Despite challenges, deaf student pursues dream of playing steel drums
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.