Teen’s Talent On Drums Helps Him Control Prader-Willi
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jake Vasiloff likes to rock.
The 18-year-old is hard-core. He feels most comfortable when pounding on his electric drum set to the heavy-metal tunes of Pantera, Metallica and other bands.
But he was more than willing to turn down the volume and set aside his drumsticks to play a tambourine, bongo and other soft hand-percussion instruments for his father’s latest compact disc, “Above the Pines,” which Jeff Vasiloff describes as “easy-listening” and “classical.” The father-son duo — the elder Vasiloff likens their musical relationship to that of Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, the late saxophonist — relish the time they spend together creating original, mostly instrumental songs.
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They enjoy it all the more, though, when they do it for a good cause — one near to their hearts.
The proceeds from the sales and downloads of “Above the Pines,” released this month, will be donated to the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Ohio — the first of Jeff Vasiloff’s CDs to benefit the group.
Jake Vasiloff, a senior at Hilliard Darby High School who listens to heavy-metal music to fall asleep most nights, was born with Prader-Willi syndrome, a chromosomal disorder characterized by muscle weakness, an insatiable hunger and mild-to-moderate intellectual impairment.
“In the early years, it was very hard with all the therapy and early interventions,” said Jeff Vasiloff, a professor in the physician’s assistant program at the Ohio University campus in Dublin. “When he was young, I didn’t know that he would be doing so well. I didn’t know that we’d be able to talk about music — that he’d be as musically talented as he is — and we’d have fun on vacation and that he would have a girlfriend.
“I never thought he’d be doing as well as he is.”
For Jake’s progress, his parents credit music.
Their son couldn’t walk or talk until he was 3 years old, but he began banging on pots and pans much earlier, Jeff Vasiloff recalled of the younger of his two children. (Jake’s sister, Jen, is 20.)
His mother, Gina Vasiloff — who is divorced from Jake’s father — said that her son, while growing up, owned a toy bongo that she and Jeff Vasiloff used as an incentive for Jake to do well in physical- and occupational-therapy sessions. They didn’t have to coax him much, however, for music therapy.
“The therapist had said he has perfect rhythm,” Gina Vasiloff said, “and she had picked up on his talent.”
Jake was 2 at the time.
Shawn Malone, now the band director at Hilliard Davidson High School, remembers balking at the idea of giving such a young boy private drumming lessons when his father took a 4-year-old Jake into the music business he used to own.
But then Malone heard Jake play.
“He’s an incredibly talented drummer,” he said. “I was surprised by how into it Jake would be. That was before all the technique — that comes with time — but he had the heart of a rocker at a young age.”
Malone taught Jake for several years. Some of his favorite memories of the music business, he said, center on watching Jake become immersed in rock and the budding musician’s ability to sing all the words to many songs.
Asked about his favorite rock band, Jake doesn’t stop at one.
Kiss, AC/DC, Metallica, Foo Fighters.
Choosing his No. 1 drummer, though, is easier.
“The reason I gravitate toward the drums is one word: Ringo,” Jake said, referring to Ringo Starr of the Beatles. “He could put things in rock that weren’t meant to be there.”
Given his physical limitations — characteristics of Prader-Willi syndrome also typically include small fingers and trouble with fine motor skills — the teen seemingly seems ill-suited to drum playing.
For some reason, though, it works.
“His fingers were so weak when he was born,” Jeff Vasiloff said. “Fortunately, his musical brain and all these muscles work well for the drum.”
Added Jake’s mother: “Physically, he’s pretty limited with motor skills. Drums, you’d think that would be a factor with the motor skills, but it’s not.”
Percussion has not only helped him develop physically but also provided Jake with a distraction from his nagging hunger — his parents have to lock up food at home — and served as an outlet for the constant fidgeting he does when he’s happy — “which is most of the time,” his dad said.
Music has given Jake a talent that puts him on par with his peers. (Jake loves school, where, rather than face bullies, he has “protectors” from various social circles, including football players and cheerleaders.)
Most important, the drums have instilled him with confidence.
“The drummer is called the boss — the king of the band — and they keep everyone on rhythm,” said Jake, who hopes to join a rock band soon.
Jake’s ability to give back to an organization that has helped him and his family, Gina Vasiloff said, has boosted his self-esteem.
The Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Ohio offers education, social events (dances, camps) and support to the roughly 900 families coping with the disorder in Ohio.
Jeff Vasiloff said it was especially helpful when his son was younger and the family knew little about Prader-Willi.
Columbus-area musician Molly Pauken said she was thrilled to co-produce “Above the Pines” and play string instruments on several of the tracks for such a worthy endeavor.
“Music already brings everybody together, and when you do it for a cause, it’s just great.” said Pauken, a member of the Sirens and McGuffey Lane, among other local acts.
Plus, she said, she enjoyed working not only with Jeff, a guitarist, but also with Jake “and his big, bold personality.”
“He humors his dad (playing the softer melodies),” Pauken said. “I think he loves being part of the whole process, being in the studio. He’s a smart kid and appreciates all types of music.
“But when he gets behind the drum set, he wants to hit it hard.”
© 2018 The Columbus Dispatch
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