Saturday, June 21, 2014

Senior Drum Circles & Drumming With The Elderly

Drum Circles With Seniors & The Elderly

by Shannon Ratigan -

Hey! Drum circles are more fun than shuffleboard! But seriously, I drum with elderly populations all the time. Mostly at active retirement communities, senior centers, and so on. They are always looking for something new, fun, diverse, interesting, and playful for the residents. A facilitated drum circle is all of that, and more.

The first reaction I get when I usually suggest the idea is, “I have no rhythm.” Or, “I’ve never played a musical instrument before.” If a facilitated drum circle is presented properly, in a matter of 10 minutes everyone can be playing a drum rhythm together. And from there, playing various drum rhythms from around the world. The key to it is setting the right tone that this is going to be playful and fun. You can improvise, play around, and just have a good time. Like we did when we were kids.

I always bring along some of these belly dance wrap skirts so people are enticed to get in the center and shake it.

After about 10 minutes you can see the joy in people’s eyes as they start to “get it” and are playing a drum rhythm for the first time in their lives. Making music is exciting, and if it is your first time, it’s really exciting.

We play Native American rhythms, African, Latin, Belly Dance, Reggae, Blues, R&B, and a lot more. After that first 10 minutes everyone is in the groove, & no longer “Thinking about messing up” “Can I do this?”, “Do I look silly.” Etc. That all goes away, and all we think about is drumming and making music as a group. That’s the goal. A lot of playing and very little talking. A bit about hand technique, where some of the drums are from, and the rest is all drumming.

I’m there as a rhythm starter, but everyone is welcome to start out a rhythm if they want to. Usually after half an hour, people are wanting to start out their own beats. Great, we go with it because it’s all organic and spontaneous at drum circles I facilitate. It's casual, laid back, and unlike a classroom situation.

This is how I like to get drum rhythms going: After a warm up jam, I vocalize a few measures of a rhythm, and then begin playing it. It’s easier for the brain to quickly process words, free up the mind, and then the body can play. Word association is a great way to get a drum circle rhythm going with all age groups.

For example, here’s a drum rhythm called Agilablanca. It’s in 4/4 time. (4 counts to a measure.) Rather than trying to teach it, I say: I-like-to-eat__choc-late-cake, I-like-to-eat__choc-late-cake (and repeat, etc.) (The first half of the phrase is all tones, the last half is all bass notes.) People add in the decorations, and away it goes.

Sound like fun? It is. I’m available for hire in the St. Louis area, and my rates are reasonable.

Sometimes we try drumming out Morse Code rhythms. Ask someone to suggest 2 letters, or numbers, and put them together to make a new drum circle rhythm. _ _...._ _ A dot is a tone, and a dash, is a bass note. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't, that's part of the fun, exploring, and going on this journey together. (There’s a Morse Code alphabet chart at my site )

A fun idea to entice movement in the center is to bring along a hula hoop. That can really ramp up the fun at your drum circle. It gives people a rhythmic motion to groove to. I was surprised when I first saw people of all different ages wanting to get in there and try it. The drum rhythm Beledi is a good one to use. In 4/4 time, it sounds like:

Doum Doum tek-ka-Tek, Doum tek-ka-Tek...Doum Doum tek-ka-Tek, Doum tek-ka-Tek...

(One of my dancer friends said the Beledi rhythm is the "Catnip Rhythm" for belly dancers. lol. I like that.

With some groups it’s a drum circle once or twice a year for events or special occasions, with others every month we do this. It’s a fun activity that no matter what physical limitations some of them may have, everyone can participate. Even those in wheelchairs, or those with strength in only one arm.

I like to provide drums from around the world such as djembes, congas, doumbeks, and bongos, frame drums, buffalo drums, sound shapes, and various other percussion instruments. That way, there is something for everyone to have fun with. And we play rhythms from different countries, and cultures. And, you can try them all out if you like.

As far as the staff is concerned, all we really need is some chairs set up in a circle about 20 - 30 feet across. So it is a pretty low maintenance activity for them. If it is outdoors, we need some shade.

