Thursday, September 30, 2010

Drum Circle Benefits – Social, Physical, & Mental?

There have been some recent studies indicating that drumming may be equivalent to some medications. When we are inactive, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates mood, gets smaller. Dancing and drumming actually spurs new nerve growing in this area and relieves and prevents depression. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes in people that had supposedly incurable nerve damage. So what makes dance different from other exercise? Playing or dancing to drum rhythms increases neural transmissions. Drumming also helps to rebuild neuro-receptors. The repetitive physical activity of drumming and dance is soothing to the soul and human body, and the simple repetitiveness of the drum beat pattern has a lot to do with it.

A newer friend of mine spoke with me after a few months of attending a weekly drum circle I facilitated. She had a number of physical and health limitations that were obvious, like nerve damage, and It looked like she was just slowly getting better. I noticed her improving dramatically in both her health and state of mind. Please keep in mind I’m not a doctor, or am I recommending a treatment. This is just what I observed, and what was shared with me.

It seems she became paralyzed from the neck down six years ago following a botched surgery. A blood clot formed in her spinal cord and as it traveled toward the brain, it did extensive nerve damage. She had spent six months in a wheelchair, and another year in a walker. She was also a migraine sufferer, having them as frequently as three times a week. When she was 13, her doctor suggested relaxation therapy, in an effort to try and avert the migraines. So it was then that she first employed music for its healthful benefits, and not just something pretty to listen to. She learned to listen to it differently. To breathe the music.

Then she found our little drum circle. She was seated in the back, and I just held out and offered a drum I brought over to her. She was so surprised, and flustered, that she accepted it and said “I don’t know what to do!” I said, just play whatever you want, whatever you feel like playing, and don‘t worry about it. Just have some fun, and play when you feel like playing. Nobody cares how good you are here, and you are not going to mess anyone else up. Everyone is here just to have fun.

It was one of those light aluminum doumbeks by the way. Those are ideal for beginners I think, because they are light, very comfortable to hold and play, plus most of them are just intriguing looking drums to people. It’s like an immediate, “yeah that looks like fun, I wanna try that”. She kept coming back to the drum circle for weeks after that.

She said it opened up a whole new channel into her inner core. And that the drum casts a spell on anyone who hears it, and more so, on those who play one. Although other music can be equally entrancing, it only has that power if you listen to it, but the drum finds its way into your soul without you even knowing it. Before long, you find the rhythm so familiar, and so comforting, much like the rhythm of the human heart. This, to me, is just the spiritual power of drumming.

Now the more scientific stuff. She been coming to the drum circle for about six months, and when she first started coming, most of her fingers had little to no feeling in them. She felt that when she struck the drum with her hands, the vibrations carried up into her arms. The thinking was that nerves need to be stimulated in order to heal. Over the course of the last two months, she’s actually noticed more increased sensation in her fingers. I can't say for certain if drumming is responsible for the new found sensation, but it's the only thing in her lifestyle she said she had changed over the past several months that could possibly have made a difference. I might add that, according to what her doctor had told her, is that her nerves were "permanently" damaged. They started to improve.

Finally, she added that over the course of many years she had been treated for severe depression. Although she became healthy enough to stop taking medication two years ago, she had continued to suffer periodic short bouts of the depression. Before finding the drum, she would simply "wait it out" and let the spell pass. Sadly, it was usually at the expense of family and friends dragging around for days until something changed and lifted her spirits up. She eventually bought her own djembe drum.

Now, when she feels low, she picks up her drum and begins to play with the mother rhythm or some other rhythms she now knows, just letting the drum and her heart become one. She said once she achieves that, she simply lets her heart take over, and allows her hands to play whatever her heart tells her to play. At the end of the drumming session, she found herself not only deeply relaxed, but, by the same token, reenergized and happy to be alive. It takes her back to a place where she has the deepest appreciation for the smallest of things. It's much more than "just" a drum. It's magical, and that makes you look at everything else with a different perspective.

Aside from that, drumming studies have been done and the results indicate it can help out people that have/had breast cancer. Apparently, that the exercise involved with drumming or dancing, can lower the risk of estrogen related tumors. Just thirty minutes of it a day can dramatically decrease the odds of another tumor occurring. I can believe it after seeing the nerve damage healing in her, and in others.

For those who undergo chemotherapy, aromatase inhibitors decrease estrogen. Estrogen loss speeds up bone loss. Dancing and movement helps slow that loss. Newer studies also indicated that exercise can reduce the symptoms of lymph-edema if it is approached gradually. Belly dancing is particularly beneficial style. All those arm extensions and playing the Zills (little finger cymbals) is a natural way to aid in lymph drainage. And it may even help reduce the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome. And it entices us guys to play better.

Drumming even helps to make you smarter. Doh! Improved IQ scores can now officially be added to the growing list of benefits from playing at the drum circle. A recent study showed that playing the drums improved the IQ scores of some children. I mean, if you think about it, drum rhythms are mathematic in their natural form. (4/4 time, 6/8, etc.) They are drumming, and learning some basic math in the process of having fun.

While many various studies have indicated that musical training can improve a person's literacy and math skills, this is particularly interesting, because it is the first time that a study has shown that just drumming alone, can improve your intelligence level. Playing the drums is unique in that it makes the brain think in such a way that very few other activities can do. Being able to learn and understand drum beats, and figure out how the various drum rhythms go together is actually a very complicated thought process. This kind of thinking exercises your brain, and actually helps make you smarter.

For every hour you are dancing or drumming you can possibly add an extra hour to your life. What a nice added bonus. It was explained to me by a belly dancer one time that the different parts of the body represent different natural elements of the earth in their expression. That the movements in the base and pelvic areas represent earth and grounding. Movements in the belly represent the flow of water. Movements in the upper parts of the body represent the fire. The hand movement represents the air.

Over the course of the years I have seen some fascinating things happen with people. In a regular weekly drum circle, people with all sorts of personal problems and issues. Social difficulties, self consciousness, physical limitations, and numerous other things would slowly start to heal themselves. Relationships slowly developed, people fell in love and found life partners. The introverted slowly started to come out of their shells.

The drum circle is a non threatening environment, so people begin to relax about their social feelings and limitations. We are just there to play music together, the most honest way of getting to know someone there is. People have a real life, and a musical life. I got to know so many of these people so very intimately musically, yet I knew nothing about their real lives. What they did, where they are from, what hobbies they have, and on and on. Many of them were professional people from all walks of life, and all different ethnic backgrounds. I knew nothing about them, but I had been playing music with them for so very long, I had this feeling I had known them my entire life. I felt like I knew them better than any of my best friends. It sounds strange even to write it, but it is true. Of course there were many that I became close personal friends with, but for the most part, I didn’t know a lot of them, except musically. After all, I was busy playing all night, and never got to actually talk to them, except with our drumming. The most honest form of communication is music.

People that had just experienced some recent sadness, or even a tragedy in there life would go there, because they could be around a supportive group of friends who cared about them as a friend, and they would not to have to grieve alone at home. They had a community of friends they could go to. We would all help them deal with it through the drumming. And they knew that people genuinely cared about them. Even the ones who only knew them musically. This kind of thing happens at a regularly meeting drum circle. Happy things got celebrated as well. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

After about a year, this drum circle had become so popular that the media eventually started to wander in and asked me to do interviews about this particular drum circle, and drum circles in general. It was quite a nice article, and lots of credit goes to a wonderful writer. There is a link to it on the main page of my website:
Shannon Ratigan

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