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Teaching a Special Kid

Boundless energy and a spirit of love brings uniqueness into the world

This time of year is so festive and beautiful, both in decoration and human spirit. It's also a wonderful time of reflection.

I love my family: Jenni, Becki, and my lovely wife, Kat. No matter the number of years (my wife and I are due to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in 2012), through thick or thin times, they are my life's passion. They've taught me so much, yet my spirit longs to love each one in better and more meaningful ways. Twenty-five years? It feels like five!

Here's another blessing: my students and their families. Many times, we all become "family" to each other.

Brady Poetzel has been a student of mine for almost two years. Now 9, he's grown so much as a drummer and a boy, it's amazing! When he started, I had to teach him hand-over-hand (my hands on top of his) so he could understand the motion of striking a drum. Then I devised a series of homemade flash cards to help him learn what notes and rhythms look like. I placed notes on the staff of each card, and ensured that when the cards were placed next to each other, the lines of the staff would match from card to card. Since I had also written the rhythm's counting on each card, Brady learned to say the counts aloud while playing the notes: "1-e-&-ah."

At first, I used only one space of the staff on each card: the second space from the top. This is the location that notates "snare drum," and Brady was learning to use this drum first. We used one card at a time, counting each rhythm aloud. As he progressed, I would place four cards' worth of notes together to form a "measure." This was working!

Soon, it was time to learn the entire drum set. So, I made new cards, writing notes on the other lines and spaces of the staff. These other locations denote toms, bass drum, hi-hat and various cymbals. This becomes a lot of information for a youngster to look at, but Brady was persistent and worked hard at home. When he'd come for his lesson, I would test him by mixing up the flash cards' various rhythms and drum notations. Slowly, but very surely, Brady was moving right along.

About this time, Brady's parents mentioned that he likes to watch music videos and try to imitate what the drummer does. I could use this! My studio is equipped with various multi-media, so I could have Brady do this for me as well, to supplement the flash cards. I have a DVD with many styles of music on it, and because it's a drum-oriented video, it has a close-up of the drummer performing. Perfect. Brady's now working on rock, blues, boogie-woogie, country, jazz and gospel. What fun!

By now, Brady was reading those flash cards quite well. I thought, if he can play several instruments at once on a drum set (while watching a video), maybe he's come far enough along to read notation that "stacks up" notes, as drum set music does (cymbals above both bass drum and snare drum; therefore, played at the same time). Again, new flash cards were in order. But this time, not just notes or rhythms, but actual beats. What progress!

This new chapter has been taking more time, and progress is a bit slower - but that's alright. Brady's note-reading ability has improved markedly, and he's playing some of the beats quite well.

Presently, Brady's most noteworthy (ha!) success finds him not using flash cards any more. He's been using "manuscript paper." It's the same paper that the pros use; a spiral-bound notebook with printed "blank staffs" on each page.

It's been fun using this format with Brady. He's been reading and playing the beats I've written for him in his manuscript notebook fairly well, so he'll soon be graduating to placing "fills" (movement around the toms) within the beats. Using the manuscript paper format will sure make this much easier for him to read, and for me to write the fills out for him. You've come a long way, Brady!

This has been such an interesting and challenging journey with Brady, and will continue to be. You see, Brady has autism. This means I must find creative ways to teach him because his social and communication skills aren't as developed at his age as one would hope.

I do not have an education in special needs, so I've had to lean on a few folks for help with Brady. For example, his parents. For the first three months I worked with Brady, I had Julie, his mom, in the studio with me. I used this time to observe how she interacted with Brady, and then I would follow suit. My goal was to use the same "language" that she does when I eventually started working with him alone. For example, "Earn it."

