Sunday, October 21, 2012

Drum Circles in Churches and at Spiritual Gatherings

I facilitate drum circles in churches, and spiritual gatherings pretty often. Sometimes they are outdoors, sometimes in the church, or in the Rec hall, or parish hall after a Sunday service, or for a special event they are having. Some drum circles in churches focus on spirituality; some others focus more on drumming as a social activity. Many groups like to bring in a variety of activities on a monthly basis. A drum circle can be one of many. I work with everything from New Age, to Baptist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches, as well as groups of pastors. I’m open to most any group that wants to drum. These are just my opinions, and I hope to help anyone that is considering doing this kind of a drum circle.

I feel that if I am bringing drumming to someone or some group, it is a good thing, and it’s good for them. No matter who they are. Or what path they are from, or what they may represent. The same goes for business, and corporate drum circles.

I hardly ever get asked what my faith or belief is, but I do get asked that sometimes. I say the truth, this: “I am respectful and understating of all faiths. This is what I do for a living, and I have to be respectful of all paths, and faiths.” Most of the time they understand, and it doesn’t go beyond that. The caterer at church functions hardly ever gets grilled, so neither should I. I’m just there to bring drumming, and help guide them on a spiritual drumming experience, if that is what they wish to have.

I think we all have certain boundaries on who we want to work for. I have mine. And if working with a particular group feels uncomfortable to you, well, you make your own decisions on who you want to drum with. Whether you volunteer your time, or are hired to do this, it can be very satisfying work. It doesn’t pay very well monetarily, but it does inside your heart. You are helping to facilitate a spiritual drum circle experience, and helping to bring some joy into the world. Even if it only reaches one person. More and more groups are realizing the significance of spiritual drum circles. It’s not just for visionaries anymore. One pastor I worked for was criticized for doing this, until he invited the other pastors to attend one. They changed their mind once they experienced the power of a drum circle and how meaningful it was to the congregation.

When I’m approached to host a drum circle at a spiritual gathering, or church, I usually don’t have a problem with it. Drum circles bring people from all paths together, and the world would be a better place if they sat down and drummed about it. Communicating musically transcends talking, and there would be a lot less fighting.

When I am contacted for the first time about a spiritual drum circle, I always try to have a face to face short meeting with them, but it is not always possible. I want to better understand their vision of the drum circle, and exactly what they would like from it, and from me. I have done this communication via email only before, but I will try to have a meeting if I can. I recall one time it was for a conference that was a convention of pastors that were assembling from around the country, it wasn’t possible to have a meeting, as even the organizer lived 3000 miles away.

The pastor at one particular church that I’ve done multiple drum circles for once said, “A drum circle is truly a spiritual experience.” and “it will truly bless your life and the lives of your people.” Well said.

It seems rather odd to me that I started on this drumming path for reasons that had to do with my needs. I started drumming because I was a hyperactive child, and then I joined the school band. Later on, facilitating drum circles turned into a hobby, and then into a calling. People began telling me that I was helping them reach new levels of spirituality. I about fell over when one of the regulars at a weekly night club drum circle began calling me the group’s Shaman, a holy man on a quest to use the drums to help the world. That was hard for me to accept intellectually, but at times, I can feel the group, and myself, tuning into something much bigger and more important than I can even get my head around. So, while I can’t explain it, I can merely let go and try and accept it.

Often with spiritual drum circles, some of the people will already have a drum of their own, and will come parading into the circle with it. That always makes me smile when I see that.

Many times I’ve needed to research a particular church just because I wasn’t familiar with their uniqueness. I should at least have some understanding of them and what their beliefs are before I go in there and bring a drum circle to them. What behavior from me might they expect, what are some of their practices, customs? Real no - no’s? I usually do a little homework here. It’s the polite and professional thing to do. Would they like to begin with a prayer? Most of them do, but I always ask. Some also want to make announcements prior to any drumming. Knowing in advance if there will be children in attendance is obviously very important. If it’s out in a public place, are they okay with people happening by and joining in? Most of them are.

Be sure to make arrangements for them to have chairs set up, and mention that everyone will need to remove rings and jewelry prior to playing a drum. They will likely have a bulletin, flyer, or email they send out announcing the event. Ask them to mention that. Sometimes they will be serving refreshments or even a meal. Of course we would prefer them served after the drumming, and I do try to suggest that, but sometimes it’s unavoidable and I have to roll with it. There may be a guest speaker before, then the meal, then the drumming. If it’s what they want, okay then.

