Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My First Drum Circle Experience

I encountered my first drum circle in the summer of 1977 at Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to be hooked on it right then for life. I had no idea that first drum circle I ran into would change my life so greatly and in so many different ways, and that I could bring so much joy to so many people and even enrich their lives through hand drumming.

So there I was one day, slowly driving down this long one way trail of the park, just wanting to get away from it all, and a little time and space away from the routine of city life. Just see some trees, the water, and nature. To give myself a little break from the concrete and chaos of the city life for a little while.

Anyway, in this park, there were these little picnic clearings about every 1/4 mile or so along the trail surrounded by all this lush green tropical foliage. It was relaxing to take a break there, a place for me to get away from it all for a little while. At one of these clearings, I slowed and saw this circle of about 20 people all sitting around playing these hand drums together. Mostly hand drums, Congas, Bongos, and all kinds of other percussion instruments. I turned down my car radio when I heard it, and listened a little. Man, it was cool. The sound of all the drumming was so captivating, that I pulled over and kind of tentatively wandered over there. I couldn‘t help it. I just smiled and listened, enjoying the Samba rhythm they were playing. It had all these different layers, textures, and dimensions. And it was only hand drums, and it sounded so good. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It wasn’t like playing in a band is like, they were all improvising, having a good time, playing what they were feeling, and letting it go wherever it took them.

While I had played in the high school marching band drum line, and various night club bands, it was nothing like this. It was drawing me in closer and closer, the drum beat almost calling to me. They were having what looked like a private picnic, so I didn’t want to interrupt them. I didn’t know who they were, they all looked to be of Latin decent to me. As it turned out they were all Puerto Rican, and only spoke a few bits and pieces of English. And I spoke no Spanish at all.

There were kids, adults, elders, males, and females. All of them were playing together and having a great time. I was standing there trying to figure out some kind of a polite way to ask if I could join in. But before I could, the rhythm ended, and they all applauded each other. It was obvious they weren’t performing for anyone, just for themselves. How cool is this, I thought. They motioned for me to come on over with gestures, and indicated that I could join in if I wanted to.

Boy, did I! I hopped on some Congas and proceeded to hang out and jam with them for hours, playing mostly Latin rhythms. They welcomed me, invited me to break bread with them, and treated me like family, and I really appreciated it. That meant a lot to me. Even though we spoke different languages, and couldn’t really verbally understand each other, we were able to communicate through the music. The language barrier didn’t seem to matter. That day gave me a whole new perspective on life, and a new found respect for different cultures I knew nothing about. It showed me for the first time, how to bridge the cultural gap. It was only after I had some time home later that night to reflect on all this. It was an epiphany of sorts.

I usually drove through there on the weekends, but I never did see that particular group again, they affected me profoundly in so many ways. I think they were just there on vacation, but they were the ones who started me on my drum circle path. Ever since then I would seek out and attend drum circles whenever I could - wherever I ended up living. In an instant I had become a drum circle lover. Most of the drum circles back in those days were held on weekends, outdoors in parks and on the beaches. They were all mostly freestyle drum circles with no leader, facilitator, or core group. It was just an organic bunch of people hanging out and playing. Whoever wanted to start out the next rhythm would do so, and if it took off, away it went.

Fast forward to the present in 2016, a lot of people think a drum circle is just a bunch of banging noise with no real discernible beat to it. Well, guess what? Sometimes that’s exactly what it is. A lot of banging noise. Especially at outdoor open community drum circles. Sometimes there is no musicality present at all. It feels better if it sounds good. But at that very same place, the next week, it can be a group made up of mostly the same people, but this time it is some quality music with real performance level musicianship.

The kind of musical pieces like I described earlier, that simply captivate you and draw you into it. A drum circle where the people are all listening to each other, taking turns leading, even passing it around so everyone gets a chance to start out a rhythm if they want to. All these people have come together as a group with a real synergy to it. Some of the absolute very best drum circles I have ever been to were just free style drum circles out on the beach. And, some of the crappiest ones also. That’s part of the fun. The unpredictability of it. You don’t know what it will be like until you get there. Will it be magical this week?

Shannon Ratigan

Friday, July 22, 2016

What to Charge for a Drum Circle? – Rates Pricing & Venues

So what is the current average price drum circle facilitators charge for providing all the drums, percussion, and facilitating a drum circle? The short answer? 300 bucks, (one person facilitating, and for under 100 people). And that’s doing it on the cheap. There really is no set pricing scale, it’s where you live, what the market, current economy will bear, and what groups can afford.

Many of us use a sliding scale for pricing. Anywhere from $100 to $600 depending on for who, how long, how many, and how far away. Most of us will do a few no charge charity circles a year. I try to do at least 2 or 3, but we have to at least try to cover our expenses. There are others who won't even negotiate with you for under $500 for an hour circle. Then there are the ones that jet into town from out of state with a few large tubs of drums and get $5000 for two 1 hour circles. Most of them are backed by brands, and have national exposure. That doesn't necessarily mean they are better, a regional facilitator with at least 10 years experience will give you an excellent music making drum circle experience at a much lower price. So there is no real set pricing, or specific protocols that need to be followed.

I was able to determine the going rates to charge mainly because of my drum circle finder. I have been updating it for 16 years, and in the process communicated with a lot of facilitators or hosts. Over the course of updating it I often saw rates in different areas, and many times spoke or emailed with the organizers.

When you do book and confirm a gig, I get half the cost at least 2 weeks in advance, and collect the balance when I arrive to do the job, or I ask for or the entire amount at booking. I used to just ask for a check when I arrived, but times have changed, I’m getting older, and this job is harder. If it’s an ongoing client, then I ask for a check when I arrive. Most want an invoice of some sort. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complex, just make a Word doc. You can change for each job. All the basic stuff, client, date, address, contact numbers, the hiring person, the rate, time, drum circle length, and so on will suffice in most cases. Some things like public events they already have an invoice, and you fill them out. With things like working in schools you can end up doing more paperwork and time spent than you do on the actual job. But it is for kids, so it’s worth the trouble. Many of them get into music and make it a part of their lives because of you.

Because of my drum circles website, also starting around 1999, many people would ask me various questions about different aspects of drum circles. How to start one up, what to charge, ruthless competitors, dealing with djembe cowboys, all sorts of things. I offer to answer questions on my website via email, sometimes over the phone, and I still do. I mention that if you have a question, or need an opinion about anything drum circle related, I’m happy to try and help. I believe musicians and artists should help and support each other. People helped me to learn along the way coming up, so I try to give back. Many musicians feel that way, and enjoy helping others to grow so they can enjoy making music more.

I also worked as an actor in LA for 20 years, and even though we were often up for the same role, and competing against each other to put food on the table – there was still a common respect for each other. Working in various bands it was the same way, only we were competing for venues. Most drum circle facilitators are caring and good people that are more than happy to share some advice, and help someone new getting started.

But there is a flip side, and I’ve heard this over and over from many different people. I can’t understand why in almost every market in the country there seems to be a facilitator who has to be the number one go to person no matter what. What’s worse, is they put up a false front about how nice they are, all the wonderful things they do, and at the same time behind the scenes, they are trying to run the competition out of business. For about the last 5 years, the most common problem issue people from all over the country have asked me is someone trying to run them out of business. We should be working together, not against each other. There is plenty of work out there for all of us. Some of them are just plain sociopaths. Putting out negative anonymous posts on social media, stealing elements of websites, even things like “work for them, or you don’t work at all”.

I’ve had all of that just like many others, had ongoing clients poached from me by drum manufacturer backed facilitators from out of the state. They can do it by offering cut rates, the promise of a drum grant, and many other ways. That is just wrong, not much we can do about it either. Again, I’m just a person trying to put food on the table for my family.

