ANCON — Arnold Montero turns up a familiar cowboy tune and takes a seat.
His right foot establishes the beat on the kick drum while the left alternates the cymbal. He holds back until George Strait is about halfway through the chorus before really letting the sticks rip.
His unruly black ponytail bobs. He’s lost in the music. A noise complaint is no easy feat out here in rural Ancon, but Montero said he’s earned a few while jamming in this studio, which also holds some free weights, a disco ball and his identity.
“I’m a drummer,” Montero said. “Every day I play the drums.”
Montero has microcephaly, a condition that causes abnormal head shape and limits brain development. From skateboarding as a kid to graduating from high school to holding jobs at a factory and grocery store, his mother Mary Sena said she has always tried to leave her own comfort zone to give him independence.
Nothing, though, has impacted his life quite like percussion. A behavioral therapist suggested the drums and helped secure state funding for the studio in 2009.
“His coordination is better. His outlook on life is a lot better. He loves being around people through music,” Sena said. “He’s an easy person to be with thanks to those drums. This music thing has been such a lifesaver for us.”
Sena gave the first drums away. Back in the 1980s, somebody gifted one of her sons a set, but the pounding and smashing on top of a house already filled with the sound of five kids — well, she couldn’t take the noise.
“I think they lasted a few weeks,” Sena said. “I had to put a stop to it.”
Ever since though, Sena said her son would tap along with songs playing in the car.
Sena, who is retired from a career as a teacher’s aide in public schools and a caregiver in institutions and group homes, grew up in Ancon, a distinctly Northern New Mexican village north of Española outside Ohkay Owingeh.
During her childhood, she said, there were two families in Ancon, and now there are around 25. Mother and son live past the water tank, over the bridge and a little ways beyond the church on the right side. She grows tomatoes, squash and green beans in garden beds out front.
Montero, 54, was born in Los Angeles, and the family moved back to New Mexico in 1983. He graduated from the special education program at Los Lunas High School in 1988 and remembers seeing George Strait and Reba McEntire at the state fairgrounds in the 1990s. Around Ancon, a musician from the church gave him a drumming lesson once but never came back.
In 2011, Montero’s beat changed when he walked into the Candyman Strings & Things on St. Michael’s Drive in Santa Fe for a drumming showcase where amateur students and local professionals took turns trading licks. Mom covered her eyes ahead of his turn.
“She couldn’t watch,” Montero said. “My mom was a nervous wreck.”
At Candyman, he met Andy Primm, who has been his instructor ever since. At the start, Primm said Montero had basic coordination and could keep a simple rock ‘n’ roll beat. They started by counting to four and then by counting to four over and over again. They progressed to counting to four with just the right hand, just the left hand and then by alternating between them.
“People say about people like Arnold, you don’t necessarily expect improvement and you should just be glad to be doing it. But we actually went for it and I saw actual improvement, and he started remembering things from lesson to lesson,” Primm said. “We practice counting and all that, but sometimes I just pull out a guitar and we jam and improvise a little bit. He can be really musical and expressive.”
Primm said he and Montero share an affinity for ‘70s pop like Josie and the Pussycats or the Partridge Family. Although in-person lessons have been halted by the pandemic, last month the Candyman String & Things won the National Association of Music Merchants Music Makes a Difference Award for Montero’s story.
When he was born, Sena said doctors and social workers recommended her son grow up and spend his life in an institution. Mom is glad he learned to drum his own beats instead.
“When he was born, they told me ‘You need to start looking for a place to place him. He’s not going to be able to do anything on his own,’ ” Sena said over the rhythm. “I wanted him to be normal and have the chance to enjoy life. I can’t explain what we’ve found with music. I can’t explain it. It’s powerful.”