Drummer turns his disability’s limitations into new tech for students

Nov 15, 2017

Risty Bryce puts his lips to a microphone in a middle school band room in Pierson, Iowa. It’s not his usual setting for a percussion performance, but today is special. For the first time, he’s seeing a seventh grade student, Kennedi Vondrak, play the bass drum, using a sound activated device.

Bryce is the chief product demonstrator of Drum Sparx, which he concedes is a fancy title for “the guy who gets to play with the toys.” When he uses the device, it’s almost like he’s beatboxing into the mic. But it doesn’t matter what sound he makes. Drum Sparx is set to turn his tongue clicks into the boom of the bass drum.

Kennedi remains apprehensive about using her voice to trigger the device. Instead, she prefers to tap the mic with her right hand, and that works too.

But there may come a day when she can’t do that anymore. Kennedi is in a wheelchair. She has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that causes progressive loss of movement and muscle weakness.

Two years ago, playing any instrument seemed out of reach.

“I kind of wanted to be in band and play the trumpet, but then I’m like, my arms will get too tired, and I’ll be like on the floor for half the concert,” Kennedi said.

In fifth grade when classmates picked up tubas and flutes, she signed up for study hall instead.

Her mom, Kari Vondrak, said it’s been tough to find extracurricular activities for Kennedi because of her physical limitations.

“Band was never even on our radar at all because it’s like, okay, well, what can you physically do? You can’t hold any of the horns. You can’t do any of that type of thing,” she said. “There really wasn’t anything out there that she could do that we knew she could do independently. So, we just let it slide.”

A few years ago, Bryce almost let his love of music slip away. He has idiopathic neuropathy, unexplained nerve pain. His mom had the same thing. Throughout his 30s, he slowly lost the use of his legs. For a while, he could still walk with braces and canes.

“It made playing drums a little more difficult,” he said. “I couldn’t get my legs to do what I wanted them to do. They’d get really tired. Drumming became more heartbreaking to do. Looking at my drums hurt.”

About four years ago, he started using a wheelchair and nearly called it quits with his drum kit. But two other musicians wouldn’t let him give up. He reconnected with one of his first bandmates, Mike Goodman, and he met Matt VanMeter, the founder of Drum Fest. Together, they came up with Drum Sparx.

“I asked Matt if he would help me find a way to develop it,” Bryce said. “Someone said he was pretty good with electronics and I was not. He said, ‘Sure,’ and I said I would pay him. He said, ‘No, you don’t have to pay me.’ I wonder if he ever regretted that.”

VanMeter was standing off to the side, shaking his head—no.

After a 13-year break, Bryce is back in a band. Last fall, he got together with Amber Britton on vocals and Jeremy Cameron on guitar to form In Due Time.

“In Due Time—that has been the story of my life,” he said. “We have absolutely no control of what we want to do. We can try, but in due time things will work.”

That’s been true for Kennedi, too. She got the chance to join band this year as a seventh grader at Kingsley-Pierson Middle School. Now that her younger sister Jaycie is in fifth grade, she’s also playing percussion, and she can keep playing with Drum Sparx.

“It’s an adaptation that can help with participation,” Vondrak said. “They both have used power wheelchairs since they were between 2 and 3. So, it’s really nice to be able to see them do something and participate in an activity in school. Like I said because it’s hard when everything is athletically-related or physically-related.”

This is the first time Drum Sparx has been used in a school setting. And because of this device, in a few weeks, Kennedi will get to play the bass drum in her first Christmas concert.

“I’m not saying Kennedi has to stay in band for the rest of her life. Though, she should,” Bryce said. “And her younger sister, Jaycie, she’s using it as well. And I believe it’s going well for you... I’m going to take that smile as a yes.”

Jaycie shied away from joining the conversation. Bryce tried to lure her in.

“Did you want to join band?” he asked her. She smiled slightly and nodded her head. “Good,” he said.

“That was on her list,” Vondrak said.

“She wanted to play the trumpet,” Kennedi said.

Bryce gasped and pretended to be hurt by this information.

“I never said that!” Jaycie said.

“Yes, you did!” Kennedi said.

“I thought you said you wanted to play the trumpet,” Vondrak said. “So, I’m like, umm, honey… and you know, you hate to crush their dreams, like hey, I really want to do that, but you have to be realistic too.”

Playing the trumpet wasn’t physically possible, but thanks to Drum Sparx, percussion was.

“There’s no reason this can’t be used throughout the rest of their life if they’d like to,” Bryce said.

The Drum Sparx developers are hoping to get the device into more schools to give drummers of all abilities the power to play.