Keanu Napoleon couldn’t contain himself as he walked into the room for his first drum lesson last week.
The 14-year-old paced around Justin Tamminga’s studio in anticipation, releasing an occasional shout as he went.
“Keanu started laughing hysterically,” recalled Tamminga, a musician who gives music lessons out of his Tacoma home. “He was so excited.”
Napoleon is Tamminga’s newest student with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
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Over the course of a few years, Tamminga has developed an unconventional method for teaching music and believes he’s come up with a strategy to help kids with autism learn to play drums.
His half dozen students with autism are learning faster than those without it, and they’re seeing emotional benefits, he said.
“There’s so much potential in those kids,” Tamminga said. “So much potential that’s not even seen.”
Tamminga could be onto something, said Stephen Cahill, who is certified in autism education from San Francisco State University.
“This is really exciting that he’s onto this pattern,” Cahill said.
It’s impossible to generalize about the effects of autism from person to person, he said, but the students’ quick memorization skills aren’t surprising and studies have shown the benefits of learning an instrument.
For Napoleon, who is non-verbal, Tamminga started his first lesson with the basics: how to hold the sticks, where to put his feet on the pedals, where to hit the drums.
“Keanu had never had any kind of proper music lesson on drums, so I didn’t really know how this was going to be at all,” said his mother, Dana Napoleon. “I didn’t know if he could react very negatively or positively.”
Before long Napoleon had headphones on his ears and Tamminga was playing a slow beat over them.
“As soon as he listened to the pattern he just calmed down,” Tamminga said, “ … just kind of in his little world.”
Napoleon played eight measures of hi-hat and eight measures of kick drum along with the recording.
Tsst tsst tsst tsst… Thump thump thump thump…
His mother watched in awe. Within 15 minutes Napoleon was playing a beat with the snare, hi-hat and kick drum in sync with Tamminga’s bass guitar.
Tamminga said giving a voice to someone through music, especially someone who can’t speak, nearly brought him to tears.
“That’s exactly why I do what I do,” he said.
The lesson reaffirmed what Tamminga had seen with three other kids in the last few weeks.
“I thought it was just a coincidence … and this kid did the same thing,” Tamminga said. “Within two minutes he was playing.”
All four of those students have ASD.
“I think I’m really onto something that might help other autistic kids,” Tamminga said.
How it all started: Pig Snout!!
His first student with autism started lessons in February 2014.
It was his son Lucien, who was 9 at the time.
Tamminga said he largely developed the system he uses for all students to prepare Lucien and his then-6-year-old daughter Dahlia to perform as a family band.
For two months, the kids casually learned from their dad’s lap. Then the family was asked to perform at Brifest, a fund raiser for the Brian Redman Memorial Music Scholarship.
That night they thought of their band name — Pig Snout!! with two exclamation points because Lucien yelled it when he thought of it — and the learning process was accelerated a bit.
He started by playing guitar while one of his children practiced drums, but their learning styles were (and still are) “night and day,” according to Tamminga.
He can show Dahlia a new beat or a few chords and then walk away while she plays around and personalizes them.
For Lucien — and other students with autism — it’s all about staying focused and memorizing the exact pattern.
“He would get really frustrated so I’d have to find a different way, a different approach,” Tamminga said.
Lucien, who has a high functioning form of autism, often struggled to communicate where he needed help. It forced his dad to learn how to ask the right questions to help him — a skill that has been useful for all students.
Since their first time on stage, Tamminga said he’s seen Lucien’s social skills develop dramatically from being in a band.
“Music helps me with autism because it helps me make friends,” Lucien, now 12, told The News Tribune last week.
His dad was teaching him to shake hands, look people in the eye and understand non-verbal cues out of context in 2014. When the music was blaring during practice Lucien had to learn social skills faster.
“You’re forced to (communicate non-verbally) when you’re playing music,” Tamminga said. “It’s loud.”
More than just a rock star on stage, he also carries a new confidence with him daily.
“That silent communication started working it’s way up into his regular life,” Tamminga said.
Breaking through: Mollee and Keanu
With all of his drum students, Tamminga accompanies them on guitar while they play.
Tamminga shows his student a beat to play, and while they practice he plays a low note or a high note on the guitar as they strike a low drum or a high drum.
“If I teach (kids with autism) like I’m teaching everybody else, I’m sitting there talking to them and their attention span is gone,” he said.
Mollee Cunningham, a 14-year-old drum student, can get distracted by the artwork on the walls of the studio or the sounds of passing cars, her mother Julie said.
So, Tamminga gave her a pair of headphones and played her computer-generated drum beats to practice along with — it worked.
“One take, doesn’t get it; two takes, getting it; three takes, got it … and by the fourth she’s got it,” he said. “It’s set and it’s in there.”
He’s said the same thing about Lucien, and Napoleon looks to be well on his way.
When Napoleon came back for his second lesson, he had the beats “totally memorized,” his mother said, but he had trouble keeping his body in the correct position.
The Cunninghams noticed the same thing with their daughter.
“She did something that normally takes people years to learn but then she had trouble getting a basic thing down,” her mom said.
“(Cunningham and Napoleon) both learned a beat that takes people like two to three weeks lessons-wise, in like 10 minutes,” Tamminga said.
Cahill, who is an elementary learning support coordinator, said he wasn’t surprised.
“That phenomenon of being quick to be able to memorize things is not foreign to the autistic population,” he said.
Other students and not just Lucien are also seeing similar results socially.
“(Making music and falling into patterns) is calming for everyone,” Tamminga said, “but what I’ve noticed with kids on the spectrum is it is even more calming because they’re so hyper focused.”
“(Playing drums) made me feel very happy,” Cunningham said.
As for Napoleon, the joy on his face is hard to miss.
See Pig Snout!!
Thursday: 1 p.m. at the Museum of Glass for its 15th anniversary. Admission is free.
Saturday: at 8 p.m. at Jazzbones for the Brifest benefit show. Doors will open at 5 p.m.; show will start at 6 p.m. Open to all ages until 10 p.m. Donation of $10 suggested.
To reach Justin Tamminga: For inquiries about lessons, reach Justin Tamminga by email at email@example.com or by phone at 253-617-9757.
To reach Justin Tamminga
For inquiries about lessons, reach Justin Tamminga by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 253-617-9757.