Saturday, March 2, 2013
I think it’s the most difficult, yet the most satisfying work I can do as a drum circle facilitator, host, or a drumming teacher, is special needs drum circles. Whether it’s with one child, a lot of children, or a group of adults with developmental disabilities.
Hand drumming reaches people on so many deep levels, and of course me as well. This kind of work touches me very deeply. Emotionally, it just tugs at my heart. And reaches me on such a deep personal level that I can’t even describe the feeling and how much I am affected by it. Especially afterwards when I sort of debrief myself, and reflect on things for an hour or two.
I think about what they enjoyed the most, what worked well, what fell flat, and what I just learned from the session, and from them. Each time I come away with something new. Especially when I reflect on it at night, and even into the next day. When I am home, I have some time to realize some of the ways it has affected me. It really surprised me when I first worked with a group such as this how deeply I was touched by working with them, and how much they all benefited from it. That first time, I just went there to help everyone drum some, and have fun together at a holiday party. I came home profoundly affected.
For the most part I found all I needed to do fundamentally, is just start out rhythms like I usually do, and let the music go where it goes. Maybe add in a few games or fun things people can do just be spontaneous and have fun with. It is more of a challenge to facilitate though the music. I knew that with some conditions, you needed to speak slowly and clearly. To be very patient and give people a chance to work into the present time. The repetition of the drum beat rhythm allows that, even if their condition forces them to live ten seconds in the past, they can catch up. I noticed the social changes in the group positively improve as well.
Some administrators love the drum circle environment. They have told me that it’s rare for the parents and patients to have a fun activity they can do together. This is something they rarely get to do. Just to have some fun and improvise without worry and have a good time…together…and without it feeling a little uncomfortable. Because when you drum, even with physical, or mental conditions, all you think about is drumming.
I think the current politically correct term now is “special needs”, it was learning disabilities last year, some may even remember the term mental retardation. I don’t see disabilities in people. I see abilities. I feel it is wrong to try and categorize people like this. One administrator explained to me that most of the people in his group had an IQ of below 70, or problems with adapting, and/or socializing. The average IQ for a person is 100, measured by tests. Most of us have taken one at some time or another. The Wechsler test is one of them.
You just need to very patient, caring, and compassionate, while having fun. More often than not, you will need to modify your approach when working with special needs a little bit. Both with the drumming, and, more importantly, the rapport you build with them. I like to focus more on the individual relationships with each person. Because if they like you, and enjoy hanging out and drumming with you, that’s the goal I have in mind. We are just regular people having a good time. Having fun as a group, is my goal to help empower them.
If you are having fun, they can see it, feel it, and they begin to have fun also. You need to be able to hold the support beat solid for them sometimes. Especially, at a first drum circle session. Later on, you can lay back here and there. Even let someone else start out a beat, and support it. It may work, it may fall to pieces. If you have a fun personality, and something goes flat, you can just joke about it. “Oops, my fault. Let’s start a new rhythm out.”
One important thing to keep in mind as explained to me by a neurologist was that almost all of the patients, regardless of their individual condition, one thing most all of them have in common, is that they are essentially normal, intelligent, highly functional people. They just live five, or ten seconds in the past. I didn’t know that.
This is why drumming can be so effective. The repetitive nature of a drum beat makes it easy, and comfortable for them to catch up, or find their place in the beat, and feel normal for a change. Verbal communication is the same. This is a little trickier obviously. You need to speak clearly, and slowly. I speak as little as possible with short sentences, and facilitate through the music more, because of this. I usually speak only at the beginning, or end of a musical piece. I always have my radar up for a non-verbal cue from someone. I do use hand and arm gestures to get everyone’s attention in the center of the circle if I need to for this. But I usually still facilitate from the edge of the circle, like I always do. We’re there to have fun and drum, not to talk. If I do need to explain something, I use photos, or speak very clearly, choose my words carefully, and talk just a tad slower than I normally would. Memory capacity can be more limited with some of these participants.
A few things I have learned, is just because someone may appear to be not having fun, or may have their head down, it does not necessarily mean they are not into it. Many people in these groups mask their feelings, so I need to be aware of that before I subtly try to address it with a cool percussion gadget from my gig bag. Bored, scared, joyful, digging it, a happy or sad expression, can be easily misinterpreted.
Sometimes a person will have a bored look on their face, but in reality they might be having a ball. I’ve seen this, and I can’t address it in front of the group because it might embarrass them. At the end of the circle the guy comes up to me and says, “I had a wonderful time, thanks for just letting me be me.” The next drum circle he did the same thing, but eventually the rhythms got him to play on his own. He played when he was ready to play.
I like to begin sometimes with a gong that I keep in my gig bag. It’s about 14 inches wide. I use a soft mallet, and walk around the interior of the circle and let each person bang the gong once, or twice if they don‘t get a good gong on it. (If they want to.) Usually it’s smiles from ear to ear every time. Very few have ever turned it down. It’s a fun way to begin, and develop a rapport with each person, and it gives you a chance to see their individual hand coordination a little bit. Try to think up fun ideas like that.
I find the simplest heartbeat rhythm seems to be a good way to begin the drumming, or the “We Will Rock You“ beat again. I start it out very slowly, hold it steady, and let them play whatever they want. Whatever feels natural to them. We will let the rhythm go wherever it feels it wants to go, just like at a regular drum circle. They may just want me to hold it slow and steady, or ramp it up and play fast and exciting. They may just want to enjoy a good sounding groove for awhile. You don’t know really, until you get there.
But you can prepare a little bit. You can sense what a group wants to do, after you have worked with these populations for a while. Especially, in a very short time, you can assess the group’s skill level. I just go with it. With the slower rhythms the time seems to just fly by, and I hardly ever get even half way through my set list. The amount of time becomes a non-issue to everyone, and they all keep happily busy. The most simple heartbeat rhythm will do this if played for more than 10 minutes at the same tempo and volume level. We play lots of other fun rhythms, and have many different endings for them. Anticipating the end of what a rhythm will be as you are playing it, is sometimes fun. So during almost every drum circle I’m at, I have 4 or 5 different endings I like to use during the drumming session.
I sometimes just say, “A great rhythm needs a great ending to it.” So then I will show whatever it is to them, (1 or 2 bars or so) then I ask to please do it with me a couple of times, like 6 times over so everyone has it. Then we just play a rhythm for 10 minutes or so and I count them down to do that big ending, that we planned in advance.
There is a traditional drum phrase break that signals an upcoming change or ending at a drum circle. That one works great, but is a bit more complex one. Bum Ba DumDum, Ba Dum Dum BaDa. (pause) Boom!
A Latin drum break works well also. Or make something up, as a nice ending to a good jam.
One cool ending I like to use with these groups also, is to have everyone play 9 equal up tempo tones, and then two big bass notes. Then repeat it like 10 times, and I count them down as we go. 4-3-2-1- ooooooooo B B, ooooooooo B B etc. Or try this one - five tones, then 3 bass notes. ooooo BBB, repeat.
When you feel the group has come to the ending, or attention span of a rhythm is ending, try slowing and quieting the rhythm down over a 30 second period…then play slower and slower, until the rhythm ends in super slow motion. Like the Six Million Dollar Man or something. Like one of those old vinyl records slowing down after you unplugged it. (Remember those?) A rumble after that is always good.
Obviously rumbles are always good. I like to let members of the group get to do the ending rumble. Usually it’s whoever raises their hand when I ask, “Who wants to end the rhythm?” Then they get a turn ending a rhythm. I have a magic wand I made up for that. It has colorful ribbons on it. They can wave it around and direct the volume, direction, etc. A couple of minutes is good on that one. Let each of them that want to direct rumbles so they each get a chance to do it. For some this is the first time they ever get to be a leader. It helps to empower them, and build self esteem.
I let them try out unique percussion items periodically, by pulling them out, demonstrating how they work, and asking between jams, “Who would like to try this one out?” I just let them have fun. But I do go in with a prepared set list program. Which is usually changed all around depending on the group vibe I’m feeling. You can tell if a particular rhythm is working, or not feeling right. So can they. I laugh it off and we start another one.
You don’t even need to show people what a rumble is, when they have a drum in their lap. They can figure it out instinctively when you do it, and telegraph it a little at the end of a rhythm. That’s part of the fun. Figuring things out on your own. It gives you a better feeling of self accomplishment.
Everything for them is focused on their disability, and that has to get very frustrating for them, so they can use something for an outlet. A drum circle is a fun way that they can express their feelings, that will build their confidence. A drum circle? You should see their eyes light up.
But back to rumbles. Sometimes to teach a rumble easily to everyone, I say ok here are two rules. If I put my hands in the air you can play as fast and as loud as you like. When my hands come down you stop. Then I show them a lot of variations they can try, and mention it is ok if you think up your own ways to direct the rumble endings.
It’s nice if you can speak to administrators first and ask them questions about their vision, and how they would like things to go. It isn’t always possible. Do they want to seat everyone, or start exactly at a given time? What are some of the medical conditions? Are there any in wheelchairs? (Frame drums or tambourines, shakers and bells seem to work well for them.) What is it they hope to see, achieve? Are there potentially any people that might need extra attention, or need the assistance of the staff? Some of these facilities only have one recreation director, and there is no extra staff available.
I research the mission statement; get an idea of who they are from their website always first thing, just like with any other group I work with. Sometimes that is all the information I’ve had to go on. It happens.
I try to brief the staff before the start about them intervening. I ask them to let me do the crowd control. Do please join in as yourself and please don't try to show anyone how to do it, or what to do with it. I get this sometimes, with staff who mean well. But please don’t. The reason is, they sometimes get in there and want to demonstrate to a person how to do this or that. That’s not good. It embarrasses them, or worse.
At one special needs group gig, I didn’t know anybody there, and had no access to talk to the staff beforehand. All of a sudden people are arriving in droves. Parents, family, and patients all mixed in together. To be honest, a few people I could recognize had certain conditions, but I really had no idea who was a patient, and who were family members? What should I do with this one? So I had to toss my list right out, and improvise. Sometimes that is the most fun - improvising. Just play or do whatever feels right at the time. Rarely do I end up doing what I planned the night before. And I try not being afraid to do something I might feel is risky. I wear a samba whistle just in case, and demonstrate it in the beginning, to imprint the meaning of it in case things go chaotic at a later part. But I usually don’t need it. (Unless I forget to bring it of course.)
