Roland Gear Helps Bring Music into the Lives of Special-Needs Kids
Founded in 2010 by San Clemente musician David “Rocky” Neidhardt III, Rock the Autism is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a lifetime of music to those living with autism. The organization offers weekly open sessions during the summers at the San Clemente Boys & Girls Club, and they also put on special assemblies, school programs, and other events throughout the year.
In 2013, Roland contributed to Rock the Autism’s inspired mission by providing a wide range of musical gear for the kids to use and enjoy. Rocky is extremely pleased with the positive benefits the Roland equipment has brought to the program, saying, “Just having the gear here has opened up a whole a lot of doors for us and really brought out the creativity of not only the kids, but the staff too. It’s been pretty awesome.”
We recently had the chance to talk with Rocky about the organization and the great opportunities it brings to kids living with autism.
What is the primary mission of Rock the Autism?
Basically, we’re an all-inclusive program, and we focus on an introduction to music and performance for special-needs kids.
What was your inspiration to start Rock the Autism?
I had a little studio in San Clemente, and one of my friends brought his son down just for a little visit. He has autism, and he just instantly picked up the drums. And he came back the following week and got on our piano, and he was really, really good on that too. He put on a little show for us, even though he had never played the piano before. So, I was like, “Wow. I wonder if this would really help a lot of kids living with autism?” And the more I talked with people about it, the more they encouraged me. So I saved some money and did all the filings and all the registrations and got it going.
What kind of activities do you do with the kids?
Well, we started out where I would just bring in a drum set and a couple of guitars and a couple of basses, and not really focus too much on teaching chords and fundamentals. I’d just let them gravitate towards the instruments they liked and show them correct hand positions, but nothing too technical beyond that. At the time, I didn’t have instructors or anything. I basically just wanted to get some instruments in their hands. From that, it’s grown to where the kids just pretty much focus on drums and keyboards, which are the favorite instruments. And karaoke performance is what we’ve been doing this past year, and I’ve had kids that were totally nonverbal who are now talking, singing, and telling jokes. So we’ve really been making a big impact.
That’s really great. What ages do you work with?
Well, there are kids that come where parents roll them up in their strollers, and we work with kids all the way up to 18 and 19. But primarily it’s kids 7 to 12—that’s the average age.
Do you have a scheduled time every week where there’s an open session for kids to come down and take part?
Yes. It’s every Thursday during the summer from 4-5:30 p.m. It’s at the San Clemente Boys & Girls Club. In addition, we just signed on to do weekly classes at Ocean View School in Laguna Hills and Glennwood House in Laguna Beach.
Do you also invite local musicians and anyone else that wants to come down and take part?
Yes. I’ve met a really, really talented musician named Matt Hamilton, and he helps me out a lot. He was really key in helping me learn all of the Roland gear so we could introduce it to the kids.
When the kids are playing the drums or the keyboard or the guitar, do you just let them do their thing, or is there some guided instruction?
We let them do their thing, but we also provide some light guided instruction. We’ll show them some real basic things, but we don’t put any real pressure on them.
How do you see the musical activities helping the kids?
I can just tell from when we started it, I’ve seen that almost all of these kids have totally come out of their shells. And there was no kind of music program down at the Boys & Girls Club before, and it’s really amazing—almost all of the Boys & Girls Club is involved now. We always have a line of kids waiting to sing, and we have the special-needs kids and the neurotypical kids altogether, which is really the beauty of our program. There’s no separation.
What Roland equipment are you using?
We have CUBE-20XL guitar amps and CUBE-20XL BASS amps, and two AX-Synths and a JUPITER-50. I have the CM-220 CUBE Monitor, which are the amps that we use for the drums, and the portable BA-55, the battery-powered PA system, which is amazing. We have the OCTAPAD, and the TD-20SX V-Drums are a big part of the program. Right now we have it set up with the OCTAPAD and it is incredible! We also have the TD-4KP V-Drums, the portable drum sets. That was one of the biggest pains for us over the last two years—breaking down all of the drums, breaking down all of the stuff, and hauling it back and forth. It’s so easy with the TD-4KP. I fold it right up and throw it in the front seat of my car. It’s like the easiest thing.
Nice. And the BA-55 is also great for going anywhere.
Right—that’s been awesome to have at our little booth that we have when we go places and stuff. There’s not always AC power available, but we can always run the BA-55 on battery power. There is definitely always power with the BA-55.
Do you use that for karaoke in the classes?
Yes. The kids really like the echo on the BA-55. They go into full reggae mode with that.
Don’t you have a couple of G-5 VG Stratocaster guitars too?
Yes. We’re just starting to introduce those to the kids, and they’ve definitely been amazed at the sound on those.
Do you have separate rooms set up with different instruments, or is it all in one space?
Before our summer program this year, we got that massive gear donation from Roland. I figured, “Why not just set it up all in one room?” I have it all going through headphones. If I didn’t have the headphones, it would be total chaos. The kids line up, five or six for each instrument, and they just take turns going around the room. So it’s been pretty awesome. And the kids are just amazed with the gear. The OCTAPAD has been a favorite, and the AX-Synth too. The kids are just thriving.
I’d guess the kids are loving the V-Drums as well.
Oh, without a doubt! That goes without saying.
Do you get any of your musician friends together to perform as a band for the kids and provide an example?
Yeah, we definitely do that. Usually, that’s how we start for the hour-and-a-half session. We start out with like 15 minutes of a little jam and let the kids come up and sing with us. We play some blues, some reggae, and some 1950s-style rock and roll. The game Guitar Hero actually did a lot for this new generation of kids as far as learning about older music, because now all of these kids want to learn Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Do you do anything outside of the local community?
We do special assemblies at local high schools and elementary schools. And right now, we’re working on our curriculum so we can open up Rock the Autism chapters worldwide. We’re getting a lot of requests for that.
It sounds like you’re getting lots of interest and support. You’re doing great stuff here.
It’s been a blessing in my whole life. It’s given me a real purpose and mission.
I understand that there are many types of autism, and some kids really take to specific activities, such as music or drawing.
A big part of it is that it’s a way for kids with autism to communicate and express themselves instantly. That’s been really awesome. You see relief on their face when they start playing. I haven’t run into any kids on the autism spectrum who don’t like music. We also have people with cerebral palsy in our classes. But unless we have a therapist present, which sometimes we do, I generally don’t ask about a kid’s background. We’re open to anyone.
When we work with our therapist, she can really help with activities for specific kids. For example, there are some kids where you can show them a really technical riff and they’ll mimic it exactly. But if you try to show them hand positions and stuff like that, it won’t work. So each kid has their own needs, and once I know how to work with them, then it really creates some “wow” moments. I definitely look forward to having a therapist participate with us full-time.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just how ecstatic we all are about the gear and how much it’s improved our program. Really, just having the gear here has opened up a whole a lot of doors for us and really brought out the creativity of not only the kids, but the staff too. It’s been pretty awesome.