Finding the Beat Helps Healing

Hometown Heroes, People
on September 23, 2007

Eddie Tuduri of Carpinteria, Calif., coaxes his new friends to sit in a circle facing congas and bongos. He hands a tambourine to a slender woman in a wheelchair, and a shaker to a boy with mental retardation. Then he pulls out laminated flash cards and holds them up one at a time. Beneath the black quarter note symbols are numbers: 5-6-7-8.

“OK, repeat after me,” says Tuduri, tapping a conga, first with his right hand, then with his left. “5-6-7-8.”

A young man with Down syndrome gives it a try, then falters. He tries again, and this time he gets it. Surprised at his own dexterity, he turns and flashes a broad smile as everyone cheers. By the end of the music therapy session, even the shyest participant is tapping, pounding and swaying to the beat. More importantly, they’re learning life skills such as counting, spatial awareness and speech.

No one knows the healing power of rhythm better than Tuduri, 60, who during his 40-year rock ’n’ roll career worked as a drummer for The Beach Boys, Dwight Yoakam and dozens of other performers. In 1997, Tuduri was bodysurfing near his Carpinteria (pop. 14,037) home when a wave slammed him to the bottom of the ocean, breaking his neck and leaving him temporarily paralyzed.

Sensation gradually returned to his body during his stay at The Rehabilitation Institute at Santa Barbara, Calif. That’s when Tuduri asked a friend to bring him some drumsticks and began tapping a simple rhythm on the side of the bed. Two other patients and a hospital aide joined in.

“I thought we were gonna get in trouble,” Tuduri recalls with a grin.

When he struck up a beat in his occupational rehabilitation class, therapists noticed that patients showed improvement in memory, coordination and other skills. During one session, an 8-year-old boy, paralyzed on one side by an aneurysm, walked on his own for the first time. “That’s when we knew we had something,” Tuduri says.

After that, Libby Whaley, the institute’s director of therapeutic recreation and volunteer services, helped Tuduri launch The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP) as a nonprofit program. “A lot of people have ideas and dreams, but not everyone can actually be as persistent and work so hard to make it happen,” she says. “It’s as if he had a second calling. Everything he does is from the heart. It’s because he really believes.”

Rick Herrera, a Santa Barbara resident who underwent physical therapy at the institute because of deteriorated discs in his spine, was skeptical of beating a drum at first. “When I got out there I thought, ‘Wow this is fun,’” he says. “It helped take a lot of bad things off my mind. Physically, it helped because it got me to get up and motivated me. And I felt accepted.”

Hearing Tuduri’s inspiring story helped, too. “If this guy can do it, I can do it,” Herrera says. “That’s what’s so magical about him. He gives you hope, and that’s a rare thing nowadays.”

TRAP now operates in seven states at more than 35 locations, including community centers for people with developmental disabilities. Passionate and driven, Tuduri leads workshops and trains new facilitators, despite the fact that he technically is a quadriplegic who walks with a cane, tires easily and has only partial use of his hands. The payoff, he says, is worth it.

“Music moves us in a positive direction—physically, spiritually, mentally,” he says. “It addresses the will to live. It saved my life.”

Hundreds of TRAP participants with developmental disabilities have opened their hearts to Tuduri. Dion Cornejo, 25, who has Down syndrome, has played drums since 1998 in a YMCA-based TRAP program in Pasadena, Calif.

“When he sees Eddie he just lights up,” says his mother, Debbie Cornejo. “It’s really helped him with listening skills, focusing skills and developing friendships.” Before her son started drumming, “Dion was very passive, really quiet. Now he’s not afraid. It has just really helped him blossom into a very confident young man.”