Anyway, as it turned out, I kept getting asked a lot of the same questions over and over, I was becoming a sort of drum circle tech support. So, about 9 years later I decided to write a book about drum circles. It is 300 pages of text., and the title is A Practical Guide to Hand Drumming and Drum Circles. ($8). It’s actually more like 3 books in one. I put all my experience, everything I’ve learned and (unlearned ) in there. Everything from facilitating, learning hand drumming, facilitating styles, covering the art, and practical approaches to facilitating or hosting one.
I haven’t exactly traveled the country, but I’ve lived on both coasts, and been to 1000’s of drum circles over the years. So my pricing is based on that, and speaking with many others through my site and drum circle finder.

Some, (like myself) work on a pricing flat rate, or a sliding scale like I mentioned. Some manage with love donations, drum rental for an average of $10 - $15 per person, a percentage of sales, and various other means. And some get non profit status where they can pay themselves, some get sponsors, and/or grants. (Try your local arts counsel, or state arts funding groups. I've applied for them a number of times, but never managed to get one. But I do know that some people get them.) Most of the arts funding goes to other disciplines like painters, sculptors, dancers, and etc.

If you can get a regular ongoing gig, that generates lots of other jobs because of the constant community exposure. Event planners see you, someone wants one for a party or reception, group gathering, even session work. So a low cost weekly circle or a home base is a great way to generate work. Even if that weekly gig only pays $100 a night just barely covering expenses. It’s the onlookers and word of mouth that brings you the better paying work. As I mentioned, my average price is 2 circles for $300. I want to give them a full music making experience, and a good value for their money.

My pricing scale is pretty competitive if you figure the going rates around the country. I charge $100 for non profits, churches, senior groups, etc. They have very limited recreation budgets and most of the time, that’s all they can afford. For most public events, an all day multiple drum circle school session, a business - corporate event, I will quote from $400 to $600. If it’s more than 100 people, I hire a helper, they need to be paid, so a little more is added onto the cost.

Some can pay more, but that’s up to you to figure out. If it’s far to drive, a public event, if you need to hire a second facilitator, etc. There’s a lot of variables. Even things like if all the gear has to be hauled up a couple flights of stairs. How close can I get my vehicle to unload, and how far is it to the playing area? Can you provide a few helping hands to carry my gear? That will lower the price because that saves me a lot of energy that I’d rather put into bringing the group the best drum circle music making experience that I can. With some events like wedding receptions there is drinking involved, so you have to factor things like that into the pricing because of the potential for damage.

Facilitated drum circle rates have gone down a lot in the last 10 years. There are a lot more facilitators around now. Many facilitators sideline as drum circle facilitator trainers, so there is a lot more competition these days. Lots of drum circle certification courses are out there, and almost every one claims to be the best. Being well rounded as a musician and a facilitator is important. Lots of untrained facilitators are being given a training course and figure they are ready. It takes a bit more than that. You can learn by doing, but I’ve seen some shabby work by new facilitators that can’t even keep time on a drum. Some that run around in the center waving instructions like some sort of classroom, and some using a cowbell only. On the other hand there are some truly gifted facilitators in almost every major market, and city in the country. They tend to work in their own areas so they aren’t that well known nationwide.

Most facilitators are good people and will at least be willing to work together, or share leads. I’ve had good working arrangements where if I had a booking conflict, I would offer the job for a small amount like 10% of the job price, 20 bucks, sometimes even a drum for the lead. And it went both ways. But there are those others. Rather than perhaps collaborating, maybe working together occasionally, some of them feel they have to be the number one in their market to earn more, feed their egos, or both. And, for whatever reason many have gotten a lot more ruthless about it. I’ve experienced a lot of it myself in the last decade since all the facilitator training workshops, and certifications have been cranking out students who are untrained in the real world.

So back to drum circle rates. I used to be able to charge around $500 for a drum circle, (sometimes two). When pitching the cost to a potential client, I would mention it’s $400 for a one hour drum circle, and since all my gear is already there, for $100 more I can do another one hour – so $500 for 2 one hour circles. That was then. Now it’s more like $300. $250 for the one hour, and $50 more to add a second hour. Most of the time they will accept that extra value.

Although the numerous and documented benefits of drum circles have become more widely known and accepted – most of the people who are hiring us have never even been to a drum circle, let alone have any concept what it is really like, or what’s involved with facilitating one. It is a foreign concept. The same goes with most people who contact us to facilitate for corporate, schools, events, on and on. The second most challenging thing beyond being a good facilitator, is simply trying to explain what it is to someone like this, and why having one will benefit people. Music tracks and visual aids like photos and short videos help a lot in a drum circle pitch.

Facilitating two 60 minute circles, or a 90 minute drum circle takes the better part of a day’s work to pull off, and most people don’t realize that. My drums are expensive to buy and maintain. There’s also the loading up, transport, unload, set-up, facilitate the circle, haul it all back home, unload again, and wear and tear on my drums.

An initial typical contact call or email can go like this: “I heard you do drum circles. So you can come and do one for free, right? You will get lots of exposure.” (Umm no.) I need to politely explain to them that no, I’m sorry but I just can’t. As much as I would like to for you, this is what I do for a living, and I have to charge something for it.

Some that want a drum circle for the first time actually think drums just magically appear...and people can play them. I am not kidding. I need to explain to them all the years it took of musical training, and experience it took to be able to do this professionally. I’ve put my heart, and my entire life into doing this…it’s kind of like the amount of work and dedication it took to be a “whatever the client does for a living”. (College, working up that ladder to become where they are in the job they are in, etc. I pause there, and then we usually negotiate a price after a few more emails.)

It doesn’t always pay a lot, even if they are endorsed by a drum manufacturer, had some over hyped specific training, sponsors, and so on. $3000 worth of gear, load it all up, drive for an hour, do the circles, and you end up netting a hundred bucks. It’s like that for a lot of musicians and facilitators. It’s called paying your dues, and doing some good in your community.

However, this work is tremendously beneficial to your heart. One week it’s a sorority group, the next, an entire school of kids, 6 circles back to back in a day. A session job for active seniors, where the camera is your drum circle group and you have to imagine them, and sometimes public events. For just a one on one drumming lesson I charge $40. For an extra person, $10 more. I provide the drums.

Everything’s gotten more expensive these days, especially things like insurance. I used to have all my drums in a trailer – but, not any more the insurance is way too high. These days insurance is very hefty for a trailer so I had to downsize. My gear is expensive, and I need some form of insurance. With mine, if all my gear is inside my vehicle, it’s covered. That saves me a lot. I had to sell a lot of my larger drums, and move towards smaller ones like doumbeks, darbukas, frame drums, I have about 15 of each. I also have at least one set of congas, a few sets of bongos, a dozen assorted size djembes, and a few other larger drums to round things out. Those sound shape drums are great for facilitators to round out your kit, because 2 dozen will fit in a cloth grocery bag. (Sometimes there are more people than expected, and they make a great way to fill out the inventory if needed. Plus, they are fun to play, and lots of people love playing them.) I had to get a large vehicle, it isn’t exactly green, but I can fit enough for 100 in there. All those years of playing Tetris paid off. Who knew? So that is one way to cut a few costs.

Find a Drum Circle Venue: A Craft Brewery, Pubs, Clubs, Cafe's, & etc.

Back around 2005, I hosted this drum circle at a craft brewery every Tuesday night for 3 years. My hope was that it would become firmly established and become a fixture and continue on long after I moved out of the area. Happily, a little bit of me is still there, it still goes on to this day, some 11 years later, and that makes me very happy.

