Rick Bausman is a drummer, but he’s not using long, thin wooden sticks to beat out time on a set of drums at a club on Circuit Ave., although he’s perfectly capable of doing that.
Rick’s a person who gets joy from helping others feel the beat; it’s more than moving people to dance to a particular rhythm, it’s about them making their own music.
On Tuesday evenings in summer, you’ll find him drumming at Camp Jabberwocky’s spot on State Beach. When he’s not on the beach, you’ll find him in the center of a drum circle in a classroom, or an activity room at Windemere or the Island’s senior centers, in his bare feet, shuffling along to the rhythm and handing out every kind of drum you can think of and percussion instruments you’ve never seen before. “That’s great!” he tells the sometimes unlikely — and sometimes surprised — musicians. “You sound terrific!” To Rick’s ear, it’s all joyful noise.
“The joy is in the journey,” he told me a few weeks ago. He’d just wrapped up the school year with a small group of autistic students, all around 14 years old, some of whom have drummed with him for years in the school system. They played their first drum concert for their parents and the superintendent of schools a couple of weeks ago. The Island Autism Group has paid for Rick to lead weekly drumming sessions with students for years.
“I set the bar really high to see what we could do, and they have managed to come up with a really nice piece of musical rhythm, and they slip in and out of it,” he said. “Sometimes they focus at the same time and sometimes they don’t.”
For their first concert, held in the music room at the high school, the students were focused. They bobbed their heads to the beat and they seemed to enjoy the fact that they were playing together, not a typical thing for students with autism, Rick said. They made music and for that 30 minutes or so, it wasn’t about their classroom teachers or their special education program. The parents listened, maybe a little surprised that their kids were capable of keeping up in a drumming ensemble. But they were.
At Windemere a few days before, it was the same idea. Residents gathered in a drumming circle, Rick walked in bringing a bunch of percussion instruments, and the residents came to life.
“Does it make your drumming better when you’re barefoot?” one woman asked. There’s no real answer but Rick grinned as he set up the instruments. There’s about 15 residents in his music circle and some of them can’t hold a drumstick. If they can’t, that’s okay. He gives them another instrument that they can use. He tells them how glad he is that they showed up. While Rick beat out the rhythm, I notice one resident who couldn’t manage an instrument tapping her fingers in time to the music under the crocheted afghan on her lap. For Rick, it’s not so much about how accomplished a session is.
“It doesn’t have to be in rhythm,” Rick tells me. “We can play louder and softer, stop and start, solos and duets. I try to structure the music in different ways. If I was focused on it being rhythm, it wouldn’t really succeed. I have to be realistic about what my expectations are and how they can be successful.
“A good session for me is when everyone feels like they were involved and everyone feels successful and content . . . and when everyone wants to do it some more.”
Betsy Burmeister, the recreation therapy director at Windemere, said she thinks the drumming circle is very beneficial to the residents.
“They feel so much better after participating in the drumming circle. Much more relaxed, happy to have connected with each other,” she said. “Drumming is a good cardio workout, it also boosts their immune systems, lowers blood pressure, and produces feelings of wellbeing in the residents. Overall, it’s a good workout for the brain and the body. And studies have shown that it gives people a ‘natural high’ by increasing alpha brain waves.”
Rick said he’s been banging on something himself since he was about 3 years old, more than 50 years. He grew up in Ithaca, N.Y.; Lewiston, Maine; and Providence, R.I. “My dad was a minister so we moved to different places when I was young,” he said.
He first came to Martha’s Vineyard in 1980 to work at Camp Jabberwocky. “My style of drumming workshop ensembles works well with people with disabilities,” Rick explains. “We were asked to share our ability and passions with the camp, and that’s what I shared, drumming.”
He’s played in some bands on the Island, notably the Ululators and Entrain, as well as the Beetlebung Steel Band. It was during a performance with another group, Die Kunst Der Drum, at the Katharine Cornell Theater, when a preschool teacher asked if he might come to her school to play with her students.
“That was in 1986, so that’s when this whole idea started to take root on the Island,” Rick said. “It wasn’t long before the Edgartown School called, and then other schools. People would ask me ‘Can you do this with first graders?’ and I’d say yes. ‘Can you do this with fifth graders?’ Yes. ‘Can you do this with the Council on Aging?’ Yes.”
Drumming lends itself to building community and enhancing self-esteem, Rick says. When people who may not be able to do a team sport or other group activity come together for drumming, they become part of the group.
“It also just feels really good,” Rick says. “There’s a level of challenge and then a great sense of accomplishment, and that feels good to anybody.”
When he starts out with a group, most of the people think they’ll never be able to play, but once they go through the experience together, they discover they can do it, he said. “We go through the process of learning together and they discover they can do it. It’s joyful and thrilling when they see that.”
Rick’s taken his drumming program all over the country and to different parts of the world. He’s written school curriculum for different age levels in a dozen states. He’s trained music teachers, and in Springfield, Mo., he set up a program for Parkinson’s disease patients. He’s also involved in expanding the drumming program to include persons in recovery from substance abuse. Rick’s business, Rhythm of Life Inc., survives on donations and funding from the drum sessions. Its mission statement says ROL wants to “use the power of ensemble drumming to help create a world where people feel good about themselves, respect each other, experience personal transformation, enjoy community in its broadest sense, and work joyfully and effectively together.”
After listening to Island drumming circles with Rick, it’s clear this is a mission that’s being accomplished one drum beat at a time for people who find themselves on all different levels of the learning curve. It’s obvious that Rick’s welcoming laid-back presence and no-pressure method puts people at ease and allows them to realize their own potential. It doesn’t hurt that drumming fills his own heart with joy.
“I’m putting my soul and spirit into what I’m playing and my hope is I’m enriching someone else’s spirit when they’re listening to it,” he said.
To find out more about Rhythm of Life and Rick Bausman’s drumming, visit rhytmoflifeinc.org.