Many times, elders are more playful than kids. You don’t get many chances to just be silly and have fun with friends or acquaintances as an older adult. I am a senior myself, I got my first senior citizens discount last month, and it was kind of humiliating. I thought, should I, or shouldn’t I? It was ten bucks, so I went on with it. And I really don’t like being treated like a senior very much either. Most others I have spoken with feel the same way. It sucks to get old and feel your body growing weaker.

We can’t do the physical things we once could do anymore. But we do want to have fun, and, if possible, do things that recapture some of our youth. Just be silly, and goof off a little bit. I like to feel young again, and so do most other older adults. That’s why a facilitated drum circle works so well. Remembering the things we enjoyed in our past
younger days, the music and songs we grew up on, that may mark fond memory points in our lives.

There are some limitations in movement of course. Some have severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and many other things that limit the amount of movement. Some are in wheel chairs, and only have limited movement in one arm or hand. So when I work with elderly groups I try to find out as much information as I can in advance on any possible limitations that may be present. This isn’t always possible, so I like to bring a real mixed bag of drums and percussion. Lots of things they can lay in their laps and play. Or things that can be easily played with one hand. Finding the right drum for everyone they can easily play and have fun with is very important so they can get the most benefit from it, and the most healing from the drum. It’s a good idea to have about a dozen SoundShapes with the soft mallets. They are the perfect instrument for many with limited movement.

When I arrive, I try to allow extra time so I can say hello, and shake their hands and talk with everyone. I think that it’s important to make sure everyone is aware of who I am. I want them to feel comfortable, and prepare them for some drumming fun. The hand shake also gives me a little bit of a clue as to their ability to use their hands so I can help them find the right drum to play for them.

After that initial (accessing the group) warm up jam, I spend a bit more time with them on good hand technique, and volume levels, because I don’t want anyone getting hurt, or feeling uncomfortable. Other than that, I pretty much facilitate the circle from the side, the same way I would any other group, except I make a little more eye contact.

I just let them have fun, and experience self discovery. This can deeply affect some people, I see them get very emotional sometimes. Even tears, and crying at some points. Mostly at the end is when the emotions seem to come through. Caring and compassion is needed here obviously. Lots of times they are tears of joy, because of the self discovery process many of us go through at a drum circle.

I like to bring body style drums that can stand up solid by themselves or in stands that can then be played at a comfortable level for people sitting without having to bend over to hold it. A wood Djembe is rather hard to hold onto for some people. And you don’t want it falling over on someone else. So, I use solid self standing drums, and/or drums with stands. But some people surprise me when they want to play that big ol’ drum, and proceed to jam out on it the entire session. But for the most part, drums that weigh a lot less like aluminum Doumbeks, those PVC Djembes, and Frame drums with beaters that are easy for a person to grip are ideal.

One thing I do with mallets is wrap the handle grip with cloth to be very fat, so they are easier to hold onto for a person that might have arthritis, but still wants to play. We need to think about things that are more comfortable for them, things they can rest on their laps, or play with one hand.

Frame drums seem to be the most popular, because they can be held easily with one hand and played with a soft mallet, or just rested on their laps and played that way. Plus they are just plain fun to play. The ocean drums are very popular also, (A two sided frame drum that has a bunch of buckshot inside it. When you tilt it, it sounds like waves rolling in.) I also use those Compact Congas, and tambourines. I use lots of different sizes. Bongos are fun as well, they can just rest them on the lap and be played with one or both hands. I bring a few throw pillows to put under them for comfort. Some bongo sets are rather heavy, so I look for the polymer shell style that weigh very little.

For those that can’t, or would rather not, play a drum, I bring loads of different things. Maracas, shakers, guiros, rattles, claves, jingle bells, stick castanets, and real mixed bag of percussion “toys”. This way everyone has lots of choices, and can pick and choose various things as we go along. Like I mentioned, Sound shapes are always in my kit, just in case. I keep 24 at the ready in a cloth shopping bag. They may start with a maraca but the rhythm will get them on a drum.