Here's a little history on the brewery circle, and some general info on drum circles at casual drinking establishments:

While living in Florida, I got the idea to start up an indoor drum circle in 2005. I was looking for an indoor venue of any kind, somewhere that was air conditioned. I liked the Saturday night drumming to the sunset at the beach, but the summers there are very hot, and the sand gets all up in your drums. Not to mention the humidity, lack of bathrooms, places to eat, chairs to sit in, and even park the car reasonably close by. It’s a long hike with the djembe, percussion bag, fluids, and a chair. Parking at the pier was $12. so few of us did that. Most musicians including myself are way too cheap to pay that much to park so we could drum for a few hours, and the nearest free parking was about 800 yards.

That’s why I tried approaching a few Recreational - Community centers, night clubs and bars repeatedly every month with the idea, but had little success. Everyone I spoke with said it would never work, and many drummers said that trying to facilitate a drum circle at a place that serves alcohol is just plain crazy.

I went to a local craft brewery now and then. I loved the vibe of the place. I noticed that Tuesday was their slowest night of the week. So to me, having a drum circle seemed like a good alternative to the Tuesday, sparsely attended chess and techno music night that was going on at the time. I play chess myself, and don’t like the distraction of techno music at the same time. I never could figure that one out. I figured this had to be my best opportunity, I just had to try and convince them we weren’t a bunch of turtle mound stomping hippies.. I dropped in one afternoon and pitched the idea to the bar manager. He was reluctant at first, but after persisting with the idea for a few months, he agreed to try it out.

The condition I negotiated was that I would receive no pay unless they turned a profit in two weeks. It was a risky venture because of the drinking, and possible damage to my drums, but it worked. Within a month, the word had spread around, the place was packed, and it was hopping beyond my wildest imagination.

Good ol’ MySpace and newsgroups were about the only means of free promotion at the time, (this was 2005, pre-Facebook & Twitter). Other than that it was mostly word of mouth, making flyers to promote it and pass out, and signs out in front of the place that I’d made from those 2 foot abandoned political signs usually left out after elections. I figured I was helping clean up the off ramps and doing the city a favor, because usually they’d sit there for weeks or sometimes even months.

I’d paint them up white on both sides, and the next day paint some dark text on them. Most would say “Drum Circle” “Bellydancers Welcome” or, “Open Drum Circle” Drums provided”. Then a pointing arrow toward the establishment at the bottom. <---- I tried to make them as clean and professional as I could. Posting them the same day as the circle hours earlier on a telephone pole like a yard sale sign out front was surprisingly effective. In fact, it turned out to be the most effective promotional tactic. People driving by, going home from work saw them, and lots of general drive by traffic were caught by the curiosity factor, and made it a point to come check this thing out. As it happened lots of musicians like to play a hand drum, and there were numerous dance studios in the area. Many of the teachers and their students came by to check out the scene. It turned out to be the perfect blend. Musicians jamming to the graceful movement of dancers, with the onlookers being thoroughly entertained. Everyone was having fun, it was hard to get this thing to stop after 3 hours of straight playing.

My formula was similar to that of an open mic night. I invited local drummers, band members, drum makers, teachers, and instructors to come attend. In return for jamming with us, they could promote their items, shows, classes and workshops. I did the same with bellydancing studios. The key to it was making it fun, and accessible to everyone so they would want to come back. Variety was the thing. The rhythms needed to be challenging and interesting for the experienced musicians, but also not so complex that the beginners didn't feel lost.

An easy way to do that, is playing rhythms from different cultures. Uptempo Latin and African rhythms, as well as slower Native American, Bellydance, R & B Groove, and improv. That way, the variety keeps everyone wanting to come back next week. Some drum circles can fall into this pattern of playing the same default beat most of the time. That gets a little boring and frustrating for everybody.

The local drum circle took off right from the start. Like I mentioned, attracting musicians so they would come in and jam, and not charging a fee or cover at the door is what made it work. We just used the honor system to get people in. They wanted to support it and promote it, and it worked.

Most musicians don't like to pay a cover charge or a fee to get in. (Especially with drum circles.) But they will buy a beer, soda, or some food once they are in there, and network to their friends. They will support it once they are in there if it is fun. So the key is to make it fun.

It was a bit of a challenge to host an on going drum circle at a casual drinking establishment, but the vibe was always good, people had a blast, and the musicianship was even better. Three hours would go by like it was one. I noticed right away that almost all the locals would drink in moderation, so it never really became an issue. But sometimes, things do get damaged.

That circle became so popular, that musicians and onlookers came from all around Tampa, St. Pete, and even as far as Orlando just to check it out and play. We even had out of town musicians show up, usually while on vacation. Some of the other local clubs got pissed and tried to get it shut down at a city counsel meeting. They made claims that it was all riff-raff in there. Unfortunately for them a few of the board members were regulars at the circle and told them the truth. It is mostly decent professional working people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, and paths with demanding careers that just want to make music with new friends, be part of a social scene, drum out some stress and have a little fun. It was culturally diverse, and it brought our community together. How can you argue against that?

Around the country many night clubs, bars, and coffee shops are struggling to find working formulas for weeknights. Having a drum circle night quickly builds up a community around it with a loyal following that grows very quickly. The cost to do this is minimal, I've been doing this successfully for years at various venues. What's really needed is an organizer to help keep things running smoothly, and promote the drum circle. I look for a small base pay, tips, or a percentage of sales like 10%.

Because believe me, there is a lot of work involved. Also it isn't the drummers, musicians, or dancers that do the majority of buying your products. They will help support the venue and buy one or two, but it's the onlookers who are attracted and who will be buying most of the drinks and/or food. And it takes a few months to really get a drum circle community built up and established. I go into this in much more detail in my blog posts, and Kindle book about drum circles.

I’ve attended and organized drum circles for over 30 years, and facilitated them for living about 15. My general approach is treat it like a band gig. I prepare as much as I can, have a set-list of rhythms, and be ready to throw it out the minute things get going. I learned to just trust my instincts and feel how things should head, rather then forcing a protocol or next step. I found that just trusting my instinct, feeling the overall vibe, being spontaneous, organic, letting your personality out, and being honest always works.

So you have booked a venue, a cafĂ©’ new age shop, a rec center or the like. Now is the most important part. Making it fun for everybody each and every week. You have to mix it up a little. Playing a variety of ethnic rhythms is the way to go. Invite others to start or facilitate a rhythm. It has to be fun in order to have legs and work. Helpful hint: stay away from sports bars!

I have 3 goals I try to achieve at every drum circle. 1 is getting them playing a warm up rhythm on a body drum, to get them out of their heads thinking – and just playing. There is a healing energy in the body after a half hour of hand drumming, and I want them to genuinely feel it in their bodies. This has a stunning effect when you demonstrate it to them. But that comes later at the end.

Almost every time there will be brand new drummers so you have to make them feel welcome, but at the same time, not bore the more experienced musicians. Most of the gigs I get are people who have never played a drum before, so I have to adjust my set list accordingly for each gig. I just want to get them playing and creating. I let people know right away “Play whenever you want…play whatever you want – just follow the beat.” The support rhythm I’m playing is just a starting point. Add your voice, and take it wherever you want. Explore the unique sounds you can make with your drum.

I generally start with very little talk and go right to playing a warm up default drum circle rhythm, boom, sh-laka, boom, sha-laka…They find a place, and go. Jam it out, 4,3,2,1, rumble and acknowledgement applause. Then take a minute to talk about hand technique, volume, and away to the next rhythm. I usually go with something Native American like heartbeat. It helps to ground that downbeat for later to come.

To introduce rhythm, I like to vocalize the 1st few measures of a rhythm as I play it. As Babatunde Olatunji, said, “If you can say it, you can play it.”. As much respect as I have for him, I use the go do pa ta method in schools, and lessons. I find that people can process the Mid-East style, or funny sayings, a little faster. Especially at a party atmosphere reception. “Yum Yum, tastes like chicken. (pause) Yum Yum, tastes like chicken”… That is always a fun rhythm.

