Break­ing the sound bar­rier

De­spite chal­lenges, deaf stu­dent pur­sues dream of play­ing drums

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­

Tylee Thomas was in eighth grade when Chris­tiana High School’s steel drum band per­formed a concert at his school and al­though he couldn’t re­ally hear the mu­sic, he was fas­ci­nated by what he saw.

“It was the way they played; how they moved when they were play­ing,” Thomas, now 18 years old and a se­nior at the Delaware School for the Deaf, ex­plained. “I like to dance and I like to play mu­sic and dance at the same time in­stead of stand­ing there and not do­ing any­thing.”

Af­ter the concert, he asked the band’s in­struc­tor if he could join. By his fresh­man year, he was learn­ing to play the drums.

If Thomas were any other stu­dent in­ter­ested in mu­sic, his story would not be that un­usual, but he is not just any other stu­dent. Thomas started to lose the abil­ity to

hear when he was about 3 or 4 years old and is now pro­foundly deaf in his left ear, mean­ing he is un­able to hear any sounds at all. He can par­tially hear in his right ear with the help of a hear­ing aid and com­mu­ni­cates mostly by read­ing lips and us­ing sign lan­guage.

Ev­ery day, Thomas trav­els from DSD on East Chest­nut Hill Road to Chris­tiana High School for math and band, where he not only plays the steel drums, but also drum set, crick­ets, bon­gos, shak­ers and other per­cus­sion in­stru­ments.

Steel drums, how­ever, are quickly be­com­ing his fa­vorite and he said he en­joys play­ing them the most.

“It helps me re­lax, like if I’m feel­ing an­gry, I can kind of play it out on the drums,” he said.

At first, Thomas said, it was dif­fi­cult to learn how to play the steel drums be­cause he could hardly hear the sounds, but with help from some of his band­mates, as well as band di­rec­tor Jef­fery Dom­bchik, he got the hang of it.

Be­fore he learned how to read mu­sic, he said he would turn the vol­ume on his hear­ing aid all the way up and then watch his band­mates play un­til he un­der­stood the con­cept and rhythm. Then he would try play­ing it him­self, fol­low­ing the beat of a cow­bell with his eyes to know how fast and when to hit the mal­let on the drum. Af­ter­ward, he would ask his band­mates if he got the notes right and cor­rect any er­rors. “I guess we used team­work,” he said. Thomas’ in­ter­est in drums be­gan way be­fore he saw the CHS band play in eighth grade. He said he was about 3 years old when he first told his mom he wanted to play the drums in his church choir. Then one day at church, he said he saw some­one play­ing the drums and de­cided to join in.

“I ac­tu­ally took the drum­sticks from the drum­mer and started play­ing the drums and my mom said, ‘You aren’t sup­posed to do that,’ but I said, ‘Re­mem­ber you told me I could play,’” Thomas said.

He played the bon­gos and tam­bourine with the church choir grow­ing up, be­fore even­tu­ally fall­ing in love with the steel drums.

As a deaf per­son, he said his fam­ily mem­bers never thought he would be able to play mu­sic and were sur­prised to see he’s been so suc­cess­ful with the CHS band. Nev­er­the­less, he said, they are proud he is break­ing that bar­rier. He just hopes his story in­spires other deaf stu­dents and makes them feel like they can do any­thing.

“Don’t let any­thing hold you back,” he said. “Just go ahead and do it.”

Af­ter he grad­u­ates from DSD in June, Thomas plans to at­tend Gal­laudet Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton D.C., to study math­e­mat­ics and phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. He hopes to be a math teacher one day, but said he will al­ways have a love for drum­ming.

“If they need some­one to play mu­sic, I’m al­ways will­ing to jump in and play,” he said.


Tylee Thomas, a se­nior at the Delaware School for the Deaf, has learned how the play the drums, de­spite not be­ing able to hear.


Tylee Thomas, a se­nior at the Delaware School for the Deaf, plays the steel drums with the Chris­tiana High School band. Thomas lost the abil­ity to hear when he was four years old.

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