The Rhythmic Arts Project brings beat to people with disabilities

by NANCY HENDERSON

A former rock drummer brings rhythm percussion and self-esteem to people with developmental disabilities.

Growing up, Dion Cornejo was extremely timid, didn’t say much and was terrified of anything new.

“He was kind of a follower. He never showed much leadership in those early years,” says Seiko Niimi, director of afternoon programs for adults with developmental disabilities at Club ASPIRE in Pasadena, Calif.

All that changed in 1999 when Cornejo, who has Down syndrome, started playing conga and the smaller African djembe in The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP), which relies on percussion instruments and basic quarter-beat notes to address speech, mobility and other issues.

Soon after Cornejo joined the program, Niimi watched the young man boldly drum alongside some of the world’s top percussionists at the Avila (Calif.) Drum Day festival. “Dion just got up on that stage and refused to leave,” Niimi recalls. “Ever since then, he started holding his head higher and walking a little faster. Without using words, he had more confidence.”

Cornejo, 30, still participates in the TRAP sessions. “The drums have given him a voice and, with that, increased self-esteem, courage and a sense of accomplishment,” says his mother Debbie Cornejo. “Dion now walks with his head held high and a playful bounce to his step.”

TRAP is the brainchild of Eddie Tuduri, a former drummer for The Beach Boys, Rick Nelson and Engelbert Humperdinck whose life changed dramatically during a body surfing accident off the coast of Carpinteria, Calif., in September 1997. “As soon as I got in the wave, it went bam!” Tuduri remembers. “I heard a big snap, and it was over. I didn’t feel anything.”

  • Eddie Tuduri and student enjoy a laugh.
  • Learning note values is an important first step at TRAP.
  • TRAP students delight in the sound of the djembe drum.
  • TRAP teaches rhythm and coordination.
  • Piqui Granja at the American School in Quito, Ecuador, practices with a student.

Woke up in intensive care 

But it wasn’t until Tuduri woke up in intensive care that he learned the bad news: He had broken his neck and was paralyzed. A week later, he was transferred to The Rehabilitation Institute of Santa Barbara, a sprawling adobe complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Sensation gradually returned in his right hand, but his left one was still virtually useless. Would he ever drum again? He’d been playing since he was 10, back when he watched American Bandstand every day after school, tapping along on his schoolbooks. He couldn’t imagine a life without rhythm.

One day as he lay in the ward with seven other patients, he started rapping his finger on the side of the bed. Then he talked a friendly aide into drumming along. Eighty-year-old Edith, who suffered from a spinal cord injury and constant pain, started clapping in time. Ted, who was paralyzed after a near-fatal motorcycle accident, rapped a stick on a cowbell the aide placed on his chest. When the sound drew a roomful of curious doctors, nurses and therapists, Tuduri worried they’d all get in trouble. Instead, the healthcare workers grinned and encouraged the “band” to keep playing. “Everybody loved it,” Tuduri says.

With a nod from his therapists; some backup from percussionist friends from Jethro Tull, Chicago and other bands; and a slew of congas, bongos and other instruments, he took the new “program” to his occupational rehab class. Almost immediately, the patients showed improvement in memory and coordination. When an 8-year-old boy, paralyzed on one side by an aneurysm, walked by himself for the first time, Tuduri knew he was onto something big.

By the time he left the hospital in 1998, still in a wheelchair but regaining his motor function, he had established TRAP. After years of working with patients recovering from brain injuries, accidents and strokes, the program now primarily serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in approximately 40 locations in the U.S., Canada and South America. Percussionists and other volunteers are trained to work with administrators, activity directors and aides at schools and community centers.

“People with developmental disabilities are largely forgotten or ignored,” says Tuduri, 65, who admits he knew very little about the population before his accident. “I want to be a squeaky wheel so people will know how cool they are.”

Sounding out the beat

The TRAP curriculum, which also uses flash cards, dice, easy-to-follow guidebooks, calendars and other tools, teaches basic life skills, from spatial awareness and motor skills to mathematics, focus and visual, tactile and auditory perception. Participants sit in a circle, taking turns as they follow the facilitator’s instructions and sound out the beat to count, identify colors and shapes, and tell time.

Over the years, TRAP has triggered some remarkable breakthroughs. “We serve a woman in Santa Barbara who rarely uttered a word, and when she did, she typically screamed,” says Kathy Webb, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy WORK, Inc., which serves more than 650 children and adults in Santa Barbara County. “Through the beauty of TRAP, she was able to verbalize her needs as she tapped along on the drums. She learned to use words to express her needs and feelings.

“What we find most beneficial is the fact that the program motivates people to speak, respond and lead. This is very empowering,” Webb adds. “Within our own organization, thanks to the TRAP program, I have seen people with profound disabilities find their voice, lead groups and share joy. … I have thoroughly enjoyed watching [Tuduri] grow this program and take it into Third World countries. His passion for his work is mesmerizing.”

TRAP’s global expansion began in the Middle East in 2008, when Tuduri led rhythm classes for young war survivors in Syria and Jordan. “I found that the language wasn’t so difficult to deal with,” he recalls. “The drums spoke volumes.”

Programs in Canada

After that, he added programs throughout Canada and, most recently, in Quito, Ecuador, where The Fundacion El Triangulo for children with developmental and intellectual challenges helps facilitate sessions in conjunction with typical schools in that city.

Tuduri is still very hands-on with the program he founded, often kneeling beside new participants and charming them with his patient demeanor and warm, irresistible smile.

Most of them don’t know, or care, that he once lived in the same neighborhood as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and actor Edward James Olmos, or that he played with J.D. Souther on the Eagles’ Hotel California tour and appeared on The Tonight Show with Dwight Yoakam.

One of Tuduri’s primary goals is to combat the misconception that TRAP is simply a music therapy program or drum circle. Another mission, he says, is to keep training new facilitators “so it has a life of its own.”

“We have people elsewhere who are doing what I do and touching hundreds of lives. … This is what we dreamed of years ago. It’s happening.”

For more information about The Rhythmic Arts Project, see www.traponline.com. Call 805-682-1702 to learn more about the first annual workshop for TRAP facilitators in Santa Barbara, Calif., March 11-13.

Nancy Henderson is the author of Able! How One Company’s Disabled Workforce Became the Key to Extraordinary Success (BenBella Books). kwebb@ucpworkinc.org.

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