After a few rhythms, it’s a great time to try the two people laying down in the center, 2 at a time for a few minutes each. I bring two yoga mats, (or beachtowels if the vehicle is too cram packed.) How it works is like this: About half way through the circle, I lay 2 yoga mats in the center of the circle before the next rhythm. I ask for 2 people - if they want to REALLY feel the healing power of the drum, I ask them to carefully lay down on them for a few minutes. (Starting applause for them helps.) I ask them to lay flat on them, arms to their sides, and close their eyes while we play a rhythm for a few minutes. When I offer up the idea, there are always a few takers on that one. And when they get up, the faces say it all. It’s powerful to feel the drum downbeat absorbed into your body.

Up until now, everything is headed toward my 2nd goal, guiding the group toward it’s musical synergy. I’m working toward a group dynamic that forms, and everyone can feel it. I’m like a tourguide – I’m going to go with them to all these different places and cultures, and I’m going to experience it with them. I’m a firm believer that I play a drum the entire time. I want that connection. After the group dynamic is formed I can back down a bit. But the fact is, that sometimes on gigs you end up “pulling the cart” for the 1st half hour, sometimes longer, so you have to be able to have good time, and be able to hold a good down beat.

Generally speaking, if it sounds good, it feels good. Once you have that group dynamic going you have them eating out of your hands, no matter how inebriated they may be. Make it fun, try those inexpensive belly dance wrap skirts. I bring 2. Ask who wants to try it? It gets everyone laughing when the guys get in there. I sometimes bring hula hoops also. It depends on the location and vibe of the reception. Get a few of those going around the perimeter, and it ramps up the fun.

When time’s up, ask them if they want to do one more. (hopefully an enthusiastic YES! And do one uptempo.) Then comes goal 3 the real eye opener. “Feel the healing energy of the drum, in your hands and bodies”.

This is the one where at the end of the drum circle, I ask them to all stand up still in a circle, and hold their palms open and outstretched, opposite to each person next to them, and palms opposite facing each other,. Hold your palms outstretched directly above each other’s palms, about 12 inches apart. Now slowly compress your hands to the other person without actually touching them to about an inch. Slowly compress your hands up and down slowly a few times and feel that energy. The oh’s and ah’s as they feel it compress – they are feeling their chi, or mojo in their bodies (some for the very 1st time). This is very powerful. Next, turn their hands into themselves, to let the healing power reach inward, into your bodies. Start from your head, and work it down slowly. This is incredibly powerful when you feel it for the first time. This whole process takes about 3 – 5 minutes. It leaves a lasting impression.

That’s why I try to get everyone to drum, on a real drum for at least a half an hour. To get this energy of the drum flowing in them. All you have to do then, is demonstrate it to them at the end of the circle.

I do keep a drum circle treasure chest off to the side with tambourines, shakers, maracas, etc. to entice the shy to play. Later when they see how much fun playing a drum looks, they get in there. As much as I like Sound Shapes for rounding out my kit, you can’t get the healing energy in your soul playing one. Sorry Remo, I love you and all. Most of my djembe drums are drunk-resistant thanks to you, PVC LP's, Pearl, Toca’s, aluminum doumbeks, congas, and bongos.

I much prefer the organic full rich sound of goatskin heads, but for facilitating this kind of job, only drums that can take a little abuse. Bongos have cowhide heads and can take a lot of pounding. Things do get dropped and/or broken, so I add in a little “inebriation damage fee” into my price quote.

It’s surprising the amount of engagement everyone has at a drum circle, and how much they truly appreciate and love drumming – especially with family members. Their expressions and smiles will be permanently etched on your face. Later at night when I get home and unload – have time to reflect – it affects me deeply.

Ultimately, I just get rhythms started and let people play. It’s a drum circle for heaven’s sake, not rocket science. It doesn’t have to be all complicated and full of protocols, games pie slicing, and activities. Drum up some fun playing rhythms from around the world. Let your personality out, and with your calm and reassuring manner, watch the volume, and they will quickly enjoy playing together, connect with you, and end up experiencing the healing energy of the drum. Many people take up drumming after a single drum circle and it becomes a part of their lives forever. A place to go when things are down, or even looking up. It’s especially great for the kids. Many go on to join school band.

My 300 page book, “A Practical Guide to Hand Drumming and Drum Circles” is $8 on Kindle or Nook. Please visit the main site for more info. My 2 hour DVD “101 Drum Circle Rhythms” is also on Amazon. It is the perfect tool to help keep a drum circle fresh and interesting week after week.

Check out my drum circle finder that I mentioned, where you can locate drum circles near you in your state. It’s been online since 1999, there's over 1000 listed, and still growing. Also a global drum circle finder. The listings are updated monthly. If you get one going, let me know and I will add it to the database. Just visit my site: - I also have sample set list you can download and use.

I hope some of this article is helpful to you, and it gives you a few ideas if you plan on working as a drum circle facilitator, and an idea what to charge for your services. Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, based on my own experiences, and from speaking with many others around the country. My advice? Don’t stick with just one approach. Study with as many different facilitators as you can. If the cost is an issue, attend their events and watch what works, and what does not. Most do public events you can attend a few times a year. Participate, and observe them. You learn different things from each one. Use all methodologies, approaches, styles, and be well rounded. Some are in it for the love, and some are in it for the money. It's easy to spot the difference. Just be you.

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Free Djembe Drum Rhythms DVD Contest & Drum Circle Finder Updates

Hey drum circle lovers, Halloween drum circles are just around the corner. Post a funny caption to the skully the drummer pic on the FB page & the funniest one wins a 101 Drum Circle Rhythms DVD & drum jam CD shipped free to anywhere in the world. There's still 10 days to add a winning caption, or vote for the one you think is the best. Entries must be on the FaceBook page:

Here's a sample clip from the video:

Here's a track from the drum jam CD:

The FaceBook page name is Drum Circle Finder

The contest ends October 30th. Try a caption, or vote for your favorite one with a like & help somebody else win. The comment with the most likes wins.

(The full 2 hour DVD of drum rhythms is also available for $15 at or, Amazon for a couple bucks more. DVD or instant video.)

Also, check out the drum circle finder directory, a free service to the drumming community since 1999. Listings of both facilitated & freestyle ongoing circles.

Drum Some!


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Drum Circle Facilitator Percussion Treasure Chest + Gig Bag & Drum Insurance

Percussion Treasure Chest + Gig Bag (Spice Bag)and a Little About Moving Your Drums (Insurance)

This is my “percussion treasure chest” and my “gig bag” of special items. One of the things I try to do at facilitated drum circles is encourage self discovery. Of course I want to get everyone on a body drum to get the healing energy inside their bodies. I like to play a drum the entire time I facilitate, so it’s more inclusive, and I’m just another part of the group. But there are always the bystanders – the curious and/or shy people on the perimeter just watching. I want to include them – but at their own pace, and in their own time - when they feel they are ready.

Back in the day, I used to haul plastic bins of percussion items, and set them up on card tables. It was time consuming, and often I had no time to do that, so I would just set them down with the lid off. I noticed people would casually go up to them, dig around, and find something interesting to try and figure it out, and play it. They would all have fun doing this, and eventually see that nobody really cares how good a musician they are – they are busy doing their own thing. They would see what a good time those others were having playing the drums, and eventually would gravitate to a drum themselves.

People seemed to really like doing it, so instead of 2 large plastic bins, I picked up this light polymer steamer trunk, and filled it up with percussion goodies to replace them. Nothing with sticks is in there, (unless it’s attached with a cord) because it always managed to find it’s way to a drum head. Inside are assorted maracas, various shakers, bells, frogs, guiros, tambourines, sound shapes, boomwhackers, earthy sounding shakers, kalimbas, frogs, eggs, and all sorts of curious stuff – even a kid’s xylophone is in there. Anything to get them included at their own pace, and get that self discovery process started without having to ask them.