The drum circle went great and everyone loved it. The patients got to interact with their family members, and do something fun and positive together. This is pretty rare for some families with special needs family members. Later the staff told me they had three patients that have never even left the housing building before, for any activities. Period. The staff said they watched them looking out the window for awhile and saw everyone else drumming and having a good ol’ time, and came out and joined in. They told me how remarkable that was. That feels pretty good, that the drum circle coaxed them to come out and play.
It’s been my experience these types of groups become more involved and want to participate, when the drum rhythm changes their perceptions enough that they pay more attention to what is going on, and they even want more.
At another special needs gig, the patients and the staff got a kick out of it. They were stunned that I managed to get everyone to participate without even saying anything, other than, “ 1-2-3-Lets Play!” When I booked the job, the staff again said to me, only a few of our people will want to do this. I thought, ok this has happened before. Same deal, they all participated because it was fun. It was something a little bit different than group bowling. The director wrote me afterward, that since the drumming program, there has been a tremendous benefit from it. The drum circle gave them a new outlet that they never had before. It gets them thinking, experimenting, and making music, which is great! Now they have a regular weekly drumming program.
Most of the mission statements seem to be something like to integrate people back into society. A drum circle is the perfect vehicle for that. After we had worked together every couple of weeks for 6 months, one group of special needs adults all became comfortable drumming, and being around me. So I offered to the staff to bring them out to an indoor public venue, with a little more manageable open drum circle, that I was hosting.
It was better than I could have imagined. They just blended in beautifully, and few even knew they were special needs patients. All they want to do is have fun, and not be treated or feel treated “special”. They just want to be treated like one of the guys. Just one of the group. Not special. The staff told me that their only recreational outings were always things like bowling, and that they would always go with only other special needs patients in a “closed to the public” setting. So the drum circle was perfect. I’ve been bringing this group to open community functions to drum for a long time, and both the staff and I have seen remarkable improvements in all kinds of areas. Here they are, musically, socially, physically, interacting with the public.
The guiding of this particular special needs group in our community led to a two hour performance on a big stage in front of 100's of people, where they were wildly applauded, appreciated, and sounded great. It was a proud moment for them, and for me. I believe that real personal growth comes from the inner expression of each individual, and their self discovery. And the real beauty with hand drumming is that with almost all special needs conditions, is the repetition of the rhythms. We do them over and over, so if they get lost, or feel lost, that safety net of the foundational beat is there for them to rely on, or fall back on if they need it. Even if they live five, or ten seconds in the past, they do eventually pick it up, or find it, and sound great. The repetition is what does it. It is such a feeling of accomplishment to witness this in so many people.
Many of you already know this, but there is something called entrainment (not entertainment) that can happen to one individual or to an entire group. This occurs when the brain synchronizes to an external stimulus, such as the drum beat. This can be very therapeutic and, while it can happen to anyone or any group, it has a much more significant impact on those with special needs.
A few different medical doctors have explained to me that with most conditions, like Down Syndrome patients for example, they do indeed live a few seconds, to a few minutes in the past. So I just need to allow time for them to catch up. Imagine if you lived a few seconds in the past, and just couldn’t process information that quickly. You need to talk slowly and clearly in short sentences. Start rhythms out nice and slow and hold them there until everyone has it locked in.
Sometimes I run into a person that simply can’t hold still. They seem to need to bang, or fidget constantly. It’s a challenge keeping them focused. Until they experience some sort of entrainment. For purposes of this post, a definition of entrainment is basically when the person’s brainwaves get into a pattern of synchronization with an external beat. This helps the brain synchronize internally as well. It can be very therapeutic. A staff member explained this to me. Getting them to that point of entrainment is most of my goal. Once they are in there, I can almost just sit on the side and jam with them. It almost always takes 5 or 10 minutes to do it. And sometimes it feels like it was an hour. But it was only 5 minutes.
Hula hoops work great with some groups, or a ribbon or scarf so they can get in the center if they want to and wave it around in the breeze as they move or dance around to the beat. You can try giving away little 99 cent store goodies to entice people to hoop in the center for two minutes. It works every time. Just ask them to be mindful of the people around them. I like to keep the center of the drum circle as big as I can without hurting the musical connection from one side to the other.
Laying out the 2 towels in the center so they can feel the beat of the drum rhythms, way into their bodies works great. I don’t need to tell people about the healing power of the drum when they try that. They can feel it in their bones. It’s very powerful. Try it for yourself if you never have. Lie down on your back in the center of a drum circle and then close your eyes for one minute while everyone is playing a rhythm.
Both are great ideas for almost any drum circle group, and I use them both all the time.
There are so many different developmental disabilities; I can’t get too much into it. That’s why the input from the staff members is so useful. I have no medical degrees, and I’m not a healer, (although sometimes it happens by default.) I’m not there to treat them. I’m just there to help them have a little fun. Sometimes I have no idea who has what condition. That’s just the way it is. I always learn something new when working with these groups. And just like that, I become a healer by default. They teach me things I never dreamed of, it never ceases to amaze me.
I had to experiment some with ideas, ask the advice of staff, doctors, and others. Here’s some of what I’ve found out and learned. Again, I try to treat them like normal people. The worst thing to do is treat them or talk to them like they are handicapped. Would you like that? I wouldn’t. The staff usually tells me if there are any concerns to be aware of. I may need to enunciate a bit more, talk a little clearer and slower but that’s about it.
Many of them are very sensitive to pressure. I encourage them to join in when they feel comfortable. That way they can join in with no pressure, on their own. I do have to do a bit more leading and starting out the rhythms. The support beat thing. The comfort of the bottom beat is there for them.
Their attention span, and loud noise are an issue. I deal with this by keeping the volume lower, and by giving them lots of choices of percussion instruments to play. I lay them down right next to them, or on the floor in front of them. Just a pile of goodies to play, and experiment with. They usually end up liking one of them. Most of them don't want you pushing an instrument in their face, to get them to play this, or that particular one. I just smile and with an offering facial expression, lay it down near them. If they like it and want it, they will pick it up when the drum beat gets going. I just need to keep in mind of the volume.
I see shy people become less shy. I see people who play it safe, begin to take risks. I see people who have nothing else in common, becoming deeply connected with one another on a non-verbal level. I know there is something very good going on in these drum circles.
Here are a few ideas and thoughts, on a couple of particular conditions. Again, I’m a musician, not a medical expert. Most of this is from my experiences, and/or the staff advising me over the years.
Attention Deficit Disorder
With attention deficit disorder I usually just put a variety of percussion items by them so they can choose and try out all different kinds of things to keep them busy and occupied. I just give them lots of choices and let them pick. It almost always works, it just creates more of a mess to clean up. Who cares? Part of the job. Keep the volume down.
Many I see are in wheel chairs, but, other than that, they can function just fine. I have a couple of good friends with this condition so I know a little bit about it from experience drumming with them. They told me the drums they preferred. It was Bongos, because the weak hand doesn’t have to work so hard, they can just tap with it, until they strengthen it up a little more. They can set them on their lap, or a chair or table in front of them. It’s important to remember that most of these people with many of these various conditions, are highly intelligent, still very functional, and can be very musical human beings. The ones I have become closer friends with tell me they just want to be treated as regular people. When that happens, it’s easier for them to open up socially, even in a in a public setting, such as a public drum circle. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, don’t expect to see vast improvement in one drum circle. Overcoming the stigma from the general public is usually the problem, not them.
The lighter weight polymer shell Djembes and Bongos with synthetic heads work the best. Anything like those big 15 pound Bongos get a bit heavy just sitting on your legs for long periods of time. Even for one friend I have who has no feeling in his legs. He has somewhat limited movement in one hand. But he loves playing the Bongos, and plays them quite well now. I’m so impressed how he has improved in motor function, finger movements, and musically. He went from just sort of flopping his hands down to keeping good time, and playing entire rhythms perfectly in about six months. Frame drums and tambourines work real well for some people also. Especially if they have only the ability to just tap their fingers a little. They can lay it on their lap, and tap away, and be an important part of the group. Just part of the gang.
I’m no expert, and I have no medical degree as a music therapist, but I have worked with a lot of people with it before. Apparently the distinction is, drumming therapy - you need a degree to do that. Therapeutic drumming - no degree needed. I've seen a few music therapists who didn’t seem to establish a good rapport with people and they weren’t very empathetic or intuitive with their patients. On the other hand, I have also seen some beginner drum circle facilitators who are born with the gift of intuition and people skills, who leave a session with each individual feeling a sense of real accomplishment.
Usually with Down Syndrome they are open and enthusiastic. That's all you really need. It doesn't hurt to have a few of the percussion toys around them, so they have some choices. While some of them will be able to follow a simple rhythm, several will not be able to. They want to do their "own thing", and that's okay too. But with children, volume is a serious consideration, before the short attention span. Loud noise can be a real problem, so you have to constantly monitor the volume.
Many drum circles begin with Total Chaos. Man, it happens almost every time at the beginning. It kind of freaked me out, early on, when I started working with special needs groups. I just let it go for 5 minutes if I feel the need to. Then it always comes together. It takes a while to have the confidence that it will happen, because it feels like it never will unless I intervene. But I rarely ever need to. The group feels like they corrected it. And guess what? They did. I don't try to correct or modify what they are doing even if it is a train wreck. I had to learn to trust myself it would come together. I feel it was a success if all of them are actively participating in some kind of drumming. No matter how chaotic, offbeat, or bad it may seem to me. And because they corrected it themselves, it has a much strong empowerment effect.
Sometimes it may seem they may not appear to be enjoying it. You might think you perceive it in someone’s face. Most always all of them are, especially if they're doing it of their own choice. Some like to just sit and take it all in for a little while. Just play on.
I often tell them how great they sound and how well they are doing with lots of smiles. I just don’t over do it so it becomes obvious or soupy. These groups thrive on approval, appreciation, accomplishment, and acceptance. I try to give them lots of positive acknowledgement.
If I get a particular person that is so disruptive to the rest of the group, and I have no staff to assist me. I always bring along a small paint set, and offer to let them paint the music for us.
