By Darlene Donloe
When he was a kid, Steven Angel literally lived his life to the beat of his own drum.
The child prodigy began playing drums at the tender age of 3. His highly developed skills led to a performance with the legendary Buddy Rich’s band when he was 6.
By 12, Angel and his band were playing before crowds of 5,000 to 25,000 as the opening act for Herman’s Hermits and the Animals.
Good fortune continued to come his way. At 16, Angel recorded an album with Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding, with Hendrix playing on one of the tracks. At one point, his life seemed to be filled with unstoppable good fortune. He had some great highs touring the U.S., Canada and Europe. But the good times were followed by some disappointing lows.
By the time he was 20, it all came crashing down, leaving Angel emotionally and psychologically drained.
“I had success without success,” said Angel, whose music has been featured on television shows and commercials. “I had no money. I had all the glitter and glamour of success. The album with Jimi Hendrix’s bass player didn’t go out because Jimi died.”
In his 40s, Angel began to reevaluate his life.
“I wanted to do something to help people,” he said. “Drumming and psychology came together. I started creating exercises. I tried some of the programs out with at-risk youth. I also did a program with cancer patients. I knew I wanted to help people.”
Today, Angel, 67, hears the beat of a different drum. Today, through his nonprofit Drumming For Your Life Institute, founded in 2002, he is using the power of rhythm to help children, youth and adults develop the emotional, academic and social skills needed to succeed in school and in life.
When Angel talks about his program, it’s clear he believes in people and their potential. In fact, he’ll tell you he’s “excited” about it.
He’s dedicated to what he’s doing and to the people who participate in the various programs. He’s admittedly always “tweaking” the program to make it better.
“When I crashed at 20, that was the beginning of the journey,” said Angel, the president, founder and creator of Drumming For Your Life Institute and its various programs. “Our goal is to reach as many people as we can.”
At Drumming For Your Life Institute, there are two main programs — Reading & Rhythm, and Life Skills Drumming.
“Reading & Rhythm is literacy-based,” Angel said. “Life Skills is therapeutic. We do a lot of work with at-risk youth. We work with charter schools and private schools. We have programs with the L.A. library. We work with people dealing with addiction and anxiety. We’ve all been a little anxious these days.”
Asked why so many children are anxious and depressed, Angel said it could be any number of reasons.
“It could be the break up of the nuclear family or pressures to be perfect,” he said. “I’ve seen tremendous anxiety in low-income families and for reasons completely opposite of high-income families. There’s a pressure for them to be perfect.”
The Reading & Rhythm Program (R&R) is designed for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade reading levels. The program, also open to adults, is taught in groups, one-on-one, schools, juvenile halls, detention camps, family centers, libraries and parks. R&R addresses the needs of struggling readers, which includes anxiety and negative internal thinking.
Angel, who was brought up in Long Island, said it’s the universal appeal of rhythm that makes Reading & Rhythm stand out among other reading strategies.
“Rhythm can help break through the blockages kids have with reading,” he said.
The program provides methods that improve fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, phonics, word recognition and phonemic awareness.
Several rules are used in the program to help break bad reading habits. To chart progress, Angel said participants are pre- and post-tested for letter naming, sound recognition, fluency, accuracy, comprehension and given an assessment questionnaire to evaluate the impact of the program. Over the years, the institute has tested thousands of students in reading with a significant increase in just six weeks.
The program, held twice a week for six weeks, helps to increase reading fluency and accuracy through the use of rhythm, employs specific educational techniques to help students tackle complex words, vocabulary and improve spelling; the use of Nonlinear Comprehension strategy, which allows the reader to think like the writer; the use of rhythm and tempo to read faster and to increase self-esteem, and the use of rhythm to motivate readers.
Angel said they use a simple but powerful assertive rhythm that diffuses the doubtful internal voice and decreases anxiety while creating a neural pathway in the brain for increased focus and concentration. They use tempo to speed up the neural networks in the brain.
“It’s a multi-sensory approach,” said Angel, whose wife of almost nine years is an educator. “Struggling readers have what we call the doubtful internal voice, which sends stress signals into the body creating a lot of anxiety. That makes it very hard for students to focus and concentrate.”
While a student is reading, an assertive rhythm is played on a book, which creates a neural pathway for focus and concentration diffusing the doubtful internal voice and decreasing anxiety.
The institute has trained LAUSD teachers in the Reading & Rhythm program as well as teachers in Massachusetts and London.
The Life Skills Drumming Program is different.
“We use drums and character and responsibility,” he said. “We deal with people’s traumas and then we all talk after. They talk about things they couldn’t talk to in therapy. The goal is healing, transforming and becoming aware of what their issues are. This is done in a group setting. They are able to open up because of the exercises we provide. One issue might be they are dealing with a secret. Sometimes it starts off nonverbal. The drumming is very powerful. It helps you break through that blockage.”
The facilitators of the Life Skills Drumming Program all have a foundation in drumming. All have previously taught or worked in other areas of education.
The Life Skills Drumming Program, which takes place twice a week for five weeks, uses the power of rhythm along with visualization techniques through the following 10 character values: honesty, independence, survival, trust, character, responsibility, respect, self-discipline, loyalty and justice to help youth and adults cope with problems they face on a daily basis, at home, in school and on the streets. Each session deals with a specific character.
Some of the Life Skills Drumming Program specifics include building community and self-confidence that leads to creative ways to change one’s life, participants develop the essential emotional intelligence needed to maintain control over anger and impulsive behavior, decision-making and problem-solving skills are acquired that lead participants to make safer and better choices, free negative internal voices that help each participant discover his or her own authentic voice, and the releasing of stress which allows emotional expression in a productive, non-violent manner.
Steps in the healing process include trust, responsibility, justice, loyalty, honesty, self-discipline, survival, character, respect and independence.
The Drumming For Your Life Institute is changing the lives of kids and adults alike. Most of the participants are African American and Hispanic and come from various social and economic backgrounds.
Angel loves it when someone makes a breakthrough.
“I want to bring into the world as much illumination as I can,” he said. “A child’s face will light up when their reading scores have increased.”
When COVID forced closures last spring, Angel pivoted the programs to an online format.
“The program translated well online,” he said. “We’ve been able to have success. The rhythm cuts through the screen.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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