Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
Robert Lawrence Friedman, author of The Healing Power of the Drum, describes seeking solace from drumming as a child when he was bullied by a local gang in his Queens, N.Y., neighborhood. “[Drumming] would get out my anger, frustration and sadness,” he recalls. When he later became a psychotherapist, Friedman wondered whether drumming would help other people the way it helped him.
He started teaching drumming at a health spa, and found that after the workshop was over, no one wanted to leave the circle. Participants felt simultaneously energized and relaxed.
The gift of the drum circle is we all gather together to connect on a deep level. We feel each other's joys and challenges.
— Sally Bonkrude, music therapist
Friedman later branched out to teaching in corporate venues. During one session, he told people to feel free to move if they wanted to dance. A senior executive in his late 60s or early 70s leapt up and started galloping around the conference room to the beat. The exec later declared that he was free of back pain for the first time in years. In a follow-up phone call with Friedman months later, he said the pain was still gone.
Drumming When There Are No Words
After the terrible mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., Friedman led a healing drum circle for the citizens of that community. He recalled feeling very blessed to offer people a way to release some of their emotions in a way that didn’t require them to find the right words.
What inspires Friedman most is how even despondent and unhappy people can find joy through drumming. “They arrive apathetic, or in a negative state, and leave the drumming programs uplifted and filled with life,” he says.
Sally Bonkrude, a board-certified music therapist who has worked with people of all ages to help them overcome physical and emotional problems, echoes that idea.
“You’re speaking through rhythm, she says. “You are repeating someone’s pattern, saying ‘I heard you.’”
Bonkrude points out an additional motivation for would-be drummers: It’s a great way to make new friends and build community.
“The gift of the drum circle is we all gather together to connect on a deep level. We feel each other’s joys and challenges,” Bonkrude said. If you pick up another drummer’s riff, it helps them feel heard. “You listen in another way,” she explained. “Sometimes things are hard to say, but you can play and be validated. If it’s too emotional, you could play it.”
Impressive Research on Drumming
A mounting body of evidence points to the health benefits of drumming — from immunity to community:
- Many senior centers and hospitals use drumming as a way of improving health.
- A study of cancer patients who participated in a clinical trial showed that their immune systems were enhanced.
- Drumming was found to reduce anxiety and significantly lower blood pressure.
- Scientists who studied the effects of drumming in two groups (one drummed, the other didn’t) found that drumming reduced depression and anxiety and improved social resilience over six- and 10-week timespans. In addition, it also helped people reduce inflammation and improve their immune systems.
How Drumming Can Help
According to Friedman, people with Alzheimer’s disease were able to stay focused for up to 30 minutes of drumming. In his book, Friedman also describes cases in which a doctor used drumming to help patients with Parkinson’s disease. One patient improved his gait by listening to a metronome, which enabled him to maintain a steady walking rhythm. Another, who previously froze when he came to a curb, was able to step forward by listening to African drum rhythms through headphones.
Drumming helps another important group: Burnout was reduced among long-term care workers who engaged in a group drumming and keyboard accompaniment.
Can’t drum? Maybe you have arthritis or repetitive strain injury, so drumming would not be appropriate for you. Dr. Christiane Northrup maintains that just listening to drumming has the same effect as drumming itself.
Starting a Drum Circle
You don’t need to be a professional musician to form a drum circle. Anyone can do this because you already know how. You’ve been listening to rhythms of your heartbeat and breath since you were born.
Basically, all you have to do is invite some friends over and raid your kitchen for some noisemakers. If you feel like you need help getting started, put on a rhythmic music track or go to a drum riff site such as SoundSnap and play along.
In the beginning, Bonkrude says, there might be a sense of chaos, but people eventually find the groove of the group. A few tips:
- Choose the type of instrument you’re comfortable playing. Some people go for kettle drums; others might prefer brushes.
- Start slowly. Give people have a chance to get used to the rhythm before they improvise.
- You can take control or let someone else lead. It’s fun to repeat someone’s riff back to them — it shows you heard them. This is a wonderful way to validate your friends.
- You can drum loudly or softly.
- Each person gets to choose when to join in and when to rest.
Here is an example of how to build on a simple beat:
The Beat of Your Own Drum
As for instruments, you can always get some drums from a drum shop such as Remo Drums. But there are many homegrown options if you don’t want to buy a drum.
Try body percussion (slap your knee, clap your hands, snap your fingers or stamp your feet). Make a rattle with an empty jar or a can half-filled with dried beans. Bang two spoons together. Stroke an oven rack with a fork. Find some jingly Christmas bells. The possibilities are endless.
And if you still need inspiration, check out this video of a 10-year-old boy playing a washing machine!