Last week I wrote about being on my feet for 6 hours and wearing out the bottoms of my socks, but the day before that I was dancing with the palms of my hands during former Rusted Root member Jim Donovan’s Rhythm Revival drumming workshop at the beautiful Princeton Center for Yoga and Health.

As I briefly mentioned in my earlier post, the workshop was more about self-reflection, self-improvement, and interpersonal communication than it was percussion technique. Of course, it feels wonderful to let loose on a djembe and sink into the primal sound of the drumbeat, but the way we approach drumming and making music with others can also be a great tool for exploring our interactions with self and community.

Jim’s approach to drumming has changed dramatically over the past several years. While he still reviews the basic techniques of playing the djembe, his workshops revolve more now around personal transformation than percussion. “Drum circle”? More like a drumming circle of life. He titles his events revivals, “bringing back an awareness that once was.” He compared it to performing CPR on someone who is unconscious: Revival is resuscitating with the breath, breathing life back into the spirit.

Jim shared with us his favorite acronym: WWBD? What would Bob Marley do? MOVE! He encouraged us to get our body involved in the drumming, more than just the hands. Feel the music. Move the head, the torso. Tap the feet. That wasn’t hard for me, especially because at times it felt like the floor was shaking, an earthquake with an epicenter right here in little ol’ central Jersey. I was surrounded by sound, so powerful at times that I had to stop and just breathe it all in.

Jim is a powerful, inspiring leader, a kind of Wayne Dyer with more hair and perhaps a little more groove.

He knows when to make us laugh but then also when to give pause and allow us to reflect. Most important, his #1 rule is that if you “mess up,” SMILE! Stop, smile, breathe, and start again, beginning with the basic bass sound of the drum, the steady thump-thump-thump of the heart, the pulse of life.

We explored this primal sound at the beginning of class, simply hitting the top of our drum with a steady right-left-right-left, a continuous heartbeat lasting for what felt like forever (but was probably no more than 5 minutes). But I’m not complaining; the steady sound of everyone playing together as one beat, one pulse was soothing, meditative, reassuring. Afterward, Jim pointed out that it was a bit of an experiment in group dynamics, noting that we all kept in time with each other and no one felt the need to bust out in a solo and grandstand.

For those students who had never played music before, for anyone nervous about using music to learn and grow, Jim reminded us that music has been used for centuries and across the world in connection to life events. Since ancient times, song and dance is performed for births, the harvest, death, and coming-of-age celebrations. Most important, he noted, it is done by the community; it’s the fabric that holds us together. Music helps transform energy.


Pretending that a yoga mat in the center of the floor was a roaring fire, Jim spoke of how if we threw a piece of paper into the flames, the paper wouldn’t be destroyed, per se. It would be changed, transformed. The edges would curl and blacken, the paper would become ash. He pointed to his drum. What did this drum used to be? Before it was a drum, it was a tree. The tree is now a drum.

Thought + action = form.

With that, we moved into playing “Oja,” a song from West Africa meaning “fire.” Jim encouraged us to transform ourselves, to find a “self-improvement” word, a word and action we wanted to bring into our lives. Jim’s was “clear.” My friend Carrol shared afterward that hers was “gratitude.” I repeated the word “staccato” in my head as my mantra, a word tied to percussion, of course, but it’s also one of the forms of 5Rhythms.

Staccato, the rhythm proceeding Flowing, meaning focus, decision, clarity, exactness. I want to be direct in my life, to be more forthright, to get out of this loosey-goosey holding/flowing pattern. As I drummed, I felt staccato in my shoulders and neck, my head bopping with each tone. It was very sharp movement, a physical expression of how I strive to be personally.

When our group display of transformation ended, Jim explained that it was now time for our solo. After discussing as a group what it felt like to be faced with this challenge (Did we freak out? Did our egos get excited? Did we immediately think, “I don’t wanna!”), everyone began playing a steady, underlying beat as we went around the circle, each person taking a few moments to break out and “do their thing.”

Supported by the group atmosphere, Jim inspired us to be the change. We discussed how certain people in the room “went all out” with nothing but joy and 100% commitment, which inspired us to do the same. Make the person next to you, and next to him, and next to him, be inspired to “go all out” too, Jim said. Take that risk; go for it. Make it spread like wildfire, create the tipping point.

Closer to the end of the class, we practiced Tibetan sound healing as a way of introducing vocal vibrations into our transformation. We went through the five “warrior syllables” and their related body parts: A [head], OM [throat], HUNG [heart], RAM [navel], and DZA [root chakra]. It was a very powerful practice, and I felt myself grow deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Had Jim left the room and gone home, I still could have sat there for probably another hour, just enjoying the focus and relaxation brought about by those five sounds.

But Jim didn’t leave, and we ended the event with an invigorating rumble, using our hands and voices to speak out loud and clearly. We screamed, we pounded, we transformed energy.