Packing everything back in there at the end of the circle is a different story. I guess all those years of playing Tetris actually helped out a little. The handy thing about this drum circle treasure chest is it’s relatively easy to close up, lock if necessary, and carry with it’s handle. But mainly, with the colorful drum circle poster taped inside it, people are drawn to it. I usually try to make it a point during the circle to let everyone know it is there, welcome them to look through it, and explore. They usually find it if I do happen to forget.

Next to it is my black “gig bag”. I always keep it next to me or behind my chair. It has the 9 compartments so at a glance, I can easily organize and find things. It also has 2 zippered compartments on the front for lug pouches, first aid, and etc. I keep that gig bag next to me with the extra special percussion items in it. I pull them out one at a time after a rhythm periodically – I demonstrate how I play it, and ask, “Who would like to try this out? The first hand in the air gets to play it, and I ask them to pass it along after a bit so others get a try. Then we start out a new rhythm, and away we go.

That big red Latin Percussion Salsa Bell you see there, is my go to cowbell. It was expensive, but I love that thing. I’ve had it for over 20 years so it was worth the cost if I average it out. I painted it red with Rustoleum so I could identify it, or find it in the dark, but also to soften the sharpness of the tone a bit. It also has that flat bottom edge so there’s an extra note and playing surface. It makes it for a very versatile, and great sounding instrument. Sometimes with a long gig, you need to take a break from the djembe. I play it with the soft mallet you see next to it, and not a stick so it isn’t so sharp piercing and loud for people. There’s nothing worse that when someone gets next to you and starts whacking on a small cowbell with a stick. The pitch is usually too high, and for some, even painful. That soft mallet works perfect and you can still hit the sides with the stick portion. Well, thinking about it, one thing that is worse, is when you get someone on a bottom drum that can’t keep time.

I use a Latin Percussion Samba Whistle if I'm at a party and need some crowd control, or sometimes to help end a rhythm. Something besides a rumble or countdown gives more variety, and makes it more fun. It has 3 distinctive notes on it, so you can have a little fun here and there during rhythms with it. I suggest getting a quality metal one. The plastic knock offs just aren't as good, or don't sound as good either. Mine is made by Latin Percussion - it costs a bit more, but I've had it for 30 some years and it still looks and works like new. You can dress it up nicely by putting it on a semi precious stone necklace like turquoise, lapis beads or something like that. Get the best quality gear whenever you can. If you want to sound the best, buy the best you can. The same applies to drums. The good ones cost more but hold up longer. It ends up saving you money in the long run. I spent years upgrading my facilitating drum, and kit of drums. So take my advice, always buy up in quality if you can afford it.

I love the LP Giovanni Djembe as my primary facilitating drum. I went through dozens of different drums until I found just the right one for me. As soon as i touched it - it spoke to me, and that was it. It has a whole lot of range and soul for a manufactured drum. Finding that ideal drum for you can be a bit of a journey, but when you find it, you know it. I've played it over 20 years and only had to change the drum head once. It has a goatskin head, a reasonably authentic sound, but is also lug tunable. So when I'm in the A/C or outdoors, just a few quick turns of the wrench and I'm ready to go. My good Ivory Coast hand carved djembe just isn't practical for this kind of work. Only problem is they run about $500 - $600 new. But averaged over 20 years - 30 bucks a year, not so bad. I like a lot of the Remo gear, but I'm a firm believer in the quality and sound of Latin Percussion drums. Here's a few of mine.

Your voice is an instrument also, connecting and communicating is a big part of facilitating, so you have to keep your voice in tune. Exorcize it, because going frogvoice half way through a circle isn't good. Bring some Cepecol, or what a singer / broadcaster told me long ago, use honey cough drops before you start, it will lubricate and keep the vocal chords open.

I also keep in there 2, 4 x 6" clear make up bags that zip open. One is various tuning wrenches, Remo lug, regular drum key, conga & bongo wrench, allen wrenches for the doumbeks, a few thimbles, and paint can openers for the washboard.

The other packet is my med-kit and first aid. Pretty much as you'd expect - the assorted band aids, (Some people simply will not take off a wedding ring, as nicely as you ask.) For them a band aid over it, or please play a doumbek. (Less likely to get damaged, and if so, only $20. )Some 3/4" cloth tape, assorted gauze, some 3 in 1 antibiotic cream, fold up scissors, some nu-skin, Motrin and Tylenol in sealed 2 packs (at most drug stores.)

Often other musicians that might show up need some white tape for a finger, or something else, and if you have it on hand, it shows you care about them. I also bring the foam ear plugs just in case someone is overly sensitive to the sound. I facilitate through the music mostly and volume is rarely an issue, but I work a lot with seniors and special needs groups - some are very sensitive to drumming even if the volume is kept under control. I've used them only a handful of times over the years, but it's made it possible for those few people to continue enjoying the experience rather than having to leave. I get the ear plugs in the plastic sealed 2 packs at most sporting goods, or drug stores. Just something nice to have for those who may happen to need it.

Sometimes we have to eat before we play, it's the way they want things scheduled for the event. Usually heartburn comes as side dish with that, so I bring Tums, Rolaids, Pepcid, and etc. Antibiotic hand wipes and/or liquid is a good idea also, we shake lots of hands before and after gigs, not to mention handling gear after the gig. Whatever other med things you might need, bring those. I don't want to suggest things like constipation, or other bodily function meds, but it happens. Better to be ready if you get some tummy problems.

The other thing I bring besides the honey cough drops is some ginseng. It works for me anyway, especially if you have a long gig like a school where they bring 6 classes in one after another. I take it an hour before the first downbeat. I need to keep my energy level up, and that helps me. I want the last group to get as much from me as the first group does. Things like sodas, spicy food, anything sour or caffeinated hurts more than it helps when it comes to keeping your voice, and energy level up. Anyway, whatever works for you, bring it.

I like the Remo "Slider" djembe strap. It's adjustable, and has clips on the ends so you can just leave it one you, and clip it on quickly without having to fumble around. But more importantly, it cris crosses on my back and distributes the weight evenly. That makes a long session much easier for me. The run about $20 and come in different colors in case you like to accessorize like I do. What we wear, and first impressions are important - be colorful and proud of your ethnicity. Maybe I've watched too much "Project Runway". I blame it on my wife.

It seems like I almost always get my injuries, cuts and bruises from loading and unloading my gear. It hardly ever happens from playing, just a stupid mistake bumping a car door or something like that.

Some of the items I keep in my gig bag are the LP Flex-a-tone, and blue Vibra-tone, it's a tuning fork sort of metal tube instrument that goes woo woo woo. Please love that one. I mention to try and find “moments” to play it, and not just constantly do so, or it looses it’s impact. People seem to love the Remo thunder drum the best, it’s always a hit. (The blue one there.) I have to ask them to please play it with care, as the spring is 36” long, and it’s very fragile. Please don’t step on it, it will break. As Christine says, “It adds spice”. So anyway, that’s my spice bag, or gig bag as I refer to it. It cost me about $45 – not bad actually. Gator makes it. It’s very functional, soft, and easy to carry – let alone pack in my vehicle. I can always manage to smush it into a crowded space somewhere. And space is at a premium with I’m also hauling 40 to 60 drums.

I used to use a trailer to haul my drums, but as the last 10 years have gone by, insurance has gone up so high I’ve downsized so it all fits inside the vehicle. It has to. It seems like in most states and with most insurance they cover the gear if it’s “Inside” the vehicle, (If it’s outside in a trailer it requires additional coverage, and more expensive insurance.) So for me, in my case anyway, everything has to fit inside the vehicle. That’s why I like the soft mold able gig bag, and plastic steamer trunk. They pack easy. I use lots of nesting items.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a little here, and I hope some of these hints and suggestions are helpful to you on your journeys of the drum.