A craft project of some sort is another good idea. I bring a few of those big vitamin bottles and ask them make shakers for me. “I need a couple of shakers made, can you help me make one and decorate it up?” It worked great. Now, the staff saves the empty bottles for me when I come to drum with them. I bring some shaker materials, like popcorn, beads, and macaroni. Colorful things work the best. One time a guy spent the entire hour and a half sorting just the right colors to put in the shaker. It left the group to make some music, yet he was still involved. I had colored tape for him to decorate it up with. When it was done he was so proud of it, he played along with us near the end. Be sure to ask the staff if they can keep it.
Here’s another idea, speaking of painting art. Have them do a painting, or create a mural, painting the music. Almost a music appreciation thing, or a "how does music make me feel" painting. I get a big pad of paper, like you might put on an artist’s easel. I always bring a few big sheets of paper, sometimes a big artist’s pad. We try using different mediums, markers, water colors, crayons, or pastels.
They can either paint their own, or do a group painting. Sometimes I will ask who wants to drum, and who wants to paint the music. Mostly I will get half the group painting a mural, and the other half playing the drums. Then switch it up later, so they all get a turn at both the drumming, and the mural. I ask them to express their feelings in art as they listen to the music. Some get displayed in the facilities to this day.
Sometimes when working with special needs kids, many are scared of noise, I learned from a staff member to get them in there early, and let them explore the drums a little on their own. (And the percussion items.) In many cases, when they're in charge of the noise, they're happy to make it loud. I sometimes have a dancing rhythm going when they enter the room, and do the egg shaker on each chair thing.
We play a rhythm together and they can move around or whatever. It gives them a sense of making music before the drumming starts. For the first time with a group, I don't expect much of a groove, but be ready for it, because it happens if you anchor it for them with a nice support rhythm. It is important to have stuff that can be played with one hand. I have this basket of fruit shaped shakers I use a lot with them. Expect to spend a little time finding the right instrument for each person, and let them choose something different later on. Make it fun, ands interesting for them.
Some have physical limitations, so I bring buffalo drums, frame drums, drums they can lay on their laps and play. I try to avoid things played with sticks or mallets, because some will just start bashing them wildly, disrupting the rhythm of everyone else, and possibly put one through a drum head or someone else’s head. I keep them stashed away and use them sparingly. I bring a few Djembe stands or taller drums to accommodate those who might need one. Even those who you may think can only bash away, will get the repetition of a drum rhythm, and catch on eventually. It’s a good idea to have some soft beaters for those who can't use their hands very well.
Make sure that your kit is safe. No sharp edge drums like on some Darbukas etc. Think of your players as vulnerable children with the size and power of adults. Avoid taking anything fragile. The first drum circle with a special needs group can be very challenging. Expect some total chaos to happen. It gets a lot easier the second time. In my experience some of these people have problems judging how hard to strike a body drum, and could hurt their hands by playing it too hard. Show them a few pointers on good hand technique after the warm up jam.
As I said, loud noise is my biggest concern. The healthy noise limit is about 85 decibels (Db.) I think that is the legal safety limit as well. That’s what the cop said when he broke up a public drum circle in a park. (This wasn’t a special needs group.) He had his little decibel meter, and showed me the reading on it. We were up in the 120 Db. range. The neighbors called them on us. Actually, he was pretty cool about it. As a radio operator I’m familiar with decibels of gain, etc. but I researched this a little, and here’s what I found. A normal conversation is about 60 Db, up to the threshold of discomfort, that is the 120 Db range.
A bunch of people drumming together indoors can easily reach into the 115 to 120 Db range. About 150 Db, is the pain threshold. You can get a decibel meter relatively inexpensively. I think Maplin makes one. Keeping the volume level down takes some skill, and experience to pull it off. But it is possible. And this is even more important when dealing with special needs people.
Create a volume down signal, or just start to play your drum quieter, more often than not, they will be there right with you. It works just great. And as an added bonus, the participants get to hear each other. But if you use it too much it can have a negative effect. It’s something to keep in mind, some of the beginners get way into it, and are often getting their issues out.
Here’s some advice from a friend of mine. When he does big gigs with 100 people, the Db level can be huge. So he brings enough cheap earplugs to go around. As far as I know, if you warn them, and offer protection, you've done your job. I keep a few dozen of them in my gig bag.
A few final thoughts. This new atmosphere of spontaneous drumming can be overwhelming to some people. The one thing I don’t want to do is have people feel threatened, scared, overwhelmed, or lost. Trying to do complicated rhythms can do that. Lots of positive comments from you during the drum circle helps a lot. “Hey, we sounded great on that one didn’t we?” Smile a lot, thumbs up! If they are there, they are participating. Starting some spontaneous applause after a jam goes a long way.
A few things I bring besides my earplugs in my gig bag, are some padded tape, first aid, hand creams, anti-bacterial wipes, etc. for anyone who just might ask. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with epilepsy, in case someone has a seizure. It’s the staff’s responsibility, but you should know what’s going on. It’s nice if you can speak with the staff beforehand about any possible issues, but as I mentioned, that’s not always possible. So I need to be ready for anything.
Remember to try and speak with the staff afterwards for some feedback. And at the next time you are there. (Hopefully) Or, leave them a feedback form to fill out, with a self addressed envelope and a stamp on it. I gathered a lot of useful information with a simple feedback form. The medical staff knows a lot more than I do about medical conditions.
Remember there are heavy restrictions on photography in most cases, so be sure to ask if you want to take photos.
If the group takes a break for lemonade or something, make sure they don’t come back to the drumming area before they are all finished. Goatskin drum heads still make terrible coasters.
Ultimately, I just let people play. We drum up some fun. Let your personality out, and with your calm and reassuring manner, watch the volume, and they will quickly enjoy playing together, and connecting with you.
I hope some of this is helpful to you, and it gives you a few ideas working with special needs individuals and groups – young or adult. Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, and based on my experiences. If you would like to read some more about my approach to drum circles, please consider picking up my book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles” It’s 300 pages, and only $8 on Amazon Kindle or the Barnes & Noble Nook. Physical copies are $18 available at my website, or at Amazon. If you choose to purchase it, thanks in advance for helping an independent musician. The funds help me with drum repairs, and doing work in our community. It helps out the most, if you purchase direct from me.
Friday, November 16, 2012
I work a lot with individuals, and groups that are especially vulnerable to common colds, as well as other types of viruses, so I started phasing out most of my wood body drums with goatskin heads a few years ago. The primary reason was being able to sanitize them easier. Secondary was the repairs, and the heavier weight of them.
Believe me, I would rather not have to use synthetic drums that have ping and twang sound to me when they are played. I much prefer the warmer, richer tones of natural skin drum heads. The sound is more authentic, and my hands are less sore after long sessions of playing. But when I’m facilitating drum circles for kids, seniors, or special needs groups, I need to think about their health, so I clean and sanitize them after each use.
Please keep in mind, that everything I say here is just my opinion, based on years of my own experience and talking with other drummers. I’m not a medical expert, but I have asked various medical professionals about this, and, generally speaking, they say unless the surface is sanitized, a virus can survive on almost any surface (like a drum head or on the sides) for up to 48 hours. And that bacteria can live on a surface for up to 12 hours if it has food to live on. If the drums are stored unclean in a warm area, about 12 hours longer. Also, if the people playing just ate something and some residue is still on their hands, (something sticky, like candy or juice) that provides food for it to live. Suddenly, I’m not in the mood for lunch.
Since I work with many vulnerable groups, I switched from goatskin and wood body djembes to drums that are easier for me to sanitize.
All my drum circle facilitating “kit” drums are synthetic drums like Remo djembes, and aluminum doumbeks. An aluminum doumbek with a synthetic head is a lot easier to clean, and they weigh less to carry. When you are schlepping 40 drums by yourself, going from 18 pounds per drum to 8, it makes a big difference. The energy I save from carrying them can go towards ensuring the group has a good time. For me, most of the work is getting my drums and gear to the space.
When I had a mixture of wood and synthetic drums, people seem to gravitate to the synthetic drums anyway because they are comfortable to play, colorful, and fun looking. Not to mention more durable. The heads are $10 to replace, and it's less weight for them to play. I use a lot of synthetic frame drums, and tambourines also, as well as other smaller percussion that can be easily cleaned after each drum circle or interactive drumming session.
Sometimes I have multiple groups of kids coming in on the hour. I ask for 10 minutes between sessions so I have just enough time to use sanitizing wipes and clean up all the equipment.
Some precautions I take during the drum circle are: I usually have 4 or 5 of those alcohol based hand sanitizer pump bottles around the perimeter of the circle and also by the exits, with signs posted nearby reminding everyone to use them. Another good idea is to just ask everyone to go wash their hands at break time, (it cools down the hands, and gives you more grab on the drum head anyway) and also to wash them after the session is over, I usually wash up along with them. It’s a conga line to the can.
My style of facilitating a drum circle is that I just focus on music making. I don’t go for the drumming games or activities. People both young and old seem to prefer it more. So, for that, and the sanitary reasons, during circles I don't encourage “the pass the drum thing”, or swapping of instruments. Especially nowadays with everyone more aware of germs, and catching the flu. I do bring lots of extra percussion items for people to play so they can choose something else if they want. Common sense is to wash your hands, and not pass drums around with people worried about catching something.
The next day I usually clean my entire kit up to prepare for the next circle, unless it is 48 hours later. The way work has slowed, it’s usually 48 hours.
Back when I had all wood body drums with natural skin drum heads, I still did a few things to clean them, but it wasn’t nearly as effective. Cleaning a rough texture wood surface is almost impossible. Many years ago a conga player taught me to clean my cowhide drum heads with a little alcohol on a piece of cloth. Just damp them slightly enough to remove the hand grime. I noticed that the drums sound a little better after doing it. I always thought the build up of hand grease made the drums sound better…I was wrong. To me, it improved it.
Now I use the Evans synthetic conga head on my LP’s and they clean up very easily. I love those drum heads by the way. And I’m pretty old school when it comes to my congas.
