BRATTLEBORO -- Steven Leicach adamantly believes music can open up a world of possibilities for anyone. And he has made a career out of testing that hypothesis.

The visiting artist has spent about 30 years working with artist-in-residency programs in schools and colleges as a way to spread the benefits that music -- drumming, specifically -- has to offer. Now, a $2,500 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation has brought him to Brattleboro Union High School to conduct a program that helps unite the school's different groups of students for a fun social activity.

The Brattleboro resident has since May hosted D.R.U.M. (Diversity, Respect, Unity through Music) workshops at the school, free of charge to the entire student body. The workshops started as once-a-week sessions and, following the summer break, have been held roughly once a month since October. He told the Reformer the workshops will continue through the beginning of 2014.

"There's a lot of benefits to it, which we all know -- about music and how it affects us," he said, adding that music can help students physically, physiologically and cognitively. "The primary focus has been to work with intensive needs students and provide a multifaceted activity that will help them. The idea is not to change them in any way, because I have no interest in changing anybody, but to essentially provide a really fertile ground for them to sort of develop themselves as fully as possible, whatever that will be."

The workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 4, took place in the James Cusick Conference Room at the Windham Regional Career Center. Roughly 15 general and intensive-needs students showed up around 1:55 p.m. and Leicach had already formed a circle of chairs with each student getting their own drum to use. He welcomed everyone and the session began. A veteran in the tutelage of music, Leicach's words were simple and patient, yet informative and helpful. All students started out by practicing some rhythmic drumming with their left hand.

Para-educator Jeannie Leavitt holds a drum for Katy Phomnath during a drumming workshop held at Brattleboro Union High School. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Para-educator Jeannie Leavitt holds a drum for Katy Phomnath during a drumming workshop held at Brattleboro Union High School. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

"One, two ... let's all play," Leicach said before leading his drummers in a beat. The session's focus then switched to the right hand before the teacher experimented with letting some students try improvised solos.

Leicach told the Reformer he has seen the music help many of the students break out of their metaphorical shell.

"It's actually been pretty remarkable. What I have seen over this year are really significant changes," he said. "It helps them to feel empowered as people. It helps them connect with each other. ... The benefits of drumming affect everybody -- whoever you are."

Karen Mockler, a paraprofessional with BUHS' intensive needs program, agreed that what appears to be a simple social activity has yielded amazing transformations in the students. The new drummers have learned playing techniques, proper posture and playing mechanics and improvisation and have practiced on authentic African, Caribbean, and Brazilian drums as well as traditional bells and rattles.

Mikaela Simms, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union diversity coordinator, said the idea for a drumming workshop came to her last year, when she had money left over in her budget and wondered what she could do with it. She recruited Leicach to the school and together with BUHS special education teacher Kathy Thielan, they applied for the grant.

Simms said several students have been hesitant to attend the workshop but all were grateful they did.

"It's interesting because I'm always telling kids to come and, you know how high school kids are, they never want to do anything, and they always love it," she said.

Leicach said the workshops are specifically designed to use the common language of music to build an inclusive community among all students. He said everyone, regardless of ability level, learns confidence and rhythm through a D.R.U.M. workshop.

He said the next workshop will likely take place in February.