Rick Bausman, Jay Segel look to unlock neurological knots

The author followed Rick Bausman's lead to keep a simple rhythm going for 30 minutes.
Photo courtesy of Rick Bausman

The author followed Rick Bausman's lead to keep a simple rhythm going for 30 minutes.

What do you get when you mix a musician with a physician, both on a mission? In the case of Rick Bausman of Edgartown and Dr. Jay Segel of West Tisbury, the hope is to come up with some relief for those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease and mulitple sclerosis.

Mention Rick Bausman’s name around these parts, and most people think drums, and drumming — in parades, in the schools, at public functions and private parties. A master at plastering smiles on people’s faces, Mr. Bausman is bound to get feet tapping, hands clapping, fingers snapping.

But there’s more to drumming than fun, Mr. Bausman believes. A drummer all his life, for nearly that long he’s been helping out those among us who are challenged, either physically or emotionally. He was 17 when he first came to the Island in 1980 to work as a counselor at Camp Jabberwocky.

When he moved to the Island full-time after college, he inherited the drum ensemble Die Kunst Der Drum from Sam Holmstock. A few years later, he founded the Drum Workshop, now 25 years old, through which he has applied drumming to educational, therapeutic, and community-building purposes on the Island.

Recently, Mr. Bausman’s horizons — and hopes — have broadened, both geographically and conceptually. In two recent trips to Israel, he has organized a drum group made up of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers, convinced that a shared purpose, and passion, can build bonds between people — even those who have been bred and raised to hate each other. Closer to home, he has taken on another challenge — proving scientifically that drumming has physiological benefits for those suffering from neurological diseases.

“In addition to the physical part, there are intellectual, social, and spiritual elements to drumming,” Mr. Bausman said recently. “And drums are universal — you find them in cultures all around the world — and accessible: you don’t have to learn chords or scales to start out.”

As for the physical part, it’s no secret that drumming can be exhausting and exhilarating, sometimes in equal measure. But does it trigger any other physiological changes?

Enter Dr. Segel, who has been a podiatrist on the Island for more than 25 years. Food and ankle problems, which podiatrists address, are often triggered by the way we walk. Almost no-one walks perfectly, with a stride and step that has no affect on all the moving parts — joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons, bones — from the toe to the top of the head. By precisely measuring how someone’s feet strike the ground, a podiatrist is better able to assess and address biomechanical problems in that person’s gait.

And there’s no better tool for gathering that data than a diagnostic device called TOG GaitScan, which measures and records the impact of a foot-strike on a highly sensitive pad on the floor. “There are 4,000 sensors in the plate and it fires at 1/300th of a second,” Dr. Segel said. “From the minute the plate is engaged until toe-off, we know what’s going on — if a body is falling out, falling in, or whatever it’s doing.”

What would happen if the subject were measured twice, in rapid succession, with a bit of drumming interspersed between the two? Or, as Dr. Segel put it, “does the program that Rick puts forth in the Drum Workshop help stabilize, improve biomechanics, function, reduce shakiness in a person’s gait?”

The beauty of the program developed by Dr. Segel and Mr. Bausman is its simplicity: there is no need for elaborate tests involving needles and electrodes and laboratories.

“This is among the only ways in a non-invasive form that can gather objective clinical evidence that his program works,” Dr. Segel said. “A person comes in, they get scanned, they drum, they get scanned again, so that the only variable is the drumming.

“Yes, a little time has gone by, but it’s not like waiting an hour, a week, a year, where their meds were, what did they eat or do in between. You walk, you drum, you scan, and three things can happen, either improve, the same, or worse.”

The drumming element is designed to require some focus. “It’s not just keeping time,” Mr. Bausman said. “It’s taxing, learning some complicated Haitian, Cuban rhythms.” The theory is that, like learning a foreign language or doing demanding crosswords puzzles, the more you use certain faculties, even challenge them, the sharper they will stay, despite the progressive degeneration that comes with neurological diseases — or simply with age.

After several trial runs this winter, Dr. Segel sees promise in the protocol. “I am already getting results,” he said. “I can tell you that, from the people we’ve scanned right now, we are cautiously optimistic.”

Early last month, I volunteered to try out the new protocol. After Dr. Segel described the process, I stood on the GaitScan and then walked over it a few times to establish baseline imprints for both my feet. Then I sat down with Mr. Bausman, each of us behind a conga drum. He taught me a pattern that I repeated and repeated and repeated, until he taught me a second part, while he took over the original part. The latter was a bit confusing at first, but I got the hang of if it. A bit of tedium crept in after a few minutes and I had to focus hard to stay with the beat. After exactly 30 minutes, I stopped and repeated what I’d done at first on the GaitScan.

Immediately, Dr. Segel noticed a difference on the computer monitor, both in a color image, and a graph. It all looked like gobbledygook to me, but I wasn’t surprised: whatever GaitScan had recorded required an expert to interpret.

“This study will actually call for a more formal study, but before you do that, you want to have some reasonable hypothesis that this is going to be successful,” said Dr. Segel who was adamant throughout that premature conclusions be avoided, that the facts would speak for themselves. A major medical journal has already expressed interest in the Bausman/Segel research.

For his part, Mr. Bausman was a little less reserved. “I’m not saying it’s creating new neurological pathways, but it may be opening existing pathways that have been blocked,” he said, his enthusiasm barely bridled.

“It would be nice if we could have people who have neuro-muscular challenges be helped with a wonderful activity like drumming,” Dr. Segel said. “We want to get the word out so that people whose lives are arguably challenged can make the best out of a bad situation.”

“If we can get the funding, I want to take this out to the world,” Mr. Bausman said. “And it all started on Martha’s Vineyard: this community that’s so open to new ideas, which supported the Drum Workshop, got us going.”

For more information on the Bausman/Segel research project, visit drum-workshop.org.