I played with a djembe master many years ago, and he said what he does on his goat skin heads is use a soft cloth with a little alcohol on it. Lightly scrub it on, and scrub it off. He also periodically uses a #200 sandpaper, and sands it very lightly. Apparently this opens the pores and allows the drum to ring better, and then does a cleaning after that. Obviously, you have to be very careful when sanding a drum head. Do it light, and go easy on the bearing edges. I wouldn’t do it more than once or twice during the life of a drum head.
The point is to reduce the chances of bacteria, and by removing any surface material, you remove what bacteria need to live on. It’s about all you can do with goatskin heads. I’ve heard other say that they use acetone to do this. I don’t know about that one, using nail polish remover kind of freaks me out, but apparently it works. Y0u just need to allow more time for it to evaporate.
I’ve heard other musicians say they just use soapy water to clean djembe heads. I’ve never tried that one, so I can’t say. And, you have to rub the soap and water into the surface for at least 15 seconds or it does not get rid of any “bugs” on the surface. I would think that a soapy wash cloth would be the way to go, followed by a gentle rinsing. With s different cloth.
So basically what I’m saying is, I prefer synthetic drums for working with groups. They are less prone to damage, cost less to repair, they are easier for me to move, and easier to clean. I go through a lot of sanitizing wipes, especially with back to back gigs. I want to reduce the chances of anyone getting even a cold at one of my drum circles as much as possible.
Once again, It is my understanding that a virus can survive on almost any surface for up to 48 hours, unless it is sanitized, so I use that as a general rule of thumb.
If you have any other tips, or ideas on this please share them.
Stay safe, and help others to stay safe,
Please check out my 300 page book, A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles". On Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook for $8.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
I facilitate drum circles in churches, and spiritual gatherings pretty often. Sometimes they are outdoors, sometimes in the church, or in the Rec hall, or parish hall after a Sunday service, or for a special event they are having. Some drum circles in churches focus on spirituality; some others focus more on drumming as a social activity. Many groups like to bring in a variety of activities on a monthly basis. A drum circle can be one of many. I work with everything from New Age, to Baptist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches, as well as groups of pastors. I’m open to most any group that wants to drum. These are just my opinions, and I hope to help anyone that is considering doing this kind of a drum circle.
I feel that if I am bringing drumming to someone or some group, it is a good thing, and it’s good for them. No matter who they are. Or what path they are from, or what they may represent. The same goes for business, and corporate drum circles.
I hardly ever get asked what my faith or belief is, but I do get asked that sometimes. I say the truth, this: “I am respectful and understating of all faiths. This is what I do for a living, and I have to be respectful of all paths, and faiths.” Most of the time they understand, and it doesn’t go beyond that. The caterer at church functions hardly ever gets grilled, so neither should I. I’m just there to bring drumming, and help guide them on a spiritual drumming experience, if that is what they wish to have.
I think we all have certain boundaries on who we want to work for. I have mine. And if working with a particular group feels uncomfortable to you, well, you make your own decisions on who you want to drum with. Whether you volunteer your time, or are hired to do this, it can be very satisfying work. It doesn’t pay very well monetarily, but it does inside your heart. You are helping to facilitate a spiritual drum circle experience, and helping to bring some joy into the world. Even if it only reaches one person. More and more groups are realizing the significance of spiritual drum circles. It’s not just for visionaries anymore. One pastor I worked for was criticized for doing this, until he invited the other pastors to attend one. They changed their mind once they experienced the power of a drum circle and how meaningful it was to the congregation.
When I’m approached to host a drum circle at a spiritual gathering, or church, I usually don’t have a problem with it. Drum circles bring people from all paths together, and the world would be a better place if they sat down and drummed about it. Communicating musically transcends talking, and there would be a lot less fighting.
When I am contacted for the first time about a spiritual drum circle, I always try to have a face to face short meeting with them, but it is not always possible. I want to better understand their vision of the drum circle, and exactly what they would like from it, and from me. I have done this communication via email only before, but I will try to have a meeting if I can. I recall one time it was for a conference that was a convention of pastors that were assembling from around the country, it wasn’t possible to have a meeting, as even the organizer lived 3000 miles away.
The pastor at one particular church that I’ve done multiple drum circles for once said, “A drum circle is truly a spiritual experience.” and “it will truly bless your life and the lives of your people.” Well said.
It seems rather odd to me that I started on this drumming path for reasons that had to do with my needs. I started drumming because I was a hyperactive child, and then I joined the school band. Later on, facilitating drum circles turned into a hobby, and then into a calling. People began telling me that I was helping them reach new levels of spirituality. I about fell over when one of the regulars at a weekly night club drum circle began calling me the group’s Shaman, a holy man on a quest to use the drums to help the world. That was hard for me to accept intellectually, but at times, I can feel the group, and myself, tuning into something much bigger and more important than I can even get my head around. So, while I can’t explain it, I can merely let go and try and accept it.
Often with spiritual drum circles, some of the people will already have a drum of their own, and will come parading into the circle with it. That always makes me smile when I see that.
Many times I’ve needed to research a particular church just because I wasn’t familiar with their uniqueness. I should at least have some understanding of them and what their beliefs are before I go in there and bring a drum circle to them. What behavior from me might they expect, what are some of their practices, customs? Real no - no’s? I usually do a little homework here. It’s the polite and professional thing to do. Would they like to begin with a prayer? Most of them do, but I always ask. Some also want to make announcements prior to any drumming. Knowing in advance if there will be children in attendance is obviously very important. If it’s out in a public place, are they okay with people happening by and joining in? Most of them are.
Be sure to make arrangements for them to have chairs set up, and mention that everyone will need to remove rings and jewelry prior to playing a drum. They will likely have a bulletin, flyer, or email they send out announcing the event. Ask them to mention that. Sometimes they will be serving refreshments or even a meal. Of course we would prefer them served after the drumming, and I do try to suggest that, but sometimes it’s unavoidable and I have to roll with it. There may be a guest speaker before, then the meal, then the drumming. If it’s what they want, okay then.
Usually it’s the pastor, or organizer is the one I ask questions like this. Sometimes the leader makes the decision before we start. Often, I can only ask them when I meet them just before the drum circle starts, and I’m still schlepping in my drums. They usually have somebody in the group whom this normally falls to. Whatever group it is, I just try to be respectful of it. Most of the time, it’s everyone standing and a prayer is said, and away we go. 1 - 2 - Bang the drum. I go with the vibe I feel there, as to how I start. Sometimes there are mixed age kids with the group. It can be more fun, or more difficult. For the most part, I tend to keep the program a bit more mellow with earth, healing, and slower R&B style rhythms with a good downbeat that they can feel, but I always include a few key things if I can.
As far as the rhythms we play after the beginning, I almost always going with the feeling I get from the group. The collective energy can guide me, if I let it. My instincts on it are usually pretty close to right. The good ol’ default drum circle rhythm you hear at most freestyle drum circles makes a good ice breaker - warm up. “pa_Go-Do_ta… pa_Go-Do_ta”, etc. Or, the Heartbeat is a good one to get right into. “Doum Doum tek-ka-tek-ka Doum Doum”. Or keep it real simple with Go_Do_pa-ta-pa _ (2 measures in 4/4 time. Bass bass, tone tone tone rest, and repeat). Use any rhythm that is basic, and easy to get the group groove going.
Many people have never touched a drum before, and the sooner I can get them to just playing and making music, the sooner their uneasiness or nerves will melt away. Less talking and more music making is my approach. I vocalize the first few bars and start playing the rhythm at about one third the normal tempo so people can latch onto it. This way they don’t feel a sense of catching up or worse, panic. Then I can ease up the tempo if it feels right for them. The one thing I do say before we start playing is, “Play however you want…whatever feels natural…just follow your heart, and THE BEAT.” It usually gets a laugh, and that sets the right tone that this is going to be fun and not overly controlled.
I just want to get them playing and creating as quickly as possible. I let people know right away that the support rhythm I’m playing is just a starting point for them, they don’t have to try and play that exact thing. Just add your unique voice to the group song and lets all take it wherever we want, together. After we play a few rhythms I touch on hand technique, and playing too loud. I don’t want anyone to get injured, or be uncomfortable. If you can’t hear the person playing across from you, it’s too loud.
I have a slightly different set list of rhythms for a spiritual circle than I would use for other groups. I will usually change it as we go along, but having it handy gives me more confidence. Most of the time, it is all slow 4/4 rhythms with one or two up tempo ones to keep some variety in there mid way into the set. If it’s all slow tempo rhythms it doesn’t have any ebb and flow. I mix in a 6/8 mother rhythm somewhere in there as well. I try to keep it spontaneous and fun, and I guide things from the side – not the center. Most of the time, I’m just there to provide the drums, start a variety rhythms, bring them to an end so they don’t go on for too long, and the rest just seems to fall into place. Imagine that.
After a rhythm ends, a nice rumble will get them all excited and clapping. I think it’s important to take a few moments after a rhythm ends to let things “breathe” a little. Then start out a new one. I like to come up with different endings for rhythms so it doesn’t get too routine. A fade out, count down, and so forth.
As with some of the other groups I work with, about half way through the drum circle, I like to use the “two beach towels in the center of the drum circle thing”, and ask if two people would like to lay on them for a minute while we are playing. On their back, with their arms to the side, and their eyes closed. I give everyone a chance to feel the drum beat with their eyes closed if they want to. It’s spiritually powerful, done to a good slow tempo rhythm with a heavy downbeat.
If there is an allotted time, I like to leave them wanting more. So when I say this is our last rhythm, and we play it – after it is over I ask the group, “Should we play just one more?” The answer is almost always a resounding YES! And we do one more jam out for fun. It ends things on a high note. Or, you can go the other way, and make it more soft and meaningful. It really depends on the group dynamic that was created. You can feel the vibe of which way it should go by this time.
At the end of a spiritual group drum circle, I almost always do the “Let them feel the healing energy of the drum, in their bodies thing also”. This is the one where they all set the drums on the ground, stand in the circle, and hold their palms open and outstretched, opposite to each other, and palms facing each other, directly above each other’s palms, about 6 inches apart. I then ask them to slowly compress their hands to the other person without actually touching them. The oh’s and ah’s as they feel the healing energy compress, or their chi, the mojo in their bodies. Then I ask them to slowly compress it back and forth. Then to turn their hands into themselves, to let it reach inward, into their bodies. Many of them are feeling this drum energy for the very first time. It is very powerful.
