How my autism affects me as a drummer

When I started learning more about my autism, I found out that high functioning autistics are either good at math or music, or both. I got both. The first instrument I learned how to play is the piano. When I was in the 6th grade, I started learning how to play the drums. As a sophomore year in high school, I started learning how to play the bass guitar, and played with my church’s choir. When I was studying music for my bachelor’s degree, I specialized in the piano because it was the one instrument I knew I needed the most improvement on. I have a small collection of harmonica’s where I have the natural ability to improvise on. I am a percussionist as well with my own set of bongos and congas, and performed as a hand percussionist with the University of California, Riverside’s Jazz Ensemble.

What I am the best at is the drums. There are three areas how my autism affects and helps me as a drummer. First, my autism means I am musically inclined and have a natural feel for music. As an autistic pattern thinker, music falls into that realm with song structure. My autism makes me hyper sensitive to sound where I can hear everyone in a band.

From my experience as a drummer and bass player, I have gotten feedback that I have a good feel for music. In my first real band, the singer and rhythm guitarist caught on that I had a good feel for music. The two of us would jam out songs, and he will tell me that I was right there right where I am supposed to be to go into the next section of the song. When I started playing the bass guitar and accompanying my church’s choir, I played beyond the meter and the beat. I had this relationship with the music where I would hit my note right at the same time as the choir director played the piano. He pointed out how I had such a great feel for the music. When I played with a college cover band, one of my musician friends commented how the bass player and I were locked in and created that pocket.

When I started out as a drummer, I can honestly recognize that I did not understand song structure. When I started writing my own songs on the piano in tandem with the curriculum I was getting my drum teacher and working my songwriter/singer/rhythm guitarist from my first band, I fully understand and grasp song structure to what I am supposed to be doing as a drummer. What I learned enabled me to become a very good jam band drummer.

My autism makes me a pattern thinker. Once I pick up on the pattern, I understand how it repeats. When I jam with other musicians, I pick up on the pattern, or the chord progression. Each time through, I keep improving upon what I am accompanying as I know the pattern, or structure, better.

What sets me apart from other drummers is my ear. Since autism makes me hyper sensitive to sound, I listen to every member of the band. After I graduated from college, I kept drumming with a friend, Ken, for his jam band. This friend gave me the greatest compliment I ever got: “I have never heard a drummer who is so attentive to everyone else in the band.” His friend, Remy, asked me, “Where have you been all my life?” I am about half his age, so I told him, “I wasn’t born yet.” Remy caught on that I was actively listening to the verse(s) until it was finally time for me to lead the band in to the chorus.

When I perform for jam bands, I listen. I follow the singer so I know where we are going, which helps me establish verse and chorus. I am learning the song on the spot and adapting as we go. If I do not have a singer, I latch to the riff of the guitarist or the progression. I have performed with jam bands in the United States and the United Kingdom, and musicians in each place established that I knew what I was doing to appropriately accompany.

When I performed hand percussion with the UCR Jazz Ensemble, most of the music I performed did not have sheet music for my instrument. I got the same sheet music as the drummer to help me follow the rest of the band. I had to play it entirely from ear. There was a performance where we had singers join for certain songs. This one song was a latin jazz number, and I noticed that there was no soloists following when the singer sang. I used that void to improvise and insert myself. On the day of our performance, I was feeling the singer’s energy that I played my solo as if I was rhythmically complimenting the singer.

To me, music and autism goes hand in hand. When I am part of a band, I latch onto the feel and play in unison with other musicians. My autism’s pattern thinking makes a huge difference for me to learn other musician’s music on the spot. What happens to be the biggest asset of my autism as a drummer – and as a musician in general – is my ability to listen. My ear enables me to hear everyone, even if it is a symphony’s harpist amongst all the sounds going on all at the same time.

I am in between bands right now, but I am looking to join… and waiting for the pandemic to be over so live concerts can come back. So far, I do have two bands that are interested in my musical talents. I have a cover band that wants me to play the bass guitar for them. A musician friend of mine and I have agreed that his original music is missing something: piano. The instrument that I am best at is the drums, and I am waiting and longing for that one band where I am at home behind a drum set on a stage.

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