It’s often the case that a drum circle will draw people who have never drummed before. But, there may also be some very advanced drummers, as well as everything in between. Keeping the circle interesting for the advanced without intimidating the beginners requires a bit of a different approach than one often finds. Many drum circle facilitators tailor their programs purely for the beginners. Most people have music in their backgrounds, so it makes sense to not only include and welcome them, but to create an environment where they are free to share their gift with everyone.
I try to keep the drum circle accessible to all skill levels, because many times people will be transitioning in and out of the circle as it’s going on. So my approach to it needs to be a bit different. Most of the time when I’m introducing a new rhythm, I will make up words to go with the beat. For example, “I like chocolate cake.” for doum-doum-teka-tek. People seem to find the combination of words and hearing the beat makes it easier to follow, and the brain can process it faster. I also start the beat very slowly, vocalizing the words as I do. This also makes it easier for me to hear whether everyone is able to follow along.
Once the group is in sync, I can start to slowly speed it up to tempo if people are feeling it. Then we can then add in more complex variations. And I always encourage people to improvise from the beginning. It is, after all, just the support rhythm – it’s just a starting place. Volume is something I address early on. If it’s too loud it’s unpleasant for most people. So during the first few rhythms after it is locked in, I will decrescendo gradually but keep the tempo up. People will have to play softer to hear what’s going on, and this sends the message without having to actually say it. Now they are listening to you play, and everyone else as well.
Somebody has to hold that bottom beat, or support rhythm or you can end up with banging noise chaos, or the rhythm speeding up out of control. People trying to out drum the others. End result – not much fun. It’s true that holding the support rhythm does create a dependency, but until the rhythm is locked in, you kind of need to be there for that. Or somebody does. Train wrecks do happen. Laugh it off, and move on to a slower tempo rhythm to reenergize the fun.
I prefer to facilitate from the side of the drum circle rather than in the center. To me the center is a place for people to explore, and for self expression. Dancing, hooping, etc. By facilitating from the side, I am just a part of the circle, part of the group, rather than an obvious leader in the center conducting something. Plus, I want to enjoy the experience as well, so by going back to my place in the side of the circle I can be a participant, as well as a facilitator. (If that is my role.)
If I have some good drummers whom I know show up, I can count on at least one of them to just hold the bottom beat. This helps newbies to return to the beat if they get a tad lost. Once I sense that the rhythm is solid, once or twice during the evening’s circle I will slowly walk around the interior of the drum circle playing the rhythm near each of the drummers. Not too close, or for too long to make them uncomfortable or get in their space, but just enough so they can hear my saying “hello, welcome, glad you are here”, with my drum. As I do, I listen to skill levels, and watch to see who might be experiencing drum confusion. I’m also enjoying the solid drummers, and/or soloists.
My experience has taught me there is always somebody out there who is a better drummer than me. Often more than one at any given drum circle I might me hosting or facilitating. Rather than being competitive, I would rather have them as an ally, so they can share their gift with the group. I want them on my side. At some point, I welcome them to come stand next to me and let them know I welcome their ability and their talent. I vibe them that it’s cool if they are a better player – hey lets just have some fun making music together. A simple smile as we are playing can send that message clearly.
I’m cool that they can solo, or play better than me. That sets things at ease right away, and that possible alpha male – djembe cowboy thing is never an issue. I will usually just hold a solid support rhythm so they can feel free to solo, or get down on a beat. More often than not, the entire group enjoys it, and the excitement level is ramped up a notch. Offer to let them start out the next rhythm if they wish. Some will want to, some won’t. Let them know it’s cool either way. Offer to let anyone start out a rhythm. It’s taking a risk, but that’s part of the fun, taking chances. It is after all, a drum circle, not brain surgery. After that, the serious players drift back into being an ensemble player, and a solid part of the group.
Another key thing I try to do after a rhythms ends, is acknowledge anyone who stepped up and took a risk. Did some outstanding drumming, some hula hoping, bellydancing, or whatever. It takes some stones to get out there and do that. So at the rhythm’s end after the applause, I make it a point to say, “How about a nice hand for that amazing soloing, or fantastic dancing! By…” etc. I mention their name if I can remember it, or simply ask them what their first name is so I can do it proper. They deserve it, and again the message to the group is hey it’s not all about me, it’s about the group.
When I am making my interior stroll around the interior of the circle, there is a few things for me to consider, and honestly, it comes with experience. The more you do it, the easier it is. It takes time to assess if a person is confused, or if they are just kicking back enjoying things for a bit. It’s important to remember that all those who may be wandering, are not always lost. If I do find someone obviously trying to figure things out, I don’t say anything, but just stand next to them for a few measures, so that they can feel and hear the beat and also see my hands if they want to. I will usually smile or offer a wink hello, but contact is made more with the sound of my drum. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable, I’m just playing next to you for a few moments to say hello, and help them get a handle on the beat. But I’m also accessing skill levels and offering that basic rhythm if someone needs it.
I rarely make much eye contact, because that tends to make it more obvious that I might be helping someone along. If the person is really struggling, I will do this with just the basic beat, sometimes even just the bottom beat. Once they get comfortable with that, I move on to the next one in the group. I try to stop and play a bit even next to the really good drummers also, so that those who are struggling do not feel singled out, and it seems I am just welcoming everyone the same way. The entire process of my circle wander may take 5 minutes at the most. But this is one of the mechanical things I do at every drum circle I facilitate. Once or twice during the evening at most. The most I will ever say, (Quietly with a smile of course) is “Hey, how’s it going, nice to see you. That sort of thing. But I continue playing, all the time. I want to be a part of the group, and not put anyone on the spot. But if someone wants the spotlight, I offer it to them.
I also want to encourage those people who are in the back perimeter standing around and listening to the music. I like to put a few wicker baskets of percussion “toys” around the space. Some pieces are actual, real percussion instruments. But, a lot are throw away, homemade items. For example, large painted vitamin bottles with macaroni inside (uncooked, LOL) and taped shut makes a decent shaker. I also include inexpensive tambourines, guiros, and maracas. None of these are very loud, so that people can just pick one up and play along without being afraid of messing up the rhythm or drawing attention to themselves. It really increases the fun factor for people when they participate, on whatever level they are comfortable with. It encourages the onlookers, and possibly timid to join in when they feel ready.
I make it a point during the circle to let them know the toys are out there, and to join in whenever you wish. If you are trying to start an ongoing drum circle, you want them to leave wanting to come back for more. They will tell their friends how much fun they had at that drum circle last night, it creates a buzz of talk about it in your area. That’s a key to creating a solid community happening. Word of mouth. Of course Face Book helps to. LOL.
My opinion is that getting people to relax and have fun is what brings the true magic into a drum circle. Most people get something special from it and I feel that this is the true value on the community. Music making that is the essence of drum circles. To me, it is more about the people, rather than the quality of the music. But generally the more fun people are having, the better the musicality is. Check out my book on hand drumming and drum circles. It’s 300 pages jammed with ideas, tips, and suggestions. Pick it up on Kindle for $10. Or a physical copy at my website for $18. I include a free drum circle jam CD if you pick it up from me direct. Thanks in advance for helping an independent musician.