That’s why I try to get everyone to drum, and not just play a shaker, or tambourine for at least a half hour. I want to get that drumming energy flowing in their bodies. All you have to do then is show it to them at the end of the circle. It can bring up very deep feelings in people.
For the most part, everyone just wants to drum and have a healing spiritual experience. I think it’s doing some good in the world.
There are quite a few references in the Bible to using song and dance as a means of worship. French African (Congolese) worship services use drumming and singing in praise music. Lots of people use drumming as an active way of meditation, so it's not really a huge leap to make that religious drumming connection.
Do drum circles in church really need to be much different from other drum circles that offer creative outlets, bonding, support, interpersonal interaction, etc? Not that much really, just a little more mellow, and less volume.
For the most part, I avoid drum circle games and activities, and just focus on in the moment music making. I do bring along a few hula hoops and put them off to the side where everyone can see them. Once things get going someone usually grabs one and starts hooping. If they are outside the circle I invite them in the center. We all know that drumming to some sort of movement elevates the fun level and gives something to connect the rhythm to. I like to have a wide open circle of at least 15 feet so there’s room for people to get in there and express themselves. That’s part of what this is about. One idea when working with just kids is drumming to Sunday school songs: "If you're happy and you know it, bang your drum" boom boom.” And so on.
My favorite spiritual drum circle was at a Gospel church; I was later invited to attend their services, was welcomed like family, and got to play in the church band. It was cool. These were some heavy musicians, one of them toured with Herbie Hancock. What an honor to be welcomed there and play in the band. The singers in the choir were amazing talents also. The band would rumble here and there as the minister spoke. Now that’s a fun way to rumble. Rumbling to the intensity of places in his sermon.
Almost always, a drum circle is after the service, but I have done it as a part of a church service before. Here’s an example outline that was about an hour and a half:
1. GATHER IN THE LORD’S NAME
Drumming: a welcoming/gathering rhythm; Shannon introduces newcomers to the circle and explains the rhythm(s).
Brief spoken prayer at the end (Pastor)
2. SCRIPTURE: LUKE 19:29-40
Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) (Lector)
Verse 36 (“As he rode along. . . ‘”) begin softly drumming, getting very gradually louder and faster. (Shannon)
At end of verse 40 (“He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. . .") we drum as if we were the stones shouting out glory to God. More than one rhythm is fine. (Shannon)
3. Prayers of the People
Earth rhythm. (Shannon)
Series of “bidding” prayers: Request for prayer on various topics (prayers for the church, the sick, the dead, troubled spots, thanksgivings). Response is a few moments of drumming, then softer for the next bidding prayer. (Lector)
4. Exchange the Peace
Invite everyone to play a simple rhythm on the drum of the person to the right of them, then to the left. (Shannon)
5. Take Eucharist
Pastor goes to table in center of drum circle and does an extemporaneous Eucharistic prayer.
Shannon alone accompanies the words with drum
This will be a time of words/pauses (with drum)/words/(pauses (with drum) – no sense of hurry. (Shannon and Pastor work together)
6. Lord’s Prayer
No drumming while this is recited. (Pastor + everyone)
7. Break and Share Bread and Wine
Simple, soft rhythm of peace that people can leave off while receiving bread and wine, then easily pick back up when finished. Depending on the number of people, this will take 5+ minutes. There should be a few moments of drumming while Pastor tidies up the leftover elements. (Shannon)
Another time of big, enthusiastic drumming! This and the “stones” drumming (end of #2) should be the lengthiest and most spirited times of drumming. More than one rhythm is fine. (Shannon)
Pastor blesses and dismisses everyone
This was held outside in a park, (on church property), and it was a very powerful experience. Obviously we had a prior meeting, as this outline had to be planned in advance. It was what they wanted, and while I was a little nervous about it, everything went beautifully.
So to sum up, I don’t refer to myself as Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan or any other label. I don’t completely subscribe to any one particular religious group or ideal. Words can be a credible barrier to the understanding of human spirituality. I prefer to take from each religion and culture what I feel kindred to. And I do consider myself to be a spiritual person. Drumming is my outlet, my sanctity, where I feel the most at home. As I mentioned, some drum circles in churches focus on spirituality; some others focus more on drumming as a social activity.
The main thing is, I try to get each person on a body drum, so they can feel the healing power of the drum in their bodies, and have a more spiritual drumming experience. I do bring a few big plastic bins of mixed percussion items to keep things interesting for the group, and to entice the shy ones to get involved. Once they see everyone is having a good time, and not really focusing on them, they usually move to a body drum. (Which is the main reason I bring small percussion items.) I don’t bring anything that can be played with a stick. It usually finds its way to a drum head. Not good. Sound shapes with plastic sticks are okay, but anything played with a wooden stick…nope. I do have a few guiro’s, woodblocks, and such, but the stick is attached to it with a one foot nylon string.
Much of the world's most powerful music is associated with religion and spirituality. Music down through the ages has been designed to take the listener to another place. Facilitating a church, or spiritual drum circle usually affects me very deeply also, even though my beliefs may differ from their particular ones. Drum circles bring us all together. The healing energy of the drum transcends all. And, somehow, it also brings us closer to our higher power, regardless of how we perceive that.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Free drum rhythms DVD and CD Contest: Just complete this sentence: "I love drum circles because..."
The best answers posted on the Drum Circle Finder FaceBook page by October 1st win a free 101 Drum Circle Rhythms DVD, and a drum circle jam CD, including free shipping to anywhere in the world. No registering, apps, or signing up for anything is required.
The winners will be announced on the FB page October 2nd. Please keep your answers under 50 words or less. Make them thoughtful, inspiring, or funny...or?. There are some pretty good ones out there already.
Good Luck! Enter your comment at: facebook.com/drumcirclefinder Or, just go to FaceBook and search for the "Drum Circle Finder" page. You can also navigate to it from my website.
The best answers posted on the Drum Circle Finder FaceBook page by October 1st win a free 101 Drum Circle Rhythms DVD, and a drum circle jam CD, including free shipping to anywhere in the world. No registering, apps, or signing up for anything is required.
The winners will be announced on the FB page October 2nd. Please keep your answers under 50 words or less. Make them thoughtful, inspiring, or funny...or?. There are some pretty good ones out there already.
Good Luck! Enter your comment at: facebook.com/drumcirclefinder Or, just go to FaceBook and search for the "Drum Circle Finder" page. You can also navigate to it from my website.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Many drum circle facilitators who offer team building drum circles use a variety of team building rhythm games, and then finish up the remaining time with a drum circle. It's a tried and true method. But over time, I've developed my own approach. I suggest that you do the same thing. Study what the others do, and develop your own sense of style and unique way of doing things. These are just my opinions, and I hope that some of it will be helpful to you. There are certainly other ways to go about this. Based on my style, and experience, this is how I do it. It is not the only way, or even the best way, but it's what works for me. The clients have been happy with the results, and that's what matters.
For many years, companies have strived to implement the concepts of empowering employees to find and implement better ways of accomplishing work processes. Deming, one of the world’s foremost authorities on quality assurance and employee productivity, was also one of the first to recognize the fact that it is the employee working at the lowest level who knows the most about how to improve the flow of work. The stumbling block has always been how to convince workers to speak up and propose the changes and then find ways to make those changes happen to achieve optimal results. Drum circles provide a unique and highly effective solution to this quandary.
Drumming has been around for thousands of years. Virtually every culture on earth has a history of community drumming being used to unify the group. Different cultures produced different instruments and rhythms. Your company is a microcosm culture that can use the same approach to unify the group & improve their interactions, resulting in improved productivity.
Drum circles are an excellent activity for any group, and for all ages. But especially as a tool for team building. Letting people express themselves through drumming and then seeing how that can build to a musical performance is at the heart of team effort. Learning to let go of self involvement in order to synchronize with others is the essence.
Not everyone can or will play the drums the same way, just as they don't do their jobs exactly the same way. And those slight differences, if done from each person's strengths, are what make the musical result magical. People learn that playing / working together is something that is its own reward because the results are beyond what any individual can do.
Drum circles can be extremely effective for companies that want to enhance the generation of new ideas and better team work. When people discover that they can collectively produce a good sound without any musical training or background, they start to realize that they can be more effective at work by putting their heads together and working as a team.
Also, drumming uses the brain in a different pattern than the linear thought process that is usually needed in the work environment. For example, when suggesting a drum circle rhythm, I like to vocalize the first few measures before we play it. The logical analytical side of the brain can process it quicker, which then frees up the creative intuitive side. People can then play what they feel, rather than over thinking it. ie: The Heartbeat drum rhythm: Boom Boom chicka-chicka Boom Boom (pause, & repeat)
A drum circle brings the group to a more open mental and psychological process, which can be carried over to the production of new and better ways of working. An excellent tool to kick off any kind of brainstorming session and optimize the quantity and quality of new ideas. In other words, your team improvises and is more creative.
I’ve worked for, and talked with a lot of businesses and corporations about using drum circles to improve the performance and productivity of their employees. This is not as crazy as it might sound. It is currently being used extensively in large corporations and I believe that it can be just as effective in smaller companies. A small investment of time and money can reap benefits that will improve a company’s effectiveness for a very long time. This is where many of the drum circle facilitators make the big bucks. The proof that drum circles are effective is right there.
And as a drum circle facilitator, I work to define objectives and construct an approach that fits their particular environment. I typically work with 5 to 80 people at a time. I provide all of the instruments and I can also help to coordinate the event itself. Everyone is free to participate, or just sit back and anticipate the results.
Team building through the interactive process of a drum circle is a relatively new approach to employee productivity that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the United States. Successful corporations know that good team building improves the success rate, not only of the team, but of the corporation. But, knowing how to create truly effective teams is a distinct set of skills that is rarely taught to the employees who would be in a position to implement them. There are two obstacles to team building in the corporate environment.
Unlike sports, where it is known that the team has to work together, corporations are often highly competitive environments. And, people who view their co-workers primarily as competitors, are unlikely to interact in a constructive team setting.
In addition, employees are accustomed to passively accept the work assigned to them by their bosses and work primarily towards doing only those specific tasks that they believe will please their boss.
