Friday, November 16, 2012

Cleaning & Sanitizing Drums For Facilitated Drum Circles – It’s Flu Season

I work a lot with individuals, and groups that are especially vulnerable to common colds, as well as other types of viruses, so I started phasing out most of my wood body drums with goatskin heads a few years ago. The primary reason was being able to sanitize them easier. Secondary was the repairs, and the heavier weight of them.

Believe me, I would rather not have to use synthetic drums that have ping and twang sound to me when they are played. I much prefer the warmer, richer tones of natural skin drum heads. The sound is more authentic, and my hands are less sore after long sessions of playing. But when I’m facilitating drum circles for kids, seniors, or special needs groups, I need to think about their health, so I clean and sanitize them after each use.

Please keep in mind, that everything I say here is just my opinion, based on years of my own experience and talking with other drummers. I’m not a medical expert, but I have asked various medical professionals about this, and, generally speaking, they say unless the surface is sanitized, a virus can survive on almost any surface (like a drum head or on the sides) for up to 48 hours. And that bacteria can live on a surface for up to 12 hours if it has food to live on. If the drums are stored unclean in a warm area, about 12 hours longer. Also, if the people playing just ate something and some residue is still on their hands, (something sticky, like candy or juice) that provides food for it to live. Suddenly, I’m not in the mood for lunch.

Since I work with many vulnerable groups, I switched from goatskin and wood body djembes to drums that are easier for me to sanitize.

All my drum circle facilitating “kit” drums are synthetic drums like Remo djembes, and aluminum doumbeks. An aluminum doumbek with a synthetic head is a lot easier to clean, and they weigh less to carry. When you are schlepping 40 drums by yourself, going from 18 pounds per drum to 8, it makes a big difference. The energy I save from carrying them can go towards ensuring the group has a good time. For me, most of the work is getting my drums and gear to the space.

When I had a mixture of wood and synthetic drums, people seem to gravitate to the synthetic drums anyway because they are comfortable to play, colorful, and fun looking. Not to mention more durable. The heads are $10 to replace, and it's less weight for them to play. I use a lot of synthetic frame drums, and tambourines also, as well as other smaller percussion that can be easily cleaned after each drum circle or interactive drumming session.

Sometimes I have multiple groups of kids coming in on the hour. I ask for 10 minutes between sessions so I have just enough time to use sanitizing wipes and clean up all the equipment.

Some precautions I take during the drum circle are: I usually have 4 or 5 of those alcohol based hand sanitizer pump bottles around the perimeter of the circle and also by the exits, with signs posted nearby reminding everyone to use them. Another good idea is to just ask everyone to go wash their hands at break time, (it cools down the hands, and gives you more grab on the drum head anyway) and also to wash them after the session is over, I usually wash up along with them. It’s a conga line to the can.

My style of facilitating a drum circle is that I just focus on music making. I don’t go for the drumming games or activities. People both young and old seem to prefer it more. So, for that, and the sanitary reasons, during circles I don't encourage “the pass the drum thing”, or swapping of instruments. Especially nowadays with everyone more aware of germs, and catching the flu. I do bring lots of extra percussion items for people to play so they can choose something else if they want. Common sense is to wash your hands, and not pass drums around with people worried about catching something.

The next day I usually clean my entire kit up to prepare for the next circle, unless it is 48 hours later. The way work has slowed, it’s usually 48 hours.

Back when I had all wood body drums with natural skin drum heads, I still did a few things to clean them, but it wasn’t nearly as effective. Cleaning a rough texture wood surface is almost impossible. Many years ago a conga player taught me to clean my cowhide drum heads with a little alcohol on a piece of cloth. Just damp them slightly enough to remove the hand grime. I noticed that the drums sound a little better after doing it. I always thought the build up of hand grease made the drums sound better…I was wrong. To me, it improved it.

Now I use the Evans synthetic conga head on my LP’s and they clean up very easily. I love those drum heads by the way. And I’m pretty old school when it comes to my congas.

I played with a djembe master many years ago, and he said what he does on his goat skin heads is use a soft cloth with a little alcohol on it. Lightly scrub it on, and scrub it off. He also periodically uses a #200 sandpaper, and sands it very lightly. Apparently this opens the pores and allows the drum to ring better, and then does a cleaning after that. Obviously, you have to be very careful when sanding a drum head. Do it light, and go easy on the bearing edges. I wouldn’t do it more than once or twice during the life of a drum head.

The point is to reduce the chances of bacteria, and by removing any surface material, you remove what bacteria need to live on. It’s about all you can do with goatskin heads. I’ve heard other say that they use acetone to do this. I don’t know about that one, using nail polish remover kind of freaks me out, but apparently it works. Y0u just need to allow more time for it to evaporate.

I’ve heard other musicians say they just use soapy water to clean djembe heads. I’ve never tried that one, so I can’t say. And, you have to rub the soap and water into the surface for at least 15 seconds or it does not get rid of any “bugs” on the surface. I would think that a soapy wash cloth would be the way to go, followed by a gentle rinsing. With s different cloth.

So basically what I’m saying is, I prefer synthetic drums for working with groups. They are less prone to damage, cost less to repair, they are easier for me to move, and easier to clean. I go through a lot of sanitizing wipes, especially with back to back gigs. I want to reduce the chances of anyone getting even a cold at one of my drum circles as much as possible.

Once again, It is my understanding that a virus can survive on almost any surface for up to 48 hours, unless it is sanitized, so I use that as a general rule of thumb.

If you have any other tips, or ideas on this please share them.

Stay safe, and help others to stay safe,


Please check out my 300 page book, A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles". On Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook for $8.


  1. Greetings Shannon ~ KUDOS to you for all the wonder drum circle facilitation you do and related info you share ... not to mention your massive web presence! Bravo! I had the good fortune to work with Paulo Mattioli once upon a time. Paulo and I collaborated on the Tahya Meditations Vol. II ~ Rainbow CD. My sweet "brother" dearly departed beloved Paulo was an active performer, composer and producer who traveled all over the world facilitating drum circles designed to bring participants "together as one community and to remind us of our shared universal rhythms." Did you ever meet him?!
    teka dum pah, Tahya

  2. Can I use Clorox wipes on my conga heads to disinfect? Also, should I loosen the heads after a performance?

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