Shannon Ratigan

Please consider picking up my "101 Drum Circle Rhythms" DVD (or Instant Video) on Amazon for around $15, or some of my live drum circle jam music on iTunes. The proceeds help me to continue working, and keep the drum circle finder website going.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wedding Drum Circles & Drum Circle Receptions

Wedding drum circles, and drum circle receptions are really quite romantic, and they’re very moving for me also. They are always different, but they all have one thing in common. Connection with the families, and romance. I’ve facilitated a few different kinds of them, some have themes such as Island, Latin American, Hawaiian, African, Mid-East, even retro hippie. (I have to admit the throw back clothes thing was kind of fun.)

With some couples, they want to have a drum circle during the reception. Some want it to happen outdoors, and even right out on the beach. I guess it’s wherever the couple wants to have it on their special day is cool, right? These are fun, and you are there when two people are making a lifelong commitment to be together, and helping them to celebrate it. Plus we are bringing them and the two different families together in rhythm. Many times the families don’t know each other. Creating and playing music together helps them to come together in a different way than just chit chat. They discover their musical selves.

I love wedding ceremony drum circles. In my world, a drum circle is celebratory and special just by its very fundamental nature.

It kind of makes it feel to me, and to the couple, that an ancient tradition is being honored and followed by having the tribal drumming involved. I mean it could also be a few Woodstock hippies who want a drum circle there. But the tribal feeling of it is so powerful. In other cultures, drumming at wedding is common, but here, I think it is still perceived as a little too hippy fad like. Some of us are working on improving that.

One time during a drumming wedding, I was asked to play a particular rhythm as the groom stood there. (It seemed like forever, the bride was late.) Then when she showed up I transitioned to a different rhythm, and played that as she walked up the isle. I stopped when they both are together at the altar. The idea was for each person to have their own rhythm, and once these two were married, the two rhythms would be merged, and played at the same time, signifying the union of the couple. (Obviously the drum rhythms need to fit together in the first place. Just use two rhythms in the same time signature.) Once they had announced Mr. and Mrs., I played the two parts of the rhythm together as they walked down the isle. It was really very beautiful. It was kind of romantic to see their rhythms, families, and souls all blend together.

At the reception, we had the real drum circle. It was the same kind of idea. The bride’s side of the family was on one side of the circle, and the groom’s was on the other. The groom’s rhythm starts first, and played for a few minutes. Then the bride’s side played the other rhythm. Then we merged the two rhythms and families together.

Special event drum circles always tend to peek with some spontaneous magical unexpected happening. All of a sudden the bride and groom bolted out together, and danced in to the center as we all played their rhythm. That came out of nowhere, and everyone loved it. I hope they are still married.

Now, obviously, most of the time the wedding planner, or the bride is the one to suggest particular ideas about the drumming and/or the drum circle. You might even have to go to a rehearsal. Some just want one at the end, so both families can do something fun together, rather than just wanting a band or DJ spin mp3’s. It’s a comfortable way to get to know new people. Musically, that is. I have to respect the planner’s wishes, and how they envision things to go. I can make suggestions, and that’s about it.

Another beautiful one was a wedding where the bride’s mother started dancing followed by the bridegroom’s father, until both sets of parents were dancing and then they invited the bride and the groom into the circle. They came in, a Conga line broke out going around the room. It was a Island them so it worked great.

I saw one where the elders began playing first for five minutes or so. Then the parents, five minutes later. Then the older teens, followed by the kids. It worked very well. I like that idea.

I often get hired to just drum alone as a part of the wedding ceremony, or facilitate a drum circle at the wedding reception. More often than not, they will just want a drum circle at the reception. I am not a big fan of drinking, and drumming either. (Friends don’t let friends drum drunk, but at wedding receptions all bets are off.) You can insist that no one drinks before the drumming, but I tend to let it go and let them have their fun. I add in a little extra cost for damage. Believe me, it happens. Charge a little more if you need to, for damage, etc. When people drink and drum, stuff gets broken. Doumbeks with synthetic heads are the best for these, that’s why I have many of them in my kit. They make real fine coasters too. My goatskin djembes stay at home for another day.

I make sure to bring only my most durable drums – congas, bongos Remo & Toca djembes and aluminum doumbeks. Nothing played with sticks, no goatskin heads.

But there is another side to this. This is just my opinion now. I have a little bit of an edge with these, because I’ve hosted drum circles at wedding receptions, and casual drinking establishments for many years. I’m used to dealing with people with various levels of intoxication. It does take some special skill and experience to deal with drunks.

One thing to consider is that it is their wedding, and if they want to get a buzz on and have a good time, drum, and party, I sometimes try to discourage it before the drumming, but usually it’s how they want it. After all, it is their special day, and they are paying a lot of money for all of this. It is not all that hard to manage. Just let them have fun, and the event will flow naturally. I use a set list of rhythms like a band gig, and modify it as we go. It gives me a base to work from. If the wedding is a theme they may want rhythms from a particular culture, so I adjust accordingly.

My experience is as far as the actual facilitating is, as always, less is more. As I mentioned before, I just get them playing and creating. I let people know right away that the support rhythm I am playing is just a starting point, and to add their voice to the group song and take it wherever they want. Explore the unique sounds you can make with your drum. Play whatever you want – just follow the beat. After a rhythm or two we have found the group dynamic, and it is pretty easy from there. Use some humor here and there if you can, you are after all, an entertainer. If something goes wrong, that means the couple’s marriage will last. (An old superstition I heard.) When I got married the minister mixed up our names up, and we still love and desire each other after 25 years, so maybe it’s true.

On a side note, another facilitator once called me “A Facilitainer”. It was supposed to be a derogatory term or something. I think that’s what many of us do, is facilitate entertainment. Then, years later, I saw them copying my style, approach to facilitaining, and even calling themselves facilitainers now. Happy I could be of service.

Mostly I like to leave the center open for dancing and facilitate from the side. Once they are feeling it, and they want to get in the center and dance, you have got them eating out of your hand for the rest of the night. Play danceable grooves and they will dance, odds are, that's what they want to do anyway. I check all the drum circle games, and call and response stuff at the door, unless it‘s really necessary. They are there to party, to make music, and have a good time, not get a drumming lesson.

Usually things are started with a warm up jam, a few pointers on hand technique, a note about volume, and away we go. I use the Heartbeat rhythm next. It helps them all find a good solid groove to then build on.

I always ask the bride and/or groom before the start, if they would like to do this:

Somewhere in the middle of the reception, or at the beginning, I start a rhythm out for the groom and his family for about 2 – 3 minutes. Something like the first half of Fanga, or a Middle Eastern belly dancing beat. The rhythm I suggest depends a lot on their cultural backgrounds, and the theme if there is one.

I end it after they have the hang of it, and next we do the other half of the rhythm for the bride, and her friends and family. (The second half of Fanga etc.) Let them dance and party, however long it’s grooving, etc. Then I end it, and go right into this:

To symbolize the bringing together of this new couple, and these two families, we bring the two parts of the rhythm together. I start them out playing the complete rhythm, and let them go to town on it. Things just roll on from there. Start out different rhythms and away we go.

Every wedding reception I have ever done, they have loved this one. The bride and groom danced with champagne in the center, and cherished every minute of it. The families join in when they want. I feel good seeing them all have a great time on their most special day of their lives. My only real concern is watching the drumming volume, and that is easily manageable. The drinking isn’t a problem, until maybe later on. And the drumming is hopefully over by then. But not always. Sometimes these things go late into the night. With this kind of thing I charge them for the day, because that’s usually what it is.