The first thing I would suggest is to go into this kind of drum circles with an open mind. I try to avoid any pre-formed assumptions about what elderly people with various conditions can or can't do. Their individual conditions can affect them in lots of different ways. And some of them might come as a surprise. If something spontaneous happens, go with it. Someone may suggest an idea or a song, or even get up and boogie. Cool. Do it. Make it fun.

It gives some of them a chance to bring some creativity and excitement to an otherwise routine day, and maybe make a few new friends in the process. Some of them want to stand and play instead of drumming sitting down. I let them go for it as long as they want. Some of them put on a belly dance wrap, get in the center, and boogie. It adds a lot of fun to the whole experience because we all know it’s organic, spontaneous, and happening in the moment.

With seniors there is a wide range in degrees of mobility. That’s why I need to think about adjusting and adapting the equipment, but for some it isn’t even needed. I just try to have a wide range of instruments available for them. One thing I have learned is that there is nothing worse (the same as with any person with any disability) than being
offered only the easiest drums, and percussion to play. I like to ask everyone to choose a drum. After a bit, we all trade drums with someone else.

One good idea if you have someone wanting to play a big Djembe but they are unable to hold it off the floor is to stand it in an upturned stool or chair. Use a bungee cord or two if necessary to keep it firmly in place. Then the sound will fully get out.

I think it’s very important to drum with the group, and not just be waving out instructions and telling them here’s what to play. That’s no fun, these aren’t children. When I’m playing my drum, some people like to watch and follow my hands. (Even though I am a lefty, and I mention that.) I put those ruffled elastic colored bands on my wrists I mentioned earlier, so people can easily see my hand movements if they want to, or need to. I always mention, play what ever you want, just follow the beat. Start a rhythm with a 4 measure vocalization, ie: Yum, Yum, tastes like chicken - Yum, Yum, tastes like chicken… (Two bass notes followed by 4 tone notes, and repeat.) They can either play the support rhythm, or improvise once it’s established. Often it transitions to another rhythm entirely. I just go with it, because that’s the group dynamic wanting to lead the rhythm. Don't fight it, let it go - If it trainwrecks - laugh it off, and start a new rhythm out.

I don’t make a whole lot of eye contact when playing. Just an occasional glance, or smile of reassurance. It’s important not to misread what might appear to be blank expressions. Often the facial muscles often don't work as well as they used to. Many times people like to just sit back and groove without playing for a little while, taking it all in. You learn to see more with your ears than you do your eyes. It’s important to remember that, sometimes, not all who may appear to be wandering are actually lost.

Try to have good background knowledge of the music they grew up on. Think of a few of the “American Standards” of their era. Some will suggest one, so go with it. Don’t be afraid to ask if there are any songs they might like to sing or play. I’ve had a couple of big band rhythm jams that were outstanding. Think about playing things like swing, waltzes, Hand Jive, I Got Rhythm, whatever they want to suggest. If they don’t have anything off the top of their heads, I suggest a few and let them choose. Usually someone knows all the old standards like: “Show me the way to go home“, “How much is that doggie in the window?”, “My old man said follow the van”, etc. Really you only need to know is the first line of the song. Everyone can La de da along, and play along. Or try instrumental standards like the song "Sing, Sing, Sing". That one has a grooving big band drum beat to it. Try asking for other song suggestions to play to.

Just having a warm and genuine welcoming and involvement with everyone sets the stage for a very successful musical time with elders. Many times the attendee's have an assistant, and that helps me a lot! I can then focus more on the musicality of the bigger group. They can help you offer different percussion items that might be better suited for individual people. If someone from the staff is there, ask for some assistance from them. That’s a great relief sometimes, as these particular populations do require a little bit of extra care.

But some of them love the lure of being in the band, even feeling like a rock star. So let them have that opportunity if it feels right to you. It doesn’t really matter how good the drumming is. The thing some don't understand about drum circles, is that it is more about the people, than it is the drumming. Many facilitators agree with me on this, some don't. The quality of the music produced in a drum circle isn't really based on the musical experience of the players, but on the developing quality of the relationships of the people that emerge. As a facilitator I help people to empower themselves through drumming, music, and fun. They need no experience at all to play in a drum circle. I encourage individual creativity, and group dynamics.

