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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.

Transformation.

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.

I went to a drum circle this past weekend and was really looking forward to sitting down at the computer and writing about what an awesome time it was, how I was transformed, how I sweated the afternoon away dancing around the room from djembe to djembe.

But instead of BOOM POW BAM BASS TONE SLAP WAHOO!, all I’ve got is: meh.

I’ve been to drum circles that had me hooting and hollering, throwing my head back and forth, and shaking my shekere till the cows came home (read: My First Drum Circle). When I left this particular event, I kind of felt like I wanted to take a nap.

But who am I to judge a drumming class? I’ve been calling my doumbek a djembe for the past several years. So I did come home slightly more enlightened.

And truthfully, I am no expert. I don’t have any formal education in percussion (aside from a hula dancing stint during which I mastered the ipu and pu’ili), and I attend maybe 3 to 4 drumming events at most per year. But my Old Lady Friend Carrol and I like to think of ourselves as drumming enthusiasts, and we are usually in agreement about whether an event was asi-asi or que bueno!

That said, here are my top 7 qualities that make for a rockin’ drum circle:

1. A play buffet.

Although drums are the pulse of a drum circle, having an assortment of percussive and other complementary instruments lying around can really liven up an event. A bass sound gets the feet stomping, but shake a shakere or maraca in my face and my hips won’t sit still.

When your hands need a break from drumming, you can still chime in by playing a cowbell, wooden block, or dancing around with foot bells. At the most recent event, someone had brought along the simplest of instruments: a set of spoons for clicking and a plastic bag, which when rubbed back and forth makes a light “scratchy” sound. The key, however, is to make it known that these instruments are here for everyone to experiment with and maybe give a quick lesson in how to use them. I saw the plastic bag lying around, but until the owner used it during the last song, I had no idea it could be used as “music.”

An assortment of drums themselves also switches up the sound and provides a range of percussion. Most people bring along their own personal djembe (or doumbek), but having additional drums available gives students a chance to try a different model or size.

Carrol tries out the djun djun

For example, when Carrol and I attended a workshop with Rusted Root founder Jim Donovan, we borrowed some of his impressive djembes with intricate carvings and awesome sound. They were for sale, too!

In addition, frame drums, congas, and bongos are all super-fun. (Especially congas. Oh man, the congas!)

2. Nontraditional sounds.

Every now and then at a drum circle, someone brings along an nontraditional instrument that adds a new kind of aural energy to the atmosphere.

For example, the Australian didgeridoo. This instrument has such an intense, haunting sound, such a primal noise that feels like it encompasses the heaviest, hardest, most indigestible and raw emotions that lie in our gut. What a treat when someone brings it along!

I’ve also been to circles that involved a flute, a guitar (which led a stirring acoustic version of “Let It Be”), and the simplest of unique instruments: the human voice. Jim Donovan’s workshop involved a drumming/chanting combo, where we did things like chant the vowels of the alphabet (A-E-I-O-U) and exploring where we felt each sound’s vibration the most (i.e., chest, head, throat). We split the universal sound (“Om, “Aum”) into four parts and chanted that over and over (A-O-U-M). We also worked with the kundalini mantra Ra-Ma-Da-Sa/Sa-Say-So-Hum. For most of the chants, we’d start with just our voices, gradually add some light drumming, and then allow the drumming to get louder as we also chanted louder.

A word of caution:  If you bring an instrument that is likely to drown out everything else in the room (e.g., snare drum), just be courteous and play it at 50% rather than its full roof-blowing volume.

3. Strong leadership.

Sometimes even a large crowd of eager drummers will fall flat as a pancake with no one at the helm. Having at least one person in the leader role is essential to get things going (and then calm them down when things get out of control), otherwise (a) cacophony ensues, or (b) the rhythm just keeps falling like a plane unable to lift off the runway.

One of the regular circles I used to attend was wicked cool month after month…until the day the two conga-playing men who had assumed the leadership role weren’t there. We were essentially the same group of people with the same instruments in hand, but we just could not get our act together.

Offering a little lesson in technique is a great way to corral a group. At one circle, the facilitator reviewed with us the bass, tone, and slap; we then experimented with various rhythms, learning to play one thing while the rest of the group played another. We worked a lot with repetition–bass, bass, tone, tone, bass, bass, slapslap–trying to get our brains and hands in sync.

As I detailed in this review of a past drumming workshop, one of the leaders was a grandmotherly figure who preached about the importance of self-healing, connection to spirit, and being in tune with the universe. She was a vibrant being from head to toe: poised, passionate, and provocative.

4. Integration of mind, body, and soul.

Like yoga or dance or singing, drumming can be a deeply personal and meditative experience. For me, a good drum circle is one where my mind gets out of my hands and the division between the music and my soul reduces to nothing. When I am compelled to get up from my chair and dance, getting lost in the music, stamping, rocking, swaying, spinning, I have found seamless integration between mind, body, and spirit.

Movement is such an important part of drumming; I get nervous if I see someone playing a drum while sitting perfectly still. The drum sound is our heartbeat; how can it not stir you?! At one summer evening event, our class took some time to walk outside, soaking up the good vibes of the earth, feeling the grass beneath our feet, the full moon glowing on our faces, and eventually coming back indoors for a Mother Earth-related tribal beat.

Even something as simple as breathing can create a deep mind-body connection. At Jim Donovan’s workshop, we started every activity by taking a deep breath and centering ourselves. Even more important, after playing for several minutes, Jim would signal us to stop and then have us sit in silence for a few moments to soak up the lingering vibrations we created. Jim’s workshops also tend to lean a bit on the philosophical side, much like a yoga intensive. Who knew that how one approached drumming could relate to life off the mat outside the drum circle?

Finally, if drumming makes you feel good, express it! During a “Healing, Feeling” drumming event I attended, the leaders infused the class with lots of self-respect, self-care talk. The one woman, Marcy, reminds me of a gospel singer and will just bust out singing things like, “Feeeeel the love!” after a vigorous round of drumming. It’s hard not to throw your hands in the air and follow along with her.

5. Time to train the brain.

I don’t want every drumming event I attend to be a rigid formal lesson in technique, but a good drum circle is one that provides an opportunity for a mental workout. The brain is “plastic” and has the ability to re-wire itself as it absorbs new knowledge, and what better way to get the neurons firing than by learning an unfamiliar pattern and then playing it as part of a three-part round? Bonus points if you don’t hold your breath and/or grimace as you go along. 🙂

Other mentally challenging exercises I’ve done were trying to sing and drum at the same time and being part of a call-and-response during which we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and use our ears—not our eyes—to pick up the rhythm.

6. Inspiring environment.

A cramped conference room with metal folding chairs is not an ideal location for drumming. Although I’m sure it’s very possible to conduct an energetic drumming event in such a spot, people will feel more comfortable busting out in a open and airy environment.

The yoga studio I used to attend was situated on the main road in town, and during the summer we’d draw back the curtains, open the front door, and play as the sun was setting, the overhead fan creating a peaceful breeze. Our music attracted curious stares and smiles from dozens of passersby strolling along the avenue. Drivers stopped at the red light on the corner rolled down their windows and craned their necks to see what kind of craziness was brewing inside.

Even locations off the beaten path can be turned into welcoming ones by making sure the lighting isn’t too harsh or too dim, that chairs and blankets are cozy but not on top of each other, and that people have enough space to get up and move around a bit.

7. A rumble!

Every drum circle should end with a rumble; basically, a time for everyone to frenetically pound on their drums and scream. It is loud and obnoxious and infectious and absolutely exhilarating!

Have you ever been to a drum circle? What was your favorite part?

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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