My fondest drum circle reception was a guy from the Ukraine. He met me at a weekly circle I was facilitating at a nightclub. He approached me with the idea of a drum circle at his reception. It was going to be big Russian wedding. The bride was Middle Eastern so they wanted Mid-East rhythms. This was out on a Florida beach in front of the hotel they were staying at. It went wonderfully, at the end we had an evening drum circle complete with fire fan dancing. We kind of freaked out the hotel staff. They had never seen anything quite like this before. But, they didn’t stop us either. After all, they were guests there, (like 100 of them.) and they hired the beachfront for their reception. It was a blast.

If the idea of a drum circle at a wedding, or drum circle receptions interests you, I think a wedding planner is the right one to approach about it. That’s who contacted me about doing many of them the first place. I’ve also facilitated a few where it was the bride or groom that wanted a drum circle at their reception, and they contacted me directly. I can’t wait to do the next one.

I hope some of this is helpful to you, and it gives you a few ideas if you plan on working with drum circle weddings or at drum circle receptions. 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 hand drumming, and many of the various kinds of drum circles, please consider picking up my book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles” It’s 300 pages, $8 on Amazon Kindle or Nook.

Also, have plenty of fresh drum circle rhythms to try out, or jam along with on my hand drum rhythms DVD (or Amazon Instant Video) 101 Drum Circle Rhythms DVD($15)If you buy my DVD, I include a 70 minute drum circle jam CD free. Both discs for $17 shipped anywhere in the USA. $19 to all other countries.

If you choose to purchase something from me, thanks in advance for helping out an independent musician. The funds help me with the drum circle finder website, with drum repairs, and work in our community.

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Drum Circle Day For Special Needs School Kids

I had the opportunity to facilitate a series of drum circles for groups of children at a K – 9 school in Florissant about a week ago. Florissant is in the same school district about 2 miles North of Ferguson here in St. Louis. It was a wonderful experience bringing the joy of making music to many of these children, and helping our community to heal a little bit.

The school is very diverse, the staff and kids from all different backgrounds and cultures. It was mostly special needs kids, and children with various developmental, and physical limitations. I was co-facilitating with a music therapist in what was being called, “drum circle day” for the faculty and all the kids in the school. After what happened near that community, we both wanted to do something positive, do a small part for these kids, and just help to rebuild a little.

The way they wanted it structured was like this: First, a drum circle for the teachers, and faculty at 8:20. Then one after another, 5 different groups of kids, 2 classes each, about 30 to 50 in each group, (The perfect amount, actually.) We had about 50 minutes with each group, one coming in pretty much right after the other. We went with the 2 concentric circles of chairs set up, with two yard wide entrances leading in.

The drum circles were held in the gym, not the most ideal place for drum circles, but if you find the spot with the least echo, it’s not too bad. I use the clap my hands loud test as soon as I enter the gym before setting up. I can find the sweet place with the least echo that way. Often, I can’t see it in advance, and usually it’s at the far end of the basketball court, centered, starting about 10 yards from the wall. So I asked that they set the chairs up there.

We set the circle about 20 feet across, so one side can hear the other, and you don’t get that disconnect, but still leaving room for self expression in the center. As we find our group dynamic, the hula hoops, and colorful scarves come out. I do move around the interior of the circle slowly a few times as I’m verbalizing the beginning of a rhythm, not making eye contact, as not to pressure them, but letting each of them see my hands up close so they can then figure out how they want to play. I do this for maybe 4 – 12 measures and play along as I verbalize it. Playing it nice and slow until we are getting that rhythm to lock in, and then I go back to my chair and fade out, or hold it steady, until it’s time to rumble end it, and move on to a new rhythm. I would do 2 rhythms, my partner would do 2, and we would take turns holding the downbeat steady for each other. It worked out great, because the kids could either play the support beat, and/or improvise. They could explore their drums during that 50 minutes, and find it’s unique different sounds and nuances.

There just isn’t enough time with each group to use up swapping instruments, or drum circle games, pie slices, or any of that. Just play baby. If there’s another drum circle day, we can get into other things, but for today we just make music.

I think it’s important to have a variety of drums representing different countries and cultures, as well as play rhythms from the kids. So we have congas, various doumbeks and djembes, some light bongos, and frame drums, plus a few things for those in wheelchairs, and/or with physical limitations so that they can still have fun and be a part of it. With a few exceptions, most of my kit is a wide variety of used drums I’ve bought over the years, most purchased one at a time.

Anyway, at the start, we positioned ourselves against the far side wall seats so we can see everything that’s going on, and who’s coming into the room as things are happening. Often times with multiple drum circles like this some come in late. A few kids, or a group will need to be transitioned in, sometimes during an ongoing rhythm. But more importantly, I position there so the bass note resonates more. It helps the kids (and adults) to easily hear, and feel the downbeat, and if they need it, that anchor is there to take any early pressure off them.

I like to make it a visually appealing sight when the kids enter the playing area, so I decorate it up a bit beforehand. It takes me longer, but it makes a difference if you have the time. The drums are colorful and inviting by themselves, but I have this huge 20 foot across and 8 foot tall pastel tapestry from India that has this amazing hand stitched embroidery all across the top foot of it. It’s some sort of silk mix fabric, and it drapes so beautifully. It sets a real nice mood, and a tone that this is going to be a fun experience. Maybe I’ve watched too much “Project Runway” with my wife, and some of it rubbed off on me. It does look like it came from “Mood”. Actually it was a yard sale treasure that I found a few years ago. It makes a beautiful colorful backdrop hanging up on the wall behind the drum circle, and just says, this is going to be fun.

So, we had one drum circle for the faculty, and then 5 drum circles after that. Very often with this type of thing, the groups are scheduled 5 – 10 minutes apart. Just barely enough time to re-set the chairs and drums, get a few sips of water, take a few breaths, and in comes the next group, it’s go time. Our strategy going in was to pre-set the drums in front of, or on top of each chair, have them single file in, get them all seated, play now, and talk later. We only had a limited amount of time (50 minutes) with each group, and we wanted them to have as much playing, fun, and self discovery time as possible.

The plan was a tried and true method. Get them quickly seated with a drum they like, and get a warm up jam going for 5 minutes or so, and end it with a big rumble. Usually it’s a basic rhythm like Boom sha la-ka, Boom sha la-ka, & etc. Or, the “We Will We Will Rock You”, Boom Boom tone or, a default drum circle rhythm: Boom Boom tone tone tone (rest) A lot of it depended on the vibe we got as they were getting seated.

The music therapist and I had never worked together before, so there was a little concern in the back of my mind. As luck would have it, our skill sets meshed together beautifully. Both of us prefer the organic approach to facilitating drum circles. In other words, the better the music sounds, the more fun it is, and the better it feels. No games, no waiting for the other side to play and then get a turn, none of that. Just get them playing a warm up rhythm quickly so the nerves, and the “what if’s” fade away. Then it’s easy to move on to the more interesting world rhythms.

With our first group, the faculty, we knew they all had a full day of teaching ahead of them and had to get them having fun quickly, so that’s what we did. But at the same time we wanted them to experience a shortened version of our curriculum.

Quick 15 second demonstration: Bass note is the elephant. Right and left hand tone are tiger, and the lion. After a Latin-ish warm up rhythm, we got into a Native American Heartbeat rhythm. They got such a good groove going on that, we went to a funky sort of Fanga, and then wrapped it up with belly dance Beledi. By then, they were pretty jazzed. We got a lot of fun packed into that 25 minutes. Rumbled and wrapped it, they left, and in came the first group of children.

Here was the breakdown for the day:

Schedule and Type of Groups

8:20-8:45: Staff Warm-Up Drum Circle

9:15: 26 Students + approximately 20 staff. The info given was that most of these students had Autism, and were lower functioning. The grade range: K-8. We were informed that a few would be able to follow start and stop directions, but most would have trouble sustaining attention and following directions. Most of the students were non-verbal. There was a lot of sensory issues with this group, including a few students who did not tolerate loud noise well.