Try this one - they always love the beach towels in the center of the circle bit. About half way through the circle, I lay 2 beach towels (or yoga mats) out in the center of the circle before the next rhythm. (The slower beats work best for this.) I ask two people if they want to REALLY feel the healing power of the drum, to carefully lay down on them for a few minutes. I ask them to lay flat on them, arms to their sides, and close their eyes while we play a rhythm. When I offer up the idea, there are always a few takers on that one. And when they get up, the others see the looks on their faces, and want to try it also. It is very powerful to feel the drum downbeat absorbed into your body.

With just about every senior group drum circle, at the end I always do the “Let them feel the healing energy of the drum in their bodies." This is the one where at the end of the drum circle, set down the drums, they all stand up still in a 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 ooh’s and ahh’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. This is incredibly powerful when you feel it for the first time. The whole thing takes about 5 minutes.

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

I got this next idea from a friend. What she does, with participants in the more advanced stages of dementia, she includes a “hello” and “goodbye” song into her program, which includes everyone by name. It’s a great idea. It helps to give them clues as to what's about to happen, and highlights the beginning, and ending of the session, like a good story does.

Here’s another great idea. See if they would like to make their own drums, they don’t have a whole lot to do that isn’t routine. If they are in a nursing home, the staff can help them to make their own drums out of those 2 1/2 to 5 gallon buckets, or water bottles. They get them all decorated up, and play them with padded beaters. You can get the buckets free at paint shops, restaurants, and so on. Let the residents make drums for themselves, the differing sizes and shapes provide the varying sounds. Some have even had exhibits of their drums in local art venues. Colorfully decorated drums can also be bright corner pick me ups in their facilities.

Sometimes a few of the residents are into things like knitting, and crochet, and they can make their own Djembe hats relatively easily, to sell online, etc. They have lots of spare time. I have bought a few of them myself, and they look great, as well as being nice and thick so they protect the drum heads very well. I still have one I cherish that an 85 year old woman made for me.

(If you are short on cash, and need some Djembe covers, believe it or not, those round toilet bowl covers work pretty good for 12” to 14” Djembes. They are thick like shag carpet, so they protect them very well. And they have an elastic band around them to stay in place. You can find them at most thrift stores laying around for just a buck or two.
It’s probably a good idea to maybe wash them first.) lol. Yuck, why did I even include that?

Anyway, a good basic drum circle for seniors plan is this:

Try to see the actual playing space if possible, and speak with the staff if you can about any concerns or limitations. Would they like to begin a certain way, etc. Often it’s not possible, but I do it if I can. Most of the time booking, questions, and etc. happen via email. After booking a date, I like to ask if I can come by and see the room beforehand even if it does take a few extra hours out of my day. I can better visualize my drum and percussion set up, and things go smoother for me when I arrive to facilitate the circle. I can also size up the distance I need to carry all the drums from my vehicle. I can just manage my time and energy better. I also like to find the area of the room with the least echo to it. (Just clap your hands in different areas of the room to find it.) Sometimes they have a spot already picked out, and that’s it. Got to roll with the situation, it happens.

Clean your entire drum circle kit as best you can, before and after. We should disinfect all our instruments, particularly when working with seniors, children, or special need groups. I keep a travel pack anti-bacterial lotion with me. We want to connect, and keep safety in mind. Clean everything up as best you can. I do my kit clean up when I get home.

Instruments are very likely to get germs on them from playing. Remember that the disinfectant needs some time to evaporate. The synthetic drums are best here in these settings. They are easy to clean with some antibacterial wipes. The lightweight Doumbeks and small djembes are perfect. Frame drums are ideal, sound shapes, and etc. I use many synthetic instruments, like those egg shakers, maracas, guiros, etc. for the same reason. Plastics and laminates clean most easily, and are the most durable. I don’t use many goatskin drums for these groups. But I do bring a few of them for variety.

Sometimes when working with elders, many are scared of the potential 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, or have a small percussion instrument on or near each chair.

