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Rhythm and Drumming Empowerment Program at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind 2005

By John Scalici

I have often wondered what it would be like to work with the hearing and visually impaired. How would you communicate? Would the rhythms be the same? What challenges would I as a person and facilitator face. Often times when I ask myself these questions, the opportunity soon becomes available to discover the answers!

Demonstrating the rhythm

I am fortunate each year to be a part of a large number of grants written by various arts organizations from around the Southeast. One such grant was written by an organization called VSA arts of Alabama. They are a non-profit whose mission is to promote art and music created by people with disabilities. I have facilitated many rhythm based events for this wonderful organization and was eager to do more.

When my good friend and executive director of VSA arts, Sherri Van Pelt, asked me to conduct a six-week residency at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, I excitedly agreed!

After a few hours it kind of hit me. This would be the greatest challenge of my life as a rhythm facilitator. I planned on spending an hour a day with the school for the deaf and one hour with the school for the blind. I thought to myself, “how in the world am I going to do this work”? Then the idea was proposed that at the end of the six week residency, we would bring the two schools together for a demonstration of their newly acquired skills. Now I knew for sure it was my biggest challenge ever. I would be facilitating a completely different set of skills. I felt overwhelmed. One group would rely on visual cues, the other on aural. The activities and patterns would be the same for each group, but HOW I would facilitate would be different.

Learning how to facilitate three groups of multi-challenged participants

For the deaf school, I decided to teach a pattern based on something both groups could relate to: FOOD. Southern Food! Mashed potatoes, cornbread, black eyed peas. That would be my rhythm. Once my interpreter understood where I was going, she would sign to the deaf school the rhythm of the words. “mash potato cornbread black eyed peas”. Translated musically, the phrase would sound like, “one-ee-and-ah-two-and---three-and-four”.

I kept telling myself, “use your intuition”. I decided to do a “question/answer format. I decided to play the rhythm on the back of one of the kids from the deaf school, then have him play on the other kids backs, passing down the information. We went over visual cues. Stopping/starting, sculpting/layering, rumbling/accenting.

Culminating event at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind

I would keep the pulse with large stomping movements. I had several angels sent to me in the form of helpers who helped me with pulse keeping duties so I could facilitate. They soon began to facilitate themselves. I didn’t have to explain why I chose to use a six measure phrase for the rhythm. (I did this so that the group asking the question could have more time to get ready for the next phrase, and I could have more time to set it up. It flowed much better to me than just a short, four bar phrase.

I would stop the group after a couple of phrases to allow for solos

As I was working with the school for the deaf, I realized that they were so sensitive to volume changes and textures, so I decided to do stop cuts with the deaf school, have the blind play soft parts, and do accents with BIG, visual accent cues for the deaf.

Suddenly it all came together. I realized that I really didn’t have to do anything too different than usual. I just had to be the best facilitator I could be, using VERY clear visual and aural communication. It didn’t matter to them. They were used to having no sight or no sound. They had NO fear. When the two schools came together for their demonstration, there were three T.V. crews, the entire school and faculty, not to mention my mom! Because I had stuck with the simple things, the basics, it turned out beautifully! My fear had turned to joy. KEEP IT SIMPLE.

John Scalici and a proud drummer at The Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind

John Scalici
Remo artist and facilitator.
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