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Ex-Talking Heads Percussionist Finds New Calling, Drumming With Intellectually Disabled

The Kennedy Center
Percussionist Steve Scales leads a drum circle, alongside participant Sherry Berglund, at the Kennedy Center in Trumbull, Conn.

Percussionist Steve Scales has played with the Talking Heads and Tina Turner. Lately, though, he’s led a drum circle for clients of the Kennedy Center, a non-profit in Connecticut serving people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Scales led a drum circle for the center this weekend. He pounded out a rhythm on his conga drum, and dozens of clients joined in. Each one had a percussion instrument, whether it’s a big bongo or a little maraca. Sometimes Scales would invite someone to join him at the head of the circle and play his drum.

“There’s some of these people they play today, the first day they wouldn’t touch the drum. Now they run to be up here with me.”

Sitting at the head of the circle makes them feel like celebrities. He’ll joke around sometimes and pretend they are celebrities.

“Carol! Smokey Robinson and the Miracles?” “Yep!” “I thought so! She played with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles! Alright! Give me some ‘Tears of a Clown!’”

Drumming lets Kennedy Center clients express themselves, and it lets them be part of something fun. Scales’ energy is infectious. Everyone’s smiling.

“They’re coming out of their shells and being able to express, without somebody saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ You make ‘em feel like whatever they’re doing, man, sounds great.”

One of the most enthusiastic clients is Sherry Berglund. She keeps running up to sit next to Scales. Her family came to watch her drum. And her sister Kathy Toth says Sherry has loved music her whole life.

“And she has some sort of an extra beat that none of my brothers and sisters and I can imitate. She’s one of a kind. Right, Sher?” “Yeah.” “Yeah!”

Scales started playing here as part of an internship – he’s finishing a degree at the University of Bridgeport. He says this drum circle has helped him as much as anyone. It’s led him to his calling.

“God gave me a gift. This is who I’m supposed to reach. I did the private jet, round the world, playing hundreds of thousands of people and all of it, I’ve done that. But there’s something else that I need to do now.”

Scales’ internship is over for now, but the Center says he’s always welcome to come back and play with the clients any time.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.