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September 4, 2003

Troupe feels the beat of a common drum

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WI - Sep 4, 2003

Ever sit in your car, stopped in traffic, when a young kid pulls up beside you with his radio cranked up, the bass absolutely pounding?

You don't just hear it. You feel it.

There it is - a taste, perhaps, of David Watson's world when he gets down to business in the rehearsal room with the Children of the Sun drum troupe.

Good vibrations. That's what I mean.

Along with four others at Wednesday's rehearsal, David, 15, of Milwaukee, lined up at a row of African drums and beat them to a driving rhythm. All deaf or hard of hearing, the troupe members created chest-rattling vibrations. It was music to their ears and, frankly, mine, too.

The troupe is an imaginative program of the Brookfield-based Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which provides treatment and resources to families in southeastern Wisconsin who are affected by hearing loss. The drummers, not too far removed from a Summerfestperformance, are getting ready to perform Sept. 19 and 20 before the National Theatre of the Deaf's "Oh, Figaro!" at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield.

Deborah Kravit, program director for the center, started the drum troupe after she saw what kind of excitement was created by a drummer performing for toddlers in the center's early childhood program. It didn't take long for her to realize how appealing this might be to school-age children.

She's received some expert help. Music director Jahmes "Tony" Finlayson is a percussionist, artistic performer and instructor involved with a wide variety of Milwaukee-area arts groups, including the Ko-Thi Dance Company in Milwaukee. Cecil Austin, past president of Ko-Thi, is an educator and curriculum designer with extensive experience in music who's developed a system that helps these children read percussion music.

"There is not a child you cannot reach with drums, because you can feel the drum," Kravit said. When parents grieve over their children's deafness and their inability to hear music, "we quickly show parents there is a huge range of hope there."

"In the old days, deaf kids weren't exposed to music," Kravit said. As Children of the Sun, they not only are exposed, but they learn musicianship and performance.

"They shine on stage," Finlayson said.

During this rehearsal, Finlayson took them through their paces, then Austin led each individual drummer into a rhythm. David, the oldest, was a slight beat behind through some of the exercises. Finally, as he focused on the blackboard notations, he pounded out the beat just as Austin laid it out.

"That's it! You're doing it! You're reading it!" Austin said, to David's broad smile.

I told you the troupe was all about good vibrations. But I didn't just mean drum vibes. This is also about the emotional reverberations in a child's life.

Dan Stauffer, a 14-year-old Waukesha troupe member, may be a leg up on the other drummers because his hearing loss is not complete. He was adopted from a Romanian orphanage at age 4, one his mother, Judy Mathison, described as "pretty grim."

He had no language skills because his eardrums were perforated from recurring and untreated ear infections as a baby. Since then, surgery has improved his hearing, though it would be even better if he'd use the hearing aid he doesn't like to wear.

Dan, who can speak, is learning sign language so he can better communicate with deaf members of the troupe.

"I'm a hands-on kinda guy," he explained. He joined the troupe because he loves to entertain people, he said, and "I like music, and I wanted to know more."

Unabashedly, he says he's pretty good. "I practice."

His mother said Dan has matured, taken on some leadership responsibilities in the troupe, and has fun with the music and the drummers.

"I think Dan doesn't feel so isolated as a hearing-impaired person," she said. Dan said he particularly likes the diversity in the troupe, "not all white, but different people from different places."

David became involved in the drum troupe as part of the dying wishes of his mother nearly four years ago.

"It's changed my life," David said, through an interpreter. "I feel better about life."

He now lives with his grandmother, Jewell Neal, because his father died two years after his mother. Just weeks before his mother died, she asked the center for the deaf to throw her son a 12th birthday party, full of Packers green and gold and games such as bowling with other deaf children. David recalled it fondly.

Staff members emptied their own pockets to make it happen, and Kravit said "it was one of our best moments, ever."

David's grandmother said he has since become more outgoing, and Kravit believes the troupe has also helped David focus.

"The best time," David said, "is when we're watching the teacher teach us and we get really skilled and he doesn't have to tell us our mistakes and he says, 'You're right! You're right!' OK. Then I've got it.

"That makes me feel real good."

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