Usually it’s the pastor, or organizer is the one I ask questions like this. Sometimes the leader makes the decision before we start. Often, I can only ask them when I meet them just before the drum circle starts, and I’m still schlepping in my drums. They usually have somebody in the group whom this normally falls to. Whatever group it is, I just try to be respectful of it. Most of the time, it’s everyone standing and a prayer is said, and away we go. 1 - 2 - Bang the drum. I go with the vibe I feel there, as to how I start. Sometimes there are mixed age kids with the group. It can be more fun, or more difficult. For the most part, I tend to keep the program a bit more mellow with earth, healing, and slower R&B style rhythms with a good downbeat that they can feel, but I always include a few key things if I can.

As far as the rhythms we play after the beginning, I almost always going with the feeling I get from the group. The collective energy can guide me, if I let it. My instincts on it are usually pretty close to right. The good ol’ default drum circle rhythm you hear at most freestyle drum circles makes a good ice breaker - warm up. “pa_Go-Do_ta… pa_Go-Do_ta”, etc. Or, the Heartbeat is a good one to get right into. “Doum Doum tek-ka-tek-ka Doum Doum”. Or keep it real simple with Go_Do_pa-ta-pa _ (2 measures in 4/4 time. Bass bass, tone tone tone rest, and repeat). Use any rhythm that is basic, and easy to get the group groove going.

Many people have never touched a drum before, and the sooner I can get them to just playing and making music, the sooner their uneasiness or nerves will melt away. Less talking and more music making is my approach. I vocalize the first few bars and start playing the rhythm at about one third the normal tempo so people can latch onto it. This way they don’t feel a sense of catching up or worse, panic. Then I can ease up the tempo if it feels right for them. The one thing I do say before we start playing is, “Play however you want…whatever feels natural…just follow your heart, and THE BEAT.” It usually gets a laugh, and that sets the right tone that this is going to be fun and not overly controlled.

I just want to get them playing and creating as quickly as possible. I let people know right away that the support rhythm I’m playing is just a starting point for them, they don’t have to try and play that exact thing. Just add your unique voice to the group song and lets all take it wherever we want, together. After we play a few rhythms I touch on hand technique, and playing too loud. I don’t want anyone to get injured, or be uncomfortable. If you can’t hear the person playing across from you, it’s too loud.

I have a slightly different set list of rhythms for a spiritual circle than I would use for other groups. I will usually change it as we go along, but having it handy gives me more confidence. Most of the time, it is all slow 4/4 rhythms with one or two up tempo ones to keep some variety in there mid way into the set. If it’s all slow tempo rhythms it doesn’t have any ebb and flow. I mix in a 6/8 mother rhythm somewhere in there as well. I try to keep it spontaneous and fun, and I guide things from the side – not the center. Most of the time, I’m just there to provide the drums, start a variety rhythms, bring them to an end so they don’t go on for too long, and the rest just seems to fall into place. Imagine that.

After a rhythm ends, a nice rumble will get them all excited and clapping. I think it’s important to take a few moments after a rhythm ends to let things “breathe” a little. Then start out a new one. I like to come up with different endings for rhythms so it doesn’t get too routine. A fade out, count down, and so forth.

As with some of the other groups I work with, about half way through the drum circle, I like to use the “two beach towels in the center of the drum circle thing”, and ask if two people would like to lay on them for a minute while we are playing. On their back, with their arms to the side, and their eyes closed. I give everyone a chance to feel the drum beat with their eyes closed if they want to. It’s spiritually powerful, done to a good slow tempo rhythm with a heavy downbeat.

If there is an allotted time, I like to leave them wanting more. So when I say this is our last rhythm, and we play it – after it is over I ask the group, “Should we play just one more?” The answer is almost always a resounding YES! And we do one more jam out for fun. It ends things on a high note. Or, you can go the other way, and make it more soft and meaningful. It really depends on the group dynamic that was created. You can feel the vibe of which way it should go by this time.

At the end of a spiritual group drum circle, I almost always do the “Let them feel the healing energy of the drum, in their bodies thing also”. This is the one where they all set the drums on the ground, stand in the circle, and hold their palms open and outstretched, opposite to each other, and palms facing each other, directly above each other’s palms, about 6 inches apart. I then ask them to slowly compress their hands to the other person without actually touching them. The oh’s and ah’s as they feel the healing energy compress, or their chi, the mojo in their bodies. Then I ask them to slowly compress it back and forth. Then to turn their hands into themselves, to let it reach inward, into their bodies. Many of them are feeling this drum energy for the very first time. It is very powerful.

That’s why I try to get everyone to drum, and not just play a shaker, or tambourine for at least a half hour. I want to get that drumming energy flowing in their bodies. All you have to do then is show it to them at the end of the circle. It can bring up very deep feelings in people.

For the most part, everyone just wants to drum and have a healing spiritual experience. I think it’s doing some good in the world.

There are quite a few references in the Bible to using song and dance as a means of worship. French African (Congolese) worship services use drumming and singing in praise music. Lots of people use drumming as an active way of meditation, so it's not really a huge leap to make that religious drumming connection.