We play a rhythm together and they can move around as they like. 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, and once it’s solid - fade back and let them take it. It is so 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, and interesting for them. Mixing in a little about the history and type
of the drums between rhythms is fascinating for them, and helps me to be able to pace myself.

As I mentioned, some have physical limitations, so I bring buffalo drums, frame drums, drums they can lay on their laps and play. I try to avoid having too many things played with hard sticks or mallets, because sticks have a way of finding their way to goatskin heads. So there’s the chance someone might put one through a drum head or worse. 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 noodle with their fingers, or bash away, will get the repetition of a drum rhythm, and catch on eventually if you are a good facilitator. 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 group of active living elders 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 clean sounding notes, after the warm up rhythm.

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 was a public gathering 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. Okay, so I’m still a bit of a geek.

A whole bunch of people drumming together indoors can easily reach into the 115 to 120 Db range. About 150 Db, is the Pain Threshold. E-Gadds! 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 elders and special needs people. Most of the time, circles are 30 to 50 people, and volume is easy to manage.

A good idea is to create a volume down signal early on, 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 circles with 100 people, the Db level can be huge. So he charges the client for 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, especially with first timers. The one thing I don’t want to do is have people feel threatened, scared, overwhelmed, or lost. Trying to do complicated rhythms too soon can do that. Keep it simple until the group dynamic is created. Three to four jams usually is enough to do so. 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 in there, they are participating, and being a part of it.

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 anyone that might have some serious health issues. It’s the staff’s responsibility, but you should know what’s going on if you can. 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 be radar up, and ready for anything. It may be a casual setting with people transitioning in and out as rhythms are going on, so I like to sit or position myself so I can see who is entering or leaving the room.

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 staff knows a lot more than I do about specific medical conditions.

If the group takes a break for tea or something, make sure they don’t come back to the drumming area before they are all finished. Goatskin and cowhide drum heads make terrible coasters. If it’s a bathroom break, suggest they wash their hands with cold water. It cools their hands down, and gives them a little more grab on the drum head.

Here is a sample drum circle program I might use:

Right away to the warm up drum jam, maybe 5 minutes.

5 minutes to introduce different cultural drums, drumming history, and why people do it.

5 minutes to demonstrate the various drums, let them check them out, and pick one.

A few pointers on basic playing, and good posture / hand technique.

The rest of the time is jamming on different rhythms from around the world. Some slow tempo, some up-tempo for variety. Ask if they would like a take five break after a half hour of playing. Be ready to improvise on the fly. You are likely to have some real musicians in there. I had a guy once that just got up and started playing a piano that was in the room, and we all accompanied him. It was fantastic. Be aware of your surroundings. If they ask you to come back and do this again, mention maybe they could bring family members next time. It’s surprising the amount of engagement they have, 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 - I have time to reflect on everything - it affects me very deeply.

Ultimately, I just get rhythms started and let people play. It’s a multi cultural drum circle – not rocket science. We 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, and connecting with you.

With some regular meeting groups we find outdoor locations to play. We can connect with nature. Here in Saint Louis there are a lot of fantastic places to play. It doubles the experience. I hope you enjoyed reading my page, and if you facilitate drum circles for seniors, some of it helps you.

If your group would like to have a facilitated drum circle, please email me with any questions. My rates are reasonable. I never share email addresses with anyone. You can contact me at: drumcircles_net(at)

Please consider picking up my 101 drum circle rhythms DVD, or my 300 page drum circles book, "A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles" (Kindle) or some of my live drum circle music. The proceeds from the sales of my drumming CD's, DVD's, and drum circle book help me to do this kind of work in our community. I try to provide them as low cost as possible, always have, and always will. As an independent artist, money is tight, so I always appreciate a product that is a good value for the cost. That's the idea behind my book, CD's and DVD. Most of it is available at CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon, or direct from me at

If you do purchase something from me, thanks in advance for helping us out. Please visit the website, and have a look around. Find a drum circle near you to check out. Listen to some drum circle music, drum rhythm videos, lists of notated drum rhythms, references, and lots more.

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