So, we kept the volume down, and slow and steady. All the kids got into it really nicely. That warm up rhythm really sets the tone. Is this going to be a classroom type thing? Or, is this going to be fun? The music gave direction, they sensed and felt where the endings were, it was a breeze. The nice thing about verbalizing a rhythm is it can be processed faster. If I say, “Yum Yum, Tastes Like Chick-en” (2 bass notes, the rest tones.) I say it slowly maybe four times and play while I say it. Then drop the vocals and let it jam, possibly bring up the tempo if it’s sounding good. With Heartbeat, some of them fall of count and it goes into a Row Row Row Your Boat kind of jam, it still works, and they usually find their way back on time.

10:15: 27 students + approximately 17 staff. This was the lowest functioning group with 18 of the students in a wheelchair. Info given was that most of these students are mainly working on making wants and needs known. All are non-verbal, and loud noise may be disturbing to some.

Again, low volume. Kept the rhythms mostly soulful, spiritual, and grooving. They all found their places in it. With groups such as this during the warm up I start it very slow and steady, and keep it there for a few minutes longer until the groove was established.

A neurologist friend of mine explained to me that despite many of their individual challenges, that most kids like this are highly functioning individuals. They just live a few seconds in the past. So, a drum circle rhythm, even unfamiliar to them, being repeated over and over works perfectly.

So, when they are ready, they will begin to play and fall right into the groove. For that reason when the staff asked a few questions in advance, I asked them not to intervene if someone is not participating. They will when they are ready, and when they feel comfortable. “Not all who wander, are really lost”, is the case sometimes also.

With each of the groups, during those first crucial minutes of the warm up jam I say to the kids, “Play whenever you feel like you want to, okay? Play whatever you want, just follow the beat.” (Everybody usually chuckles.) The point is to get them out of their heads, overthinking, and just experiment and explore their drum, and the sounds it can make.”

11:15 Lunch – Thanks I’m starving at this point.

12:15: 28 students + approximately 13 staff. This was a mixed diagnosis group of slightly higher functioning, more verbal students with Autism, Intellectual Disability and Emotional Disturbance. There was one student in a wheelchair.

Despite some of the challenges, it was apparent that with each group after about 10 minutes they started to "get it" and get out of their heads. Then they could just play and have fun with it. It was the perfect example of self discovery teaching without actually teaching. The Yum Yum, Tastes Like Chicken rhythm, the I Like to Eat Chocolate Cake jam, Heartbeat, Fanga, and Beledi all seemed to go great with all the groups, we got the energy up, and we got them improvising, and sounding pretty good. The main thing was, they were making music, and having fun. With all these groups, 50 minutes went by like it was 15.

1:15: 21 students + approximately 9 staff. This was a mixed group of students with Autism, Emotional Disturbance, Other Health Impairment or Intellectual Disability. They were verbal and higher functioning than the previous group.

Everything was working nicely, so we stuck with the basic curriculum. I keep a 36” long back polymer steamer trunk filled with curious percussion items. I call it the drum circle treasure chest. I keep the lid open and have it off to the side. It has a large inviting “Drum Circle” sign on it, and it has nothing that is played with sticks. Lots of colorful fun things, maracas, shakers, tambourines, guiros, and so on. Somehow a stick always finds its way to a goatskin drumhead. These kids were all well behaved, but I have done events like this before and the treasure chest is there just in case.

2:15: 30 students + 12 staff. This was the highest functioning group of students with mostly an Emotional Disturbance, a few with Other Health Impairment or Autism. These students were verbal and are right at or slightly below grade level. This group went last so we could have more flexibility to go an hour or more.

And so we did. These kids took to jamming and improvising right away, and had a great time, especially playing Beledi near the end. A few of the teachers got on the hula hoops, got in the center and hooped it up. It was a beautiful thing connecting to the music like that. And it happened with each group.

3:15: Pack it up. Wait for the school buses to clear so we could load up all the drums, and haul them home.

We were very busy, but throughout the day with each group I could see their eyes light up, and the smiles come out as we played the various rhythms. With these kinds of all day drum circles you have to pace yourself so you have enough left for the last group. They deserve as much energy as the first group got.

We were both pretty worn out, but at the same time it was so gratifying knowing we are doing some good in our community, healing, inspiring to improvise, and building the self confidence in these kids, all the while having fun.

I hope this drum circle day catches on and more St. Louis area schools, (and others around the country) will give it a try. I've worked with various groups over the years, and for me, the area I really feel like I am doing the most good is with school kids. This was the kind of thing that inspired me to make music a part of my life, and it has helped me throughout it.

We brought the kids (and the teachers) a great music making experience, and it was a good time learning for them as well. We were honored to have the pleasure to do this. It was visionary thing for the school to try - just watch the short video and see the joy in their faces.

*Update from the school* 2/24/15

Dear Friends of Ackerman,

Jeanne Eichler and Shannon Ratigan, two drum circle facilitators from St. Louis, came to Ackerman on February 3rd to lead Drum Circle Day. Their goal was to promote school unity, empowerment, and stress relief through jam sessions where all students and staff could participate. Needless to say, Ackerman Drum Circle Day 2015 was a huge success!

Please follow this link to see a video with highlights from our big day!

Special thanks to Janece Albers for coordinating this event and Anthony Volkman for the video highlights.

Please feel free to share our video. Our students and staff really enjoyed this day and we can't wait to do it again.

More in depth Info - Special Needs Drum Circles & Drumming

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 in words, 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 after I’ve gotten home and unloaded all the drums, and etc.

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 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 five or 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 kids 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 I mentioned earlier, 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. Slowing the tempo if it starts running away, or if it get gets too loud, etc. 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 this 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 a few, or sometimes 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. It looks like this: 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 softer 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, and it helps to empower them.

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. How large is the playing area? How far from it can I park my vehicle to unload it and then go park? Can they pre-set the chairs for me? All important things to know if possible.

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 do 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. Pace things out a bit more.

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 or yoga mats 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 until they can hold it on their own.

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, or my percussion treasure chest off to the side of the room. 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.

Cerebral Palsy

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 10 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.

Down Syndrome & Autism

I’m no expert on these conditions, and have no medical degree as a music therapist, but I have worked with a lot of people with both before. Apparently the distinction is, drumming therapy - you need a degree to do that. Therapeutic drumming - no degree needed. That’s me. I've seen a few music therapists that were wonderful, and others 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 those 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 a few minutes if I feel it needs 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. Eventually, they end up sounding good, and that feels good. For them and for me.

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 do 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. Usually there is staff present if anyone really does get disruptive, but it’s pretty rare.

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 injure someone. 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, and how to get a some of the various sounds from their drum 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, or “sculpting” 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. If someone expresses themselves in the center, when the jam ends ask everyone to give them some applause. I do it, and they will with you. It takes some courage to get in there and hula hoop, or even wave a ribbon to the beat.

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 see, and 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.

Another idea along that line, (especially with kids) is to ask them to have everyone fill out comment cards later on about the drum circle. How did the drum circle make you feel? What was your favorite part of the drum circle? Etc.

Remember there are heavy restrictions on photography in most cases, so be sure to ask if you want to take video or photos. Sometimes the school will make one and you can ask to share that.

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 placemats and coasters.

Ultimately, I just want to 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 101 drum circle rhythms DVD ($15) and/or book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles” It’s 300 pages, and $8 on Amazon Kindle or Nook.

If you choose to purchase something from me, thanks in advance for helping an independent musician. The funds help me with the website, drum repairs, and doing work in our community.

Keep on Drumming! Keep them Drumming!

Shannon Ratigan -

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