Brady can be energetic at times, so the phrase "earn it" is used to redirect him to the task at hand. Here's how it works: Maybe Brady's family will soon be going on a trip. So, Brady will repeat something that will happen on the trip that he's very excited about. Many times. I'll take note of these items. If Brady gets a bit "outside" of what we're trying to accomplish, I'll remind him that if he wants the video to remain on, he must "earn" that water slide at the Dells. Brady will usually get back into the "groove" rather quickly. Sometimes, I'll need to repeat this process a few times.

Occasionally, the blinking lights on my room's sound system, or the display of "bubbles" on my computer's screen saver may catch Brady's eye. I can't remove every distraction from the studio, so a better approach is to use "earn it" to regain his attention.

On a few occasions, Brady has needed to show better respect for the instrument he's playing. I must discern if he's just overly excited that day (no problem), or being "out-of-bounds." I have to choose the right course of action rather quickly to keep the lesson on track. On rare occasions, I've had to end the lesson early. This is a course of action suggested by his parents, if needed. I try to use this as a very last resort.

Brady is a wonderful child. His spirit is very happy and loving. Mostly, he can't help it when his behavior is a bit "off." I believe it's my job as his drum teacher to have this perspective, and maintain it, when I work with him. I also believe it's my job to tirelessly search for new ways to help Brady continue his love of drumming. The best way to do this is to keep him learning, framed by, "If at first you don't succeed...."

I want to take a moment to mention Brady's parents, Julie and Bob. I have been observing them intently these past couple of years to gain a better understanding of how I can best help their son. I am awed by the amount of patience and love that they have for Brady. They are determined that Brady will have the best life possible. They search out the proper avenues to get Brady the life skills he will need. He is considered "high functioning" and has been reading text astonishingly well, for as long as I can remember. One reason Brady can take drum lessons is because they have worked with him - endlessly. When I've mentioned that they are amazing people, Julie stated, "No, not really. We have been blessed with a unique child." She reminded me that he brings out the best in all of us, including talents I didn't know I had, and thanked me for giving him a chance to be musical and gain confidence in himself.

These are the kinds of sentiments, because of their love, truth and wisdom, that will remain steadfast in my being - and that's an understatement.

I also want to mention Karen Richie. She has a Master's degree in special education and I sought out her counsel regarding autism when I first decided to work with Brady. She was always available when I needed to refine an approach, and is mom to two of my former students (). Karen, I appreciate your helpfulness so much!

By the way, Julie Poetzel and Karen Richie both work for the Menomonee Falls School District. Their level of selflessness makes me proud to have them serving in my community.

Brady, you're an awesome kid. You possess such love in your spirit, and your energy is boundless. I understand this and appreciate all you bring to the world. Thanks for the opportunity to work with you!

Love conquers all.

Happy holidays, everyone!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim Kube December 31, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Miriam Conigliaro: Thanks for reading my post about Brady. It is interesting how love always seems to find a way :) Thanks so much and happy new year! Jim
Bean January 02, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Dad - It's always amazing for me to see day-in and day-out all the lives that you have touched through simply pursuing your passion in any and all ways... And what a cool experience for you to have with Brady! I love the fact that we can share bits of our knowledge in not only your passion, music, but in my passion for social work, too! Keep doing what you're doing, because obviously it's working out for you and all of us around you!! <3 Bean
Jim Kube January 02, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Bean: I'm glad you related so well to my post about Brady. You are correct - what a cool experience this is! I enjoy sharing life with you as well, kiddo :) Thanks so much for your loving words - they are literally sweet music to my ears. Love, Dad
Rob January 21, 2012 at 02:05 PM
What an amazing opportunity (and challenge), helping a kid like Brady develop as a musician! I think of some of the famous musicians who have achieved success despite various challenges. I suspect some, like Temple Grandin who Lisa mentioned, or certain famous artists and writers I've read about, actually turned aspects of their struggles around to their benefit. It's wonderful to hear that you're guiding Brady's growth as a musician, and it's exciting to think of the potential his future holds as a musician.
Jim Kube January 21, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Rob: Your comments are spot on, and wise. Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciated them! Jim

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