The Beat Goes On

Drum circles promote health

The Beat Goes On

Therapeutic drumming such as drum circles releases stress, connects us with our communities, acts as a complementary therapy, and gives us a break from screens.

In an era when technology reigns supreme, it may be surprising to hear that on any given day, in multiple centres across the nation, people are gathering to drum together.

Everyone chooses a drum, takes their place in the circle, and joins the beat. There are no particular rules and yet there is order, purpose, and indescribable unity. The facilitator guides the beat; the rhythm forges a bond; the energy is palpable.

A global movement

“Drum circles are a global movement,” says Arthur Hull, founder of California-based Village Music Circles. “It’s a practice that is gaining rapid momentum and now serves a wide variety of populations in cultures spanning the world.”

Hull, widely recognized as the father of the modern-day community drum circle movement, has travelled to 25 countries in the past two decades, training more than 10,000 people to lead rhythm-based events.

Why drumming is catchy

Across Canada as well, drumming is a growing phenomenon as groups of people gather to drum in health facilities, community centres, basements, and backyards.

A community connection

Judy Atkinson trained under Hull 17 years ago and has since become a trailblazer of drumming in Alberta. Founder of Calgary-based Circles of Rhythm, Atkinson makes her living running community drum circles, leading corporate workshops, and training new facilitators across the country. She says the resurgence of drumming in contemporary culture is filling multiple voids in society.

“People are hungry for a meaningful community where they can go and be accepted for who they are and where they are in their lives. They are starving for social activities that have meaning and purpose and offer real connections. They are seeking health practices that are fun instead of gruelling. Drumming fits the bill on all those levels.”

A break from screens

Atkinson says the growing trend in drumming also correlates with the rapid surge of technology in this era. “Drumming is completely nontechnical; an offline experience. We are so inundated with technology, people need to find healthy ways to unplug.”

A stress release

Atkinson and her protégé Julien Lepage run a weekly community drum circle in Calgary that is routinely attended by 60 to 120 people. She says when people come through the door you can feel the stress weighing them down; when they leave they are energized and empowered—full of joy and purpose.

“Drumming is like when you take your finger out of the dike and all the water gushes out. It’s a total release of pent-up stress on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”

In Ottawa, senior communications advisor Janice Edgar was introduced to drumming when an Aboriginal Lodge housed in the basement of her Health Canada office offered a lunch-hour drum-making workshop for staff. Edgar was instantly hooked and is now a regular at the Lodge drum circle. “I equate drumming with prayer—a spiritual practice that brings me mental and emotional peace and balance,” she says.

Health benefits

Research conducted over the past two decades indicates there are immense therapeutic benefits associated with drumming, including measurable biological impacts. According to research led by renowned cancer expert Dr. Barry Bittman, drumming boosts the immune system and mood.

A complementary therapy

Drum facilitation experts such as Hull and Atkinson attest to the growing practice of using drumming as a complement to medical therapies.

Hull says it’s being applied to a number of medical situations from psychiatric units to hospices. He claims many of his workshops are attended by medical professionals and people working with kids at risk or with special needs. Atkinson runs a weekly drum session for people living with cancer and says, “The positive effects it has on health and wellness are astounding.”

Mind, body, heart, and soul

Jordan Hanson has taught several thousand people to drum in Victoria since founding Drum Victoria in 2001. “Drumming allows us to get in touch with ourselves through rhythmic regulation that syncs up our mind, body, heart, and soul,” he says. Hanson even instructs an African hand-drumming class at the University of Victoria and reports that each term his class is full, with a waitlist of 45 to 75 students.

Chantal Chagnon has been drumming her entire life. Of Cree descent, she is an advocate for Aboriginal rights and feels intrinsically guided to use drumming as a means of promoting peace and unity. Chagnon runs drum workshops in Calgary and says all of us can connect to drumming beats.

“Drums ground us, create bridges of understanding, and return us to our roots,” says Chagnon. “The drum beat is the heartbeat of Mother Earth and it connects us to our ancestors, our creator, to each other, and to the rhythm of the planet.”

Whatever the driving force—community, therapy, cultural expression, or primal instinct—it is evident drumming offers some form of comfort that appears to be universal.

“Every human being has that memory, mostly unconscious, ingrained in our being. We all floated around in rhythm for roughly nine months and the drum takes us back to that place of peace,” says Atkinson.

Easy beats

Wondering what to expect at your first drum circle? Here are some tips from the pros.

  • While some drum circles observe the traditional style of Aboriginal drumming, many offer a more universal approach with easy patterns, simple directions, and an invitation to add your own beat as the feeling moves you.
  • In intimate circles and meet-ups, participants may opt to bring their own drums, but in larger organized circles, a selection of different kinds of drums are provided.
  • Participants don’t need to know how to read music or understand music theory to join a drum circle, and it doesn’t require advanced physical ability.
  • Ad hoc drum circles that seem to spring up in parks on mild summer evenings are often free, but generally a collection is taken for the host drum organizer or there is a nominal fee.

Get drumming

Drum circles are easily accessible in most major city centres. Do an online search using keywords “drumming” or “drum circle” and your location to find one near you, or ask at your local community centre.

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