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The Rise of Drumming as a Therapy Tool

Music has been used in ceremony, spiritual and ritualistic healing in many cultures since the beginning of our knowledge of human existence. For many people from diverse backgrounds, music is an enjoyable and functional part of life. In the 1960s ethnomusicology (the study of world music), grew as the possibilities of fieldwork developed alongside advancing recording technologies. A well known ethnomusicologist named Merriam argued that music must have played a role in the evolutionary survival of human kind as it is evident across cultures; therefore, it must serve a purpose.

Drumming has been an integral part of cultural practice for eons. Drums have been used for ceremonial purposes and are integrated into everyday life in some populations to this day. Drumming has been noted as present in many life transition ceremonies such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. Rhythms can express messages, some of these specific to geographic regions such as Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, and others specific to cultural groups such as Native American or Arabic.

Drumming has only relatively recently gained popularity and acceptance in Western music therapy settings, where harmony originally took precedence over rhythm as the preferred therapeutic mode. In the sixties, studies about drumming and its effects on the brain were discovered that drumming not only stimulates - it also has the potential to calm, causing relaxed mind states that reach alpha and even theta brain waves. More than fifty years have passed since that research and today growing numbers of people attend community “drumming circles” worldwide as a leisure activity perhaps because of the known relaxation benefits in this fast-paced technological world.

Awareness of breath and sustained energy are required to play continuously for any extended period of time. Drumming is an excellent tool for the practice of mindfulness, because it is difficult to play the drums if thoughts are fixated on past or future worries. Verbal and non-verbal cues, such as eye contact, nods, facial expressions, given and received between group members, create an encouraging environment for players to stay in the present moment. There is much to take in with the senses of sight, touch and hearing all engaged. It is hard to remain isolated in a drum circle.

In a drum circle, there is also ample opportunity to ‘hide’ in the noise of the crowd until you feel ready to solo (play a part on your own). It is uncommon to see large groups of people all improvising together, playing the same type of instrument. For example, it would be difficult for ten electric guitarists playing together to create the spaces required for everyone to be heard, but the hand drums lend themselves perfectly to the group situation. There is also the concept that everyone present at a drum circle is expected to participate in some way. Without observers, it takes away some of the anxiety related to the element of performer/audience paradigm. If you are there, you are there to play.

Anyone with negative self-beliefs about their abilities, often caused by past experiences where they may have been denigrated for attempting to play an instrument or sing, may have those negative feelings ‘triggered’ at the very thought of playing an instrument. Many of us carry musical wounds, and getting a chance to be playful and lighthearted while participating in a musical experience can re wire some of the past negative thoughts about our abilities. Once you begin to master an activity, it increases our motivation to not only master that activity, it increases our confidence to try other new things.

Christine Stevens, a registered music therapist from the U.S. wrote The Heart and Art of Drum Circles (2003) and Music Medicine (2012) among many other peer-reviewed articles relating to music therapy. She has led studies into the medical benefits of community drum circle participation. She emphasises the following as important aspects of drum circle events: Fun Self-expression Stress reduction Social interaction and community building Exercise for mind, body and spirit Camaraderie and support Multi-generational family activity Develop key musical skills; such as rhythmicity, improvisation, and ensemble playing Music has an ability to transport people to a relaxed state, a heightened state of awareness, and can facilitate deep reflection about issues close to one’s spiritual core. Music helps us to communicate what we think and feel, and it can help young people to express themselves. These are the reasons that I keep coming back to music as a therapeutic tool and drumming is a way many people can quickly access their emotions and learn to express them in a safe way.

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