Building a successful team requires a significant shift in these two patterns of interaction. A good team's members will help one another overcome obstacles and improvise new and better ways of accomplishing all of the goals that the team faces, rather than individual tasks. This makes the entire team more productive. Plus, as humans are social by nature, this interaction makes the work place more enjoyable. And people who enjoy their work place are more productive.
Drum circles are a highly effective way of introducing the revised shift in attitudes necessary for building teams. While an individual can beat on a drum and produce a rhythm, it only becomes true music when a group of people play together. A drum circle facilitator teaches the basics of drumming, then guides the group into creating a musical experience. The type of facilitation used can be a major factor. A too highly structured drum circle can emphasize the mindset of only just following instructions.
I think the ideal type of facilitation to kick start or improve team building is one in which the participants are encouraged to improvise within the rhythm structure provided by the facilitator. It is a direct parallel to the team improvising solutions to the group of tasks that the team needs to accomplish.
Drumming immediately reduces stress and breaks down barriers between the participants. The process then brings the group back together in a nonverbal form of team interaction. The group learns how to listen to what is going on and respond to it in a way that adds to the total product. Once people do this in a setting that is fun, they can then carry it back to their regular work tasks, resulting in better communications and increased effectiveness.
When I book a team building drum circle, no matter how large a group it is, I try to find out a few key pieces of information. In fact, one of the most important things I do is some homework about the company, business, or group. I try to find out names, who does what, and get as many details as possible. Often I get hardly anything other than a brief from their site. But I try to get as much information as possible in advance, (within reason of course) from the hiring person.
For example, what's the theme they have in mind? Company values? Better synergy? Leadership? Stronger communication? Risk taking? What's the purpose or objective of them wanting this drum circle team building event? Finding some of this out helps me to custom tailor activities, (or lack of them) specifically for them. You can't fool most of these business management types, they have seen it all, and can spot BS right away. The important thing is to deliver on a clear theme, and meet their objectives, not mine.
For me every event is different, but there are a few mechanical things I do at the start, and at a few points during the drumming process. There are a few "welcome activities" I've learned from others, such as the handshake circle, the egg shaker pass, and so on. (Do a search on them if you need the specifics.) These are both good ice breakers.
More often I just get them drumming to a basic foundational drumming beat as quickly as possible. The reason is, corporate types tend to over think things if you give them too much time. A simple vocalization of a rhythm for a few bars in 4/4 time, gets them quickly out of their heads, improvising, and creating.
For example, nice and slow tempo, 4/4 time, each word is a 1/4 note, 4 notes per measure: (This is 2 measures, or 8 beats.)
bass, rest, bass, rest; tone, tone, tone, rest; & repeat the phrase.
Let it go for 5 minutes and slowly bring up the tempo. Let it evolve...
From then on it's just a series of different rhythms from around the world. The vocalizing emphasizes listening and dialogue between the employees. The rhythm Heartbeat, or Hi-Life are good after the warm up. It leaves openings for call and response. One you demonstrate it, and let them know it is okay not to have to strictly follow the rules like in their normal working environment, this is when the team building begins. Various drumming games and activities do work, but not as well as creating a setting to just letting them figure it out for themselves. Not the best analogy here, but if you are stuck at a level in a video game, is it more satisfying to figure it out, or have someone show you? It stays with you if you accomplish it on your own.
I don't go much for the body beat percussion thing, the layering in of percussion, as many others use it. I think of it how I would like it to be if I was an employee. I have sat in that chair waiting for some silly team building activity before. So I don't leave people sitting there waiting for their turn to play. I do like to take a 5 minute break at the half way point for a brief discussion. After that, I ask everyone to pass their drum or percussion instrument to the person on their right. They have to figure out a new drum, and how to play it. They experience the change in themselves, the sound, and the circle. It is similar to them having to figure out their own strategies for dealing with something different on the job.
I usually do this one more time about 15 minutes later, but this time we break and I ask a few of them to comment on the differences of the new drum they are playing. It opens up some interesting discussion, and job related metaphors. I've found this to be very effective, the suits can see what is happening, and they can see the value of why we are doing it. I like to get the particpants to openly talk about what they are experiencing after specific drum rhythms at a few different points during the program.
My experience is that most executives are very sharp, and they have short attention spans. Not because of ADD, but they tend to learn very quickly, so they can also get bored quickly with basic team building drumming games and activities. They figure them
out fast, and want to move on to something else. I can't say I blame them really. Just drumming works better than gimmicky things that waste time. (But I always have a few at the ready just in case.) I keep two lists in my back pockets. One is a list of rhythms, and the other is a list of drumming activities. I hardly ever look at them, but if they are there, I feel more confident. If I do get a brain freeze I can just glance at it for reference. It happens.
My overall pacing of the various drum rhythms is slow and steady, with a few ebbs and flows to keep things unpredictable. The main objective is to create a group dynamic as fast as possible, and a group rhythm that represents the goals of the company. The group downbeat rhythm represents the basic working process, and goals of the organization. They just don't know it until after we are done. It is their company "groove". The rhythm is the vehicle.
I like to spend a few hours planning out the program the night before, and also after I have seen the room, and set up my drums. I take a half hour to figure out and visualize my program that is about to start. One thing I got from my years in show business and appearing on live TV, is the there is an ever so fine line between fear, and excitement. All I have to do is convince my mind that I AM EXCITED. How cool is it that I get to do this? I'm not nervous, or scared...I'm excited.
As the facilitator, my job is to provide the instruments and guide the participants through the process. I do not tell them what to do, but give them the tools to figure out what their group pulse is. This is a surprisingly powerful tool. I start by letting them just beat on the drums to get a feel for the physical motion involved and to release any tensions. Then, I start showing them a series of basic rhythms and, once they get those, show them how to feel the rhythm and add their individual flavor to it. The sound moves around as different people will dominate a pattern and affect it. Then, I introduce a new beat and someone else ends up taking the lead, and away we go team building, while having a good time.
Trying to encourage employees to think outside the norm and find better ways of working is a highly worthwhile goal. Drum circles show them how to do this in a context that removes their routine ideas of constraints. It gives a simple joint goal to the group, then fosters a creative and spontaneous accomplishment of that goal. It enhances the ability of the members to function together at their best by providing a path that is relaxing, invigorating, and just plain fun. And, people who enjoy working together are consistently more productive. The stress reduction of the drum circle can also significantly reduce absenteeism. Many large corporations are now using drum circles on a regular basis.
I try to provide a safety net by being constantly tuned in to the group and the individuals, so they can have a good time. I mention on my drumcircles.net page, helping people to find their own inner sense of rhythm takes very little guidance and can be done spontaneously in the middle of an ongoing rhythmic drum beat. Natural rhythm flows within all of us. Our hearts beat to a rhythm, we walk to a rhythm, many aspects of our daily lives are done to a rhythm.
Whenever we hear drumming, we begin to move to the universal rhythm inside us all. The drum connects your heart to your hands. We start out a beat, we just follow the beat, and all of a sudden we are improvising, experiencing and talking with our drums. You are the instrument, the drum becomes your voice. Drumming conversations begin to emerge as people become connected beyond the music being played. They are finding their inner natural rhythm. I drum what I say.
Friday, April 13, 2012
Times are especially difficult for musicians, and artists these days, so I try to help out a little bit where I can. There are quite a few free downloadable drum circle jam mp3’s, as well as a dozen djembe ringtones for your phone you can enjoy for free. No registering or signing up for anything is required. There is a tab “free drum circle mp3’s” on the left sidebar, or scroll to the bottom of the page to find them.
Check out some of my earlier blog posts I’ve written here over the last few years. There are lots of helpful hints, ideas, suggestions, stories, drumming tips, drum rhythm notations, and much more to help to you get into the groove, as well as get more enjoyment from hand drumming. Drum circles are fun, they bring people from all paths together, and we need that more than ever these days.
I’ve been attending, and facilitating drum circles for over 30 years. If you're looking to buy a drum, it's important to try and find THE drum that's right for you. I went through a lot of them before I found the one that was right for me. I don't really get into selling drums, nor do I endorse any drum manufactures, or companies. I'm always happy to offer an opinion, or suggest a few places to you that I've bought some of mine from, and been pleased.
In the past, I’ve bought many of my drums used, as I like giving a drum another life. Check places like Ebay, Craig’s List, and if you attend drum circles in your area, there are often people looking to sell one. With some brands of drums you pretty much know what it’s going to sound like. (ie: Remo, LP, etc) You can save a lot of money that way. With handmade drums I like to try them out before I buy them, because you can’t really tell the quality of them until you do. If you need to locate a drum circle to attend, try looking up your area at drum circle finder page:
If you are a bit new to hand drumming, or drum circles, choosing that first drum can be a bit daunting. If you need an opinion on anything that is drum circle, or hand drumming related, feel free to ask me. It may take me a day or two to get back to you, but I will.
Some of the past topics on this blog include: Picking that first djembe drum. Improving your drum circle facilitating or hosting style on a budget. Ways to get the word out and promote your drum circle. Trying to earn a living hosting, or facilitating drum circles. What that first drum circle was really like. Various ways to notate, vocalize, and start a drum circle rhythm. Reading written drum music. A long list of notated rhythms to try out in different styles. Drumming via webcam, & with special needs kids. The 3 lyric version of Fanga. How to start up a drum circle. Some of the social, physical & mental benefits of drum circles. Choosing a first drum for your child. Various ways to get free drum circle facilitation experience. Tips for drumming in the Winter, and Summer. Tuning a lug tuned djembe, conga, or doumbek, and replacing a drum head. Ways to mark, (identify) your drum. Finding a good doumbek drum on a budget, and various ways to tell their quality. Advice on sitting in with bands, drumming groups, and ways to learn playing by ear.
I hope some of these topics are helpful to you. Many of these posts are excerpts from my book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles”. It’s 300 pages, and it’s $8 on Kindle, or Nook. Physical copies are available at my website drumcircles.net or at Amazon. I include a facilitated drum circle jam CD if purchase from my site, (but not purchases on Amazon.)
