Carla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC
Drumming and Drum Circles
When you hear the phrase “drum circle,” what comes to mind? A group of 20-somethings with dreadlocks and sandals sitting on the beach? Native or Indigenous peoples participating in a sacred tradition? A 1960’s hippy commune? How about a group of business executives at a work retreat, or a group of family caregivers?
Drum circles come in a variety of forms and settings. Some have an identified leader, or facilitator. Others are completely free and organic, relying on participants to interact with each other in the moment with no clear director. Some have an identified purpose, such as team building or conflict resolution, while others have a cultural or spiritual focus. What is common is that they all involve creating rhythms on percussion instruments with other people in a circle.
Let’s break that down a little.
Rhythm. The main purpose of a drum circle is to share and create rhythm. Rhythm is, at its essence, a repeating pattern of sounds. Rhythms occur throughout the universe, as part of nature. They are also an essential aspect of our humanity. We find rhythm in our heart beats, respirations, brain waves, speech, and gait. Our ancestors used rhythm to communicate with each other, to connect with their gods, and to reach altered states of consciousness. Today, rhythm remains a universal language that transcends age, culture, and politics and grounds us in the human experience.
Drum circles utilize percussion instruments, which are identified as musical instruments that are struck, scraped, or rubbed. Percussion instruments can be made of wood, metal, plastic or just about anything that can create a sound when rubbed, struck or scraped. These include many types of drums, along with cymbals, tambourines, cabasas, wood blocks, castanets, shakers, rattles, and sometimes pitched instruments such as marimbas or steel pans.
Drum circles occur with other people. They are a group expression, an experience of community, a cooperative endeavor. Drum circles connect all participants to a common purpose- the creation of music. Ideally, they do this in a way that strengthens relationships with others and builds cooperation and collaboration.
In a Circle. Circles are a special and distinct way of gathering with other people. In a circle, everyone has an equal position. Everyone can see and potentially hear everyone else. A circle can easily be made larger or smaller as the size of a group changes. And a circle creates an environment where one is both a participant and a spectator at the same time.
What happens in a drum circle?
Not all drum circles are the same, but most share common elements. Each person participating in the drum circle will bring or receive a percussion instrument. You don't need to be an experienced musician to participate, as drum circles are designed to be inclusive activities where everyone is welcome. If you are new to drum circles, start by listening. The experience of people creating sound all around you is powerful. Once you feel the rhythm, find your place, making sure to continue leaving space for others. Feel free to copy what someone else is doing or make your own place in the music.
If the group has a facilitator, that individual will likely provide some guidance as to how the experience will begin and lay down some ground rules or guidelines. An unfacilitated group often starts with a pulse, which other people layer on top of to create a unified rhythm.
What does a drum circle facilitator do?
A drum circle facilitator’s role is to make things easier for the participants. The facilitator creates a space for expression by creating a safe, fun atmosphere that encourages everyone to participate. Trained facilitators recognize the need to connect with each individual as the entire group evolves into a musical composition. Drum circle facilitators act in service to the group, helping individuals achieve greater potential, shared joy, and interdependent group dynamics.
Why participate in a drum circle.
Drum circles are not really about drumming. They are about feeling good and connecting with other people through a powerful, shared experience. Rhythm and instruments are the tools used, but the ultimate goal of a drum circle is to bring people together.
Drumming makes us feel good. The health and wellness benefits of drumming are well documented. Drumming can strengthen your immune system, reduce anxiety and depression, improve mood and reduce workplace burnout, and trigger the release of positive endorphins to help control pain.
Drumming activates both our bodies and brains. Human beings are rhythmic creatures. Our heart beats to a rhythm, blood pumps through our veins in a rhythm. We even breathe to a rhythm. When we hear an external rhythm, our bodies respond to it.
Our sense of hearing is pretty amazing. It takes our brain at least 0.25 seconds to process visual recognition. But sounds can be recognized in 0.05 seconds, making hearing our fastest sense. Once we are aware of a sound, our brains are great at detecting sound patterns that repeat (yes, rhythms!). Rhythmic sound patterns activate our motor system and make us want to move our bodies. This is why we sometimes don’t even realize we are tapping our toes to the beat of a song, and why we love to listen to music when we work out. Hearing rhythm activates the motor regions of our brains and makes us want to synch up our movements to the beat. Just like we do in a drum circle.
Drumming connects us with others. Drumming together with others creates a measurable feeling of social connection. Group music making occurs across all human cultures and serves an important role in courtship, rituals, sporting events, and group identity. What researchers now know is that making music with other people makes us feel really good, through the release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters. And throughout most of human history, music was almost always performed as part of a group experience. (People were rarely sitting on subways, listening on their earbuds.) A 2016 study found that the larger the group, the better. Singers in a small and large choir all showed increases in feelings related to bonding and connectivity and had higher pain thresholds after rehearsal. But the larger choir (280 participants vs 20-80) showed an even more significant change.
Drum circles are an excellent and easy way to feel more connected to others. Drum circles enable us to coordinate movements and create musical bonds without needing extensive music training or skills. When we do this, we get a boost of oxytocin and natural endorphins that make us feel good.
Drum circles also provide a natural opportunity to practice empathy, listening, and social skills. When we are in an environment that naturally promotes feelings of support, positivity, and bonding, we can feel safe enough to step outside of our usual patterns and try new things.