Amy. She’s blind, deaf and four years old. To be honest I’m not qualified for this gig. I haven’t trained as a teacher and this is my first ever drum session with special needs children. Fifteen of them with bright, expectant eyes. Most of them are older, in wheelchairs with straps and head rests, brought in by fresh-faced helpers. I’m used to setting up a groove with rotating classes of excited school kids around the North Circular. Articulate, elasticated mavericks who jump around and call me ‘Sir’. With them I know how to get some quick win grooves going before blowing out of there at home time, high as a kite. I can only lose here.
Unless I train up some of the helpers. Unless I train up some helpers now, in the next sixty seconds. Which is what I do.
Serenading serendipity and chanting to chance Amy’s carer, Joyce, is now playing the central Djun Djun drum. I set up a big bass groove on its vibrating skin and simply hand her the sticks. Hey, hey, it’s rhythm relay day. She’s getting into it like a pro.
Amy is smiling and her golden ringlets are bouncing. Her spontaneous bursts of laughter are energising everyone.
We’re in a spacious, stylish gymnasium that doubles as a music room. This Roehampton private school isn’t without funding and the sun is pouring through its west facing wall of glass like honey into a jar. Other helpers, excited by the vibe, are reaching for their own drums and percussion, placed within reach without getting in the way. The groove is building. We’re safe. I’m safe.
Everything I know about working with special needs children I learned that morning, seventeen years ago.
Young people with special needs appear to be acutely sensitive to vibes and vibrations. What I’ve observed, over and over again, is that if their carer looks concerned and puts a shaker in their hand, kindly shaking it in rhythm for them, they look stressed. But if a young man in a wheelchair is tapping out an erratic rhythm on his wheelchair frame with a single drum stick, while his carer is playing a groove alongside him on a proper drum, staying connected, they both smile and relax. It’s beautiful, I could write a book about it.
But look. Amy is still dancing. When she loses the beat she simply comes back to the central bass drum, places her hands on the vibrating skin for a few seconds, nods in recognition then dances around the room as if she’s arrived at Woodstock on the second day of the Festival and is making up for lost time. Some of the carers are dancing too beside their children, really letting off some steam. Forget playing on stage in Berlin, this is one of my favourite gigs ever.
As we’re packing up and everyone is being wheeled out, totally loved up, Joyce is trying to hide her tears. “Two years” she says. “Two years, every day. And that’s the first time I’ve seen little Amy smile”.
I’m not making this up.
I thought of starting this essay with the words, ‘Teachers and carers are saints’. They just are, they really are.
I don’t give up my corporate work, I don’t devote the rest of my life to working with special needs children. I don’t write the handbook and use every bit of influence I have to influence government policy because I don’t want to be poor. There’s no funding. I carry on doing interactive keynotes in posh hotels with bars and spas.
Occasionally I work with MENCAP and other special needs groups and I’ve recently become a Patron of the Wolf Hirschhorn Syndrome Trust. Music, especially rhythmic music, is the one thing that all their children share a love of. I’m taking 100 drums to our big family meet up in Northampton on May the 1st.
But what of Amy?
The speakers in the gym are powerful enough for Amy to put her hands on them, pick up the beat and keep grooving after I leave. I show Joyce how to use their sound system in the way we used that bass drum.
Amy will be twenty one now. With the few jigsaw pieces we have let’s make this picture together. Amy is sitting in a sunny conservatory, west facing. The sun is pouring in like honey. Over on the left, against the wall next to the sound system, there’s a dark grey, waist high studio speaker. But right now she’s sitting in front of her light green braille typewriter. She’s dedicating her first book to Joyce. The cover has already been designed and it’s here on her stripped pine table top. The book is called, of course, ‘Just A Dancer’.