Having a body of drum circle rhythms at the ready helps to keep your drum circle fresh and interesting. Playing the same beat over and over is okay for a while, because you can find things to play within it, but it gets a bit old after awhile. I have a 2 hour DVD titled, “101 Drum Circle Rhythms” for $17. I include a free drum circle jam CD if it’s purchased direct from me at my website:
You can check out a video with a few drum rhythm samples there. My DVD is also available at Amazon for a few bucks more, or as a digital download for $14. Just search on the title to find it.(But again, no free CD, unless purchased from my site.)
I have some 2 CD sets of drum circle music for $10, and they are also available at most mp3 retailers, (iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby.com, etc) Again, you can listen to a variety of live drum circle jams at my site, and download a number of them free. Offering a good value for the money to fellow musicians, is what I’m all about.
Resources for hand drummers, and drum circles, provided by an independent experienced musician. Please visit my website www.drumcircles.net It’s a sole proprietorship owned by Shannon Ratigan.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
As a musician, performer, or drum circle facilitator, I am being judged and critiqued all the time. Something many musicians are very sensitive about. People don’t like to be criticized especially when it comes to the way they are playing music. Your soul is wide open and out there for everyone to see. And you are at your most vulnerable.
As a musician, or a facilitator, I think you need to be as well rounded as you possibly can. If you want to work a lot, or even get work, you should be able to play any genre of music at all, any style of music, at any tempo, and, ideally, be able to figure out and play anything within a few measures of music. That’s the goal I think you should try and grow towards. This makes you a better all around musician, and facilitator.
One way to get better at this is to sit in, or play by ear, with different bands every chance you can get. If it’s a casual setting, and you ask politely, they will likely allow you to sit in for a number or three. Or go to a few “open mic’s” and sit in with whomever you can. Even if it’s just one guy on an acoustic guitar. Are you going to get it every time right away? No. But that’s how you grow faster. A true musician can play anything at all in the drop of a hat. Many times, when I sit in with a band, I have absolutely no idea what they are about to play. Because most of time, they don’t tell you. So if you start out softly with a simple all around basic pattern, that you can adjust it to within 10 or 15 seconds, then you can adjust it, build it from there. With most local bands, the songs, or jams, they are usually playing cover songs, so I have a general idea what’s going on musically even if they have their own version of it. I either start out with a 4/4 downbeat bass pulse, or I use a sort of Latin default beat that sounds sort of like, badum ba Slap, (pause) badum ba Slap, (and repeat).
That works in just about any song they throw at me, unless it is a swing, or blues tune, that’s in 6/8. Come up with a default start of your own for 6/8 and 4/4, and you can launch into it, and adjust to anything right away. Generally speaking, percussion follows, and the drummer leads, so it is a bit easier sitting in with a group. Almost every song or jam is in 4/4 time, or 6/8.
The important thing is not to throw them off by trying off beat things, solos, fancy things, or showboating. It will throw off the drummer, and then it’s a thank you please leave the stage nod after one song. I find that if I just stay on the rhythm and hold it steady, that’s when the band will love having you sit in. Possibly even the rest of the gig. If you keep it solid on the downbeat, and steady - then they will just start another song, and you find yourself playing an entire set of music with them Because my role in that setting is to enhance or reinforce their rhythm, thereby helping to make the band sound better. The band has been playing together for a long time, and they can feel the reinforcement, if you give it to them.
I don’t have hands of fire, nor am I an amazing percussionist. But I can hold a beat solid, and hear, feel, and see the musical cues that a change is coming, or that the song is about to end in 8 to 12 measures. It takes some practice to catch the cues, and feel the end of the song coming, but just doing that has gotten me a few guest gigs, and I was even asked to join up with a few bands, which I did. So you don’t have to be an amazing musician to get work. You just have to be steady, solid, and aware, to notice the band cues. Other than keeping solid time, the most important thing is to not play a beat past the end of the song. That obviously makes them look bad. (and me too!) So, 3 to 4 minutes into a song, I am completely focused, looking for an upcoming cue that the song is about to end. Then I am ready for it when it happens. Most of the time, jams are a lot of improvisation, so the band leader will just turn around and give a glance to the rest of the band. That is the cue that it is near the end, so I am waiting, and ready for it. Boom! Right at the end.
A few times I thought it was the end a bit prematurely, (premature undulation). So I never make my ending notes too enhanced, or loud. If it happens where I thought it was the ending and it is not, I can sneak a bass pulse back in right away and continue on like nothing went wrong. Often times, it is only me that noticed I messed up. So I quickly get back on tempo and be ready again.
Often during a set of music, they will play a song that I just can’t get solidly. It happens, too many time changes, or simply I can’t get the groove on that one. So I fake it as best as I can until the next song comes mercifully along. If I can get 7 out of 8 songs, the band is going to be happy with me sitting in. The point is, not to let it throw you off your stride. An example for me is the Allman brothers. I love their music, but some of it has so many changes in it, that it gives me trouble. Most bands tend to play their songs a bit differently, and for some reason some of them give me fits.
Most bands will not take advantage of you, but if you have sat in with them a few times, and they start asking you to show up at gigs with them, then maybe it’s time to ask for a little bit of pay.
When I see a band performing that I want to approach to sit in with, the first thing I do is watch and study them for a set, maybe half hour or so, then I can better familiarize myself with their sound and their style. Sometimes, it’s even for the next time I see them in a more casual relaxed setting, where sitting in isn’t such a big deal for the band. It depends on how high profile the venue is. I try to visualize in my mind what I would be playing on their songs. That seems to help me a lot.
When I do ask to sit in, I always make it a point to try and put them at ease. I say, “I’m a percussionist and have my djembe with me. Would it be okay if I sit in for a song? I promise nothing fancy. I’ll keep it steady, and just follow the beat.” When they hear something honest like that, it increases your chances. Most bands have had someone sit in at some point, and it was a disaster. It happens. So I try to give them confidence in me right away, that I’m not going to get up there and try to be a show off. I just want to fit in.
Sitting in with various bands over the years, really did help me a lot. Probably even more than my musical training did. It taught me to be able to play just about anything by ear. I learned to play things by feel, and how different musicians and bands communicate with non verbal musical cues. The more I sat in with, the better I got at playing anything they threw at me. During the middle of a song or jam, I can settle in a bit and not have to be too concerned about the ending coming up and catching me by surprise. It takes a little extra concentration and focus when a band does original music, because I have no idea whatsoever of the changes, or where the ending might come up. The whole thing is rather exciting.
When I first started doing it, honestly, I was terrified. I was worried I would mess up the band, not know what to play and when – all sorts of things would go through my head. I never liked to make eye contact with the crowd watching. If I did, I would be distracted thinking stupid things like are they are watching me to see when I screw up? Just learning to fit in and constantly watching all the band members out of the side of my eye, took some practice. I can’t just stand there and stare at my drum because I don’t want to see who is watching me. I have to focus on the band, so I can fit in with the band. That’s what I’m there for in the first place. If I am confident, having a good time, the band is having a good time, then the crowd is also. And they can tell how you are feeling.
I learned early on as an actor doing theatre, to look out just above the crowd, and not make eye contact. However, it looks to them like I am. And that seems to work for me. I also learned that being nervous or even scared, is just a hairs length away from being excited. All I had to do was say to myself, “I am excited to be doing this!” After all, everyone else is out there sitting and watching wishing they were up here playing and doing what I’m doing right now. So if you feel the nerves coming on, just tilt that fear a tad to excitement. The two emotions are so close to each other it’s surprising. Just remember, I am excited to be doing this. If you feel uncomfortable and the nerves are getting to you, the audience can sense that also, so this is really important.
I worked on The Tonight Show as a guest a number of times. I had been performing and acting for years, but standing there for the first time behind that wall about to go out on stage shook me to the core. After all this is live TV in front of a live audience. If I screw up out there, over 20 million people are going to see it, let alone never work on the show again. There are no second takes on live TV. I recalled the fear being so close to excitement. So I shook it off, and said to myself, “Hey I’m about to go out on live TV! How many people get to do this? Screw this, I’m excited!” I went out and did my best, and everything was fine. The skit was hilarious, and I was asked to come back and work for them over and over again. Confidence, focus, and excitement wins the day.
So if you have thought about sitting in with a band, I encourage you to give it a try. Just keep it basic, steady, and simple. They will love you for it, and the rush of having a band enjoy your work feels mighty good.
Drumming In Your Travels, And On Vacations
We make it a point to do a 7 day get away once a year. Usually it’s during the Thanksgiving Holiday. That seems to be when work is the slowest, and the prices are the lowest. As a performer, actor, and musician, my work life is pretty much day to day. I never know when the phone is going to ring with a gig or an audition, so I need to be available year round all the time. Or, they will start calling somebody else.
Even if it’s an extreme low budget camping trip, I have to give myself and my brain a complete rest from everything. It’s not a laptop, I can’t defrag my mind, or clean its registry errors. The phone calls, emails, social media, the news, everything. If we could, I would do it 4 times a year, but we make do with once. I turn off all the electronics that bind, and leave them off for one week. Years ago, I would say, “Well I have to check my answering machine or email! What if I’m missing a job?” Well, I’m away anyway, so what’s the point? So I would disrupt my relaxed state, and check it on the 3rd or 4th day. Doing that really didn’t help things very much, but it did take me completely out of the relax and enjoy mode, and then back into work mode. That’s the reason I needed a get away! So all my electronics are off, and they stay that way for one week. That’s not such a sacrifice really is it? The world can wait a week.
I need a mental break from everything. If somebody does contact me while we’re gone, I can always write them a note explaining why I couldn’t instantly get back to them, like we are expected to do these days. I contact my agents and so forth before we leave, and let them know I will be unavailable for a week. Most of them vacay at the same time anyway.
So, if I play music for a living, why would I want to do that when I’m away on holiday? Simple, I put my heart into music. It’s what I love to do, even in my spare time. The advantage of sitting in with bands is that even though I need to focus and concentrate, I can loosen up and have more fun because this is not an actual gig for me. I have no idea what is going to happen, and how things are going to go. I trust in myself, and let things unfold. I like to challenge myself musically and try new things out. Take a chance, even a risk or two. That’s why I still love sitting in, and improvising.
Over the years, I’ve seen lots of guitar players and other musicians bring along their instruments when traveling. Many of them have said to me, “I never travel anywhere without my axe!” For us, hauling along a drum can be a bit cumbersome, but the times I’ve done it, I was very happy I went to the trouble and did so.
