids with mobility issues or hearing impairment.

"Instead of just being like free-standing on the floor, a lot of the drums have three legs like a tripod so you can adjust it,” says Shiner. "And they vibrate at a lower frequency, so you feel it more in your body."

Wisconsin Conservatory of Music instructor Mitch Shiner works with kids from Gaenslen School in an adaptive drumming class.
Credit Maayan Silver

In addition, the classes are about half the size of a traditional MPS class, so the kids get more one-on-one attention from Shiner. He also chooses rhythms that will be accessible to each group. Fourteen-year-old student Uriah Shumpert — who has visual impairments and a learning disability — says she’s especially diggin’ three of the rhythms.

“My favorite beat is hand-stick-clap and cha-cha-cha and cinquillo, because some of the beats make you want to dance, and everything,” says Uriah.

And in the end, it’s not that much different than a regular drum class. The kids learn how to play somewhat delicately — not bang — on the drums.

"The drum should vibrate as much as possible," Shiner says as he demonstrates for the kids. "Just because you hit it harder, doesn’t mean it’s going to vibrate more."

The students practice. And they explore other group drumming essentials.

"We spend a lot of time learning how to start and stop together," says Shiner. "And that is the biggest thing— starting and stopping together, on a dime."

Students listen attentively in an adaptive drumming class at Gaenslen School.
Credit Maayan Silver

MPS Physical Therapist Martha Reiser says the class has improved the kids’ motor skills, attention and impulse control. She says it also provides a safe space to manage emotions, learn new ways of communication and build confidence.

“Being able to not just be somebody watching on the sidelines, but to be able to actually be part of a class. And we work on it all the time, it’s what we try to do, but I think being able to come in and really feel that the instructor isn’t having to make a ton of adaptations for you [is important].”

One spunky kid named Jontrell Javon Glass, who happens to be visually impaired, sums up the opportunity this way:  “I had the power to be drumming. I had drumming muscles. So I could do it," he says.

He says he felt confident, and that he's going to keep going with drumming, answering, "oh yeah!”

The curriculum for the adaptive drumming program at the two schools has been developed for MPS by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and the program is being funded by the MPS Foundation.