Do drum circles in church really need to be much different from other drum circles that offer creative outlets, bonding, support, interpersonal interaction, etc? Not that much really, just a little more mellow, and less volume.

For the most part, I avoid drum circle games and activities, and just focus on in the moment music making. I do bring along a few hula hoops and put them off to the side where everyone can see them. Once things get going someone usually grabs one and starts hooping. If they are outside the circle I invite them in the center. We all know that drumming to some sort of movement elevates the fun level and gives something to connect the rhythm to. I like to have a wide open circle of at least 15 feet so there’s room for people to get in there and express themselves. That’s part of what this is about. One idea when working with just kids is drumming to Sunday school songs: "If you're happy and you know it, bang your drum" boom boom.” And so on.

My favorite spiritual drum circle was at a Gospel church; I was later invited to attend their services, was welcomed like family, and got to play in the church band. It was cool. These were some heavy musicians, one of them toured with Herbie Hancock. What an honor to be welcomed there and play in the band. The singers in the choir were amazing talents also. The band would rumble here and there as the minister spoke. Now that’s a fun way to rumble. Rumbling to the intensity of places in his sermon.

Almost always, a drum circle is after the service, but I have done it as a part of a church service before. Here’s an example outline that was about an hour and a half:

 Drumming: a welcoming/gathering rhythm; Shannon introduces newcomers to the circle and explains the rhythm(s).
 Brief spoken prayer at the end (Pastor)

2. SCRIPTURE: LUKE 19:29-40
 Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) (Lector)
 Verse 36 (“As he rode along. . . ‘”) begin softly drumming, getting very gradually louder and faster. (Shannon)
 At end of verse 40 (“He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. . .") we drum as if we were the stones shouting out glory to God. More than one rhythm is fine. (Shannon)

3. Prayers of the People
 Earth rhythm. (Shannon)
 Series of “bidding” prayers: Request for prayer on various topics (prayers for the church, the sick, the dead, troubled spots, thanksgivings). Response is a few moments of drumming, then softer for the next bidding prayer. (Lector)

4. Exchange the Peace
 Invite everyone to play a simple rhythm on the drum of the person to the right of them, then to the left. (Shannon)

5. Take Eucharist
 Pastor goes to table in center of drum circle and does an extemporaneous Eucharistic prayer.
 Shannon alone accompanies the words with drum
 This will be a time of words/pauses (with drum)/words/(pauses (with drum) – no sense of hurry. (Shannon and Pastor work together)

6. Lord’s Prayer
 No drumming while this is recited. (Pastor + everyone)

7. Break and Share Bread and Wine
 Simple, soft rhythm of peace that people can leave off while receiving bread and wine, then easily pick back up when finished. Depending on the number of people, this will take 5+ minutes. There should be a few moments of drumming while Pastor tidies up the leftover elements. (Shannon)

8. Thanksgiving!
 Another time of big, enthusiastic drumming! This and the “stones” drumming (end of #2) should be the lengthiest and most spirited times of drumming. More than one rhythm is fine. (Shannon)

9. Blessing
 Pastor blesses and dismisses everyone

This was held outside in a park, (on church property), and it was a very powerful experience. Obviously we had a prior meeting, as this outline had to be planned in advance. It was what they wanted, and while I was a little nervous about it, everything went beautifully.

So to sum up, I don’t refer to myself as Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan or any other label. I don’t completely subscribe to any one particular religious group or ideal. Words can be a credible barrier to the understanding of human spirituality. I prefer to take from each religion and culture what I feel kindred to. And I do consider myself to be a spiritual person. Drumming is my outlet, my sanctity, where I feel the most at home. As I mentioned, some drum circles in churches focus on spirituality; some others focus more on drumming as a social activity.

The main thing is, I try to get each person on a body drum, so they can feel the healing power of the drum in their bodies, and have a more spiritual drumming experience. I do bring a few big plastic bins of mixed percussion items to keep things interesting for the group, and to entice the shy ones to get involved. Once they see everyone is having a good time, and not really focusing on them, they usually move to a body drum. (Which is the main reason I bring small percussion items.) I don’t bring anything that can be played with a stick. It usually finds its way to a drum head. Not good. Sound shapes with plastic sticks are okay, but anything played with a wooden stick…nope. I do have a few guiro’s, woodblocks, and such, but the stick is attached to it with a one foot nylon string.

Much of the world's most powerful music is associated with religion and spirituality. Music down through the ages has been designed to take the listener to another place. Facilitating a church, or spiritual drum circle usually affects me very deeply also, even though my beliefs may differ from their particular ones. Drum circles bring us all together. The healing energy of the drum transcends all. And, somehow, it also brings us closer to our higher power, regardless of how we perceive that.


Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.

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