Hey, you never know when you might stumble into some sort of a drumming emergency! Maybe it’s a band you can sit in with, a group of street musicians jamming, a drum circle, or event. When it happens and I don’t have a drum, I smack my forehead and have one of those “doh” moments. If only I had brought my dog-gone drum, I could have a little impromptu fun. It’s also a great way to meet people, mix with the locals, and even share in some culture. So now, I always travel with a doumbek, or my travel djembe. I don’t like to bring my best djembe drum in case of it getting damaged, or something else that might happen to it. My aluminum doumbek is light enough to carry over my shoulder in a gym bag, or if I can, I like to bring a lightweight fiberglass shell Toca djembe. It’s not too expensive of a drum, and it’s my “harsh conditions” beater drum. It’s pretty good sized, it has a 14 inch goatskin head on it, so it packs a good punch, and has reasonably authentic sound. It’s lug tuned, so even in high humidity, I can quickly tune it as needed.
The head that came on it new was rather thin, and it popped after a few months of playing. I had it re-headed with a very good quality skin. And now, it sounds about as good as a fiberglass / goatskin head drum can, and it’s pretty easy to transport in my djembe bag. I either just sling it over my shoulder, or I use a small rolling luggage rack, so I can easily roll it along with my other luggage. To protect it, I cut out a piece of thin paneling, (about ¼ thick), just big enough to cover the edges of the drum head, and place it under the drum, with the head facing down. On the drum, I have a djembe cover, (which I recommend for anyone).
And under that, I have a round piece of thick cardboard I place under the drum cover just in case I bump it against something. It gives it a little extra protection. An easy way to do it, is to find a good piece of thick cardboard, lay the drum down on it, and draw a circle around it with a magic marker. Remove the drum, and cut out the circle. I like to do two of them, and tape them together with that blue painters tape. Then it’s nice and thick. So the cardboard protector goes under the djembe hat, then the drum inside the case, then lay it upside down on the ¼ wood board on the luggage rack. A few bungee cords to keep it from falling off, and It makes it easy to move around, and I’m good to roll.
Admittedly, I don’t get to travel very much these days, let alone take a vacation, with the economy the way it has been the last few years. We wanted to take a 7 day Caribbean cruise really badly for our birthdays, and wedding anniversary combined this year. So, like a lot of people, we really tightened our belts all year long to save up for it. We stopped and thought a little harder before buying anything, stopped going out to dinner once a month, (like we used to do), and everything else we could cut back on, so we could save up. Generally speaking, it seems the most inexpensive time for cruises is right around the Thanksgiving holiday. We managed to find a last minute schmeal deal for $500 each. If you figure what a regular get-away would cost, the travel cost, dinners out, and entertainment, it actually is a very nice yet economical vacation with no driving, or responsibility. Another form of vacation can cost $100 a day easily, so cruises are a very good value for the money. The only thing you need to watch with these cruise ship prices, is sometimes they don’t mention the port charges, and taxes. That can hike the cost significantly, sometimes as much as $150 each or more. Be sure you have the total cost.
We always book the least expensive cabin, sometimes you get a room upgrade free, and how much time do you really spend in the cabin? We sleep there, and that’s about it. So the window or balcony thing is out for us, it jacks the price way too high. At first, I thought I would feel claustrophobic, but it’s not that big a deal. We sleep there, and are out having fun and doing things the rest of the time. These days the cruise lines just seem to want to fill the rooms, and then they figure they can make up the profits with the passengers gambling in the casino, buying drinks, and port tours. We don’t drink other than a glass of wine now and then. And we don’t gamble, so they probably don’t like us very much but, on the average, most passengers do. We do however like to take a tour or two in the ports, wander the towns, buy a few goodies and gifts, and so on.
Even on the lower end cruise lines, the dining is above average, and the entertainment in the show lounges is pretty good. You can spend the whole day eating if you want, and most of it is included. We just like being out on the ocean, and wandering in the ports. Seeing a show after a nice dinner together for 7 nights, is something fun to look forward to.
Anyway, I always bring my drum, and this past year was no exception. I was so happy I did, because as soon as we boarded, I noticed that the deck band was a smoking hot reggae hip hop group. I studied them a bit, and the next day at sea, they let me sit in once after I asked. It went so well, they let me finish the set, and afterwards said I could sit in with them when I felt like it. That was cool. (I attached a few photos.) Usually if you find the band leader, and ask nicely they will let you play a tune or two. Like I mentioned earlier, if I just keep it simple, and ride the downbeat of the rhythm, they like having a little percussion added to their sound. If I do well enough, and show that I’m an ensemble player, and not there to showboat or something like that, I might get an open invitation to sit in. This particular band had a very good front man, and he gave good musical cues for time changes, coming to the end of a song, and so on. So, it was pretty easy to stay on the rhythm, and not to mess up and play on after a song ended. After all, I don’t want to make them look bad, or myself either. I think I sat in with them during five days for a number of sets, and had a blast doing it.
There is also a main show band orchestra usually. Forget sitting in on their shows, but on most cruise lines, for two nights during the week, they have a jazz jam in one of the smaller lounges. It’s a more casual setting, and they are usually more open to it. That is some serious fun if you can get it. The first song is the critical one. If you do well, they might let you stay up there for a few sets. It’s almost a form of an audition. I treat every sit in situation like it’s an audition. Hey, you never know, it just might actually be one.
So I was having a ball playing with the bands on board pretty much every day, except when we were in the ports of call. The 1st one was Roatan in the Honduras. We had a tour scheduled, but I had an hour before it departed. At the dock was a group of 3 local drummers, and a few dancers. They were jamming and dancing away for the tourists. They had a tip bucket out in front of them, and obviously they were trying to earn a few bucks every time a ship came into port.
I love sitting in with the local drummers whenever I can. I get to know them a little bit, even though we don’t even speak the same language. We communicate through music. What a fun, honest way to get to know people this is. I always try to respect what they are doing, respect their culture, and their musical rhythms. After all, I am the visitor there. I watched them for 15 minutes, and noticed pretty much every rhythm they played was in 6/8 time, ie: like the Mother Rhythm. This was one tight group of drummers. One of them was an amazing soloist, he was just blazing good. The other two just held down the support rhythm, and the dancers did their thing, working the crowd.
At a break, I mentioned I was a drummer, (using hand drumming gestures, and pointed towards a drum). I then gestured could I play a little bit with them. They agreed and one of them handed me his drum. It is a rather unusual hand made drum. The drum rim is made from a piece of curved bamboo. Playing it took some getting used to, but it was a goatskin drum, and I was going to jam on it. (See photos)
Okay, cool. In this situation, I wanted to demonstrate that I respect their native drum rhythms, so I waited for them to start playing, and then join in. Again just like with sitting in with bands, I play the 6/8 support rhythm they are playing and hold it down. After a 10 minute or so jam, they all turned to me and smiled. That’s about the nicest feeling in the world. They gestured for me to start up a rhythm, so I did. I chose Fanga, figuring they may not have heard it before. It’s in 4/4 time, so it was a little different for them. They jumped on it, and we had one sweet sounding jam going. The soloist started doing his thing, and I have to tell you it was about as much fun drumming as one could ask for. Ten minutes on, and the tips were flying in for them. I was feeling good I could help them along a little bit, and share their culture with them. I got up to leave, and they all gestured for me to stay and play one more. Alright then, I gestured for them to please start one this time, and I would join in. We went on to our tour of a rescued animal island, did some swimming, and ate some lunch. What a good time that was.
The other port I found a group of drummers jamming was Belize. They were playing the same design of drum I saw in Roatan. It had the same 1” bamboo rim, wood shell, and double sided goatskin heads. It looks kind of like a home made djun dun. There were 3 of them jamming out some 6/8 grooving beats. There were no dancers, but these guys were even better drummers than the last port. Unfortunately for them, they were a short distance from the dock, in a craft market, and not next to the passengers leaving the ship. So they weren’t getting much traffic, or tips for that matter. In fact there was no tourists around them. Most were out on tours, or didn’t want to venture outside the pier area with the locals. But that’s what my wife and I want, is to see, and support the local artisans, and buy crafts from them. We bought a few gifts, and I made a B line to the drummers drumming. This group spoke a little broken English, so I was able to communicate a little easier. I asked if I could sit in, and they agreed. They were a very friendly group, and they were playing just for the sake of making music. Playing for their own enjoyment, because nobody else was around. But again, we did most of our talking through the music. Other than saying hello, and asking to play, the rest was though the rhythms. We took turns starting out rhythms and shared culture with each other. I felt so blessed. I had the best time, and I got to meet, and get to know a few of the locals like nobody else did. We bought a few craft items from them, and said goodbye. It was back on board for a day at sea. Not so bad, I love the days at sea the best, and the deck band awaits.
On one of the days at sea, they have an ice carving demonstration up on deck. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this done, but they are true artisans. How anyone can chop these beautiful figures from a huge block of ice is beyond me. I’ve seen it done before a few times, as my wife and I like to take a cruise on the years we can afford it. The ice carver takes around 15 minutes to complete his sculpture, and I recalled that they chop with these various sized chisels at a very fast speed. But like most things in life, they are done to a rhythm. I asked the Staff member hosting the event if I could play djembe drum rhythms to the ice carving instead of the canned music they usually play for it. I explained that I would play to his rhythms, and keep the volume low if she needed to speak, I would play at his pace, and it would be an interesting blend of culture for the passengers to watch. Somehow I convinced them, and away he went, chopping like mad. But it had a nice steady rhythm to it. Within 5 seconds I was matching it with drum rhythms. He smiled once I was into it, and gave me an approving smile. I nodded thank you, and we did an ice chopping djembe rhythms duet. It was just him, and I. All the drumming was in 4/4 time, and I changed the rhythm slightly every 12 measures, so it wasn’t to repetitive. The tiny bits of ice chips were flying around in the air, and they were in unison with the drumming. This was one cool event. I always wanted to drum to the ice carving rhythm. (See the photo, you can see the tiny ice chips flying bottom left.) So sit it whenever, and wherever you can. It’s fun.
Keep on drumming!