Nafis's story

Learning the drums and playing in a band

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features 15-year-old Nafis who is blind and has a hearing loss; Dave, his drum teacher; Derek and Francis, fellow blind musicians; and Adam, founder of The Amber Trust.

  • Background

    The context is one of Nafis’ weekly drum lessons with Dave (although it is being held at an unfamiliar venue and on an instrument he hasn’t played before) and where a jam session subsequently takes place with other blind musicians.

  • Aim

    This video aims to show how a young blind adult can be taught to play complex rhythms on the drum kit, an instrument which demands a high level of spatial awareness and proprioceptive skill, and how blind musicians, including those with autism and learning difficulties, are helped to navigate a group rehearsal.

  • What does the film cover?

    How a teacher can help a student navigate an instrument

    In this film, Nafis is playing a drum kit that he hasn’t encountered before. His teacher Dave encourages him to explore the kit with his hands, to find any differences between the new kit and the one he has at home. Dave notes that a teacher should ensure that instruments such as the drum kit should, wherever possible, be set up the same way, to make things easier for blind players – not least since playing with sticks requires a high level of proprioceptive skill and memory, given that the margin for error is increased by lengthening the distance between a child’s hand and the target that has to be hit.

    Using language appropriately

    To be helpful to blind people, verbal descriptions and instructions need to be precise and unambiguous. It is too easy to say ‘over there’, accompanied by a hand gesture, and forget that a blind person will have little or no idea of what is meant. In contrast, Dave uses clear ‘right’ and ‘left’ instructions to tell Nafis where the drums and cymbals are, which hands and feet to use, and so on. This is good practice that is worth emulating.

    How to use words to aid learning by ear

    In common with other methods of teaching and learning rhythms in different cultures, from the Suzuki approach for beginners in Western classical music to Konnakol (the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in the south-Indian Carnatic music), Dave assists his students by introducing them to the ‘drinks cabinet’, which contains (occasionally humorous) items such as ‘apple juice’ and ‘Coca-Cola’ – each creating a distinct rhythm as it is enunciated. This approach is particularly helpful for a blind student such as Nafis, who does not use music notation, and for whom, therefore, aids to learning and remembering are all the more important.

    Appropriate touch

    Dave remarks on how important the appropriate use of touch is in teaching a blind student certain handshapes, positions and movements. This can work in two ways, ‘hand over hand’, in which the teacher places their hand over the pupil’s to guide them, or ‘hand under hand’, whereby a pupil places their hand on the teacher’s, in order to ascertain what they are doing. Importantly, Dave asks for Nafis’ consent before making contact, and, in the interests of safeguarding, he works with Nafis’ parents close by, where they can see what is going on from an adjoining corridor.

    Exams are accessible to blind students

    Nafis is working on his Trinity Grade 7 rock and pop exam, having just passed his Grade 6. All examination boards have accessibility policies and should be able to cater to students with visual impairments. It is worth checking with them exactly what reasonable adjustments they offer (which, in the UK, should be in line with the Equality Act 2010), and it is important to make the case for individual student’s particular needs and preferences. In Nafis’ case, he can download the backing tracks from the examination board’s website and use them himself as an aid to practice.

    Playing in ensembles is something that blind students can do

    Making music with others is one of the best things about learning to play an instrument! In this film, Nafis is shown playing with a pianist and a saxophonist, both of whom are blind themselves. As this is the first rehearsal, Adam facilitates by discreetly cueing solo sections, either through tapping the musicians on the shoulder or by giving a verbal signal. In future, these young musicians will be encouraged to develop a way of communicating with each other that works for them, using unobtrusive signals in sound such as a sharp intake of breath serving as an anacrusis to indicate the timing of a first downbeat, for example, and by agreeing who should lead during passages that speed up or slow down. The ends of long notes can be synchronised through careful rehearsal involving silent counting. In informal improvisatory styles such as jazz, introducing a soloist by name when their turn comes around may in any case be entirely appropriate.