Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Deaf Drum Circles - Drumming With Hearing Impaired

At first glance one might think a deaf drum circle presents a lot of challenges. It really doesn’t. I learned from experience to just facilitate it like you would a regular drum circle. Don’t over-think it. I did that early on, and it was a mistake that I quickly had to get corrected. Rhythm games, passing shakers, and pie slices type of thing just wastes valuable time. We are there to have a rhythm session as a group, not play games or talk. Let’s just start playing, and shake out those nerves. Then the real fun can begin. Exploring rhythms with different tempos, cultures, and styles.

There are a few mechanical adjustments I make after testing the acoustics of the room, (beforehand if possible loud hand claps, or yell a loud “Hey” in the likely spots to facilitate the circle). Forgive me for this, but I call it the clap test. If there’s an echo in that spot, find a place that is more ideal. Sometimes you have to work with where they want it, or in large gyms, so echo is important to minimize if you can.

One, that is most important, is that neither myself, or the person signing is in front of a window, or less than ideal lighting. I made that mistake early on. You become silhouetted or worse. The other thing is to remember to keep my head up when I speak, because many are so sharp, they read lips rather than even look at the signer. So head’s up, no bright light behind you.

I tend to not say much during a drum circle, because an hour goes by so fast. I mix in a little about volume, history and names of a few rhythms, what they mean, a little about the drums, good hand technique, and little else. We can chat a little when drum circle time is up. Let’s just get to that warm up that lets everyone relax, and realize they can just have fun, and not worry about silly things, like making a mistake. I was very self-conscious when I approached my first drum as a teen.

Anyway, I just start things off with a basic warm up boom cha la ka where the tempo is nice and slow until everyone finds a place. Then up to faster tempo for 5 minutes or so, and end it up with a nice up and down massive rumble, wailing away, and everyone comes out of that joyous, smiling, and feeling good! That sets a nice tone for the whole session. That this is going to be fun, I’m going to improvise, and make some music with my own two hands.

Generally speaking, a group dynamic happens after 45 minutes, so we are just getting to the real groove – on the beam at that point. It’s the same with children or adults. I often go an extra half hour because of this. I want them to have as much fun as possible, and it is at this point where they start to feel what playing and experiencing a real groove feels like. It goes deep into your spirit and soul.

After that warm up, I usually have a set list in my head. I also keep it in my pocket, and that way, I don’t need to look at it. But it’s nice to know it’s there in case of a mental hiccup. Sometimes it just happens as a performer. We all make mistakes, move past it, and go on to the next rhythm. I keep duration of rhythms to 5 -7 minutes so we can try out a bunch of them from different cultures. It’s all part of giving a full experience. I almost always include African Fanga, something in 6/8, something Native American, and Mid-East Beledi as a part of my experience. Most of it is in 4/4 time.

I always start each rhythm out with a 2 measure vocalization of the beat, and then I start playing it at a very slow tempo so everyone can latch on, and then I slowly bring it up to a comfortable pace. Encourage them to experiment, and find a place in the rhythm when they feel comfortable. I try to keep each rhythm no more than 7 minutes long, as an hour goes by so fast. I can get maybe 7 or 8 drum rhythms in there.

I like to have them experience different cultures as I play along with them. As for endings, I try to mix them up a bit, but nothing beats a good rumble ending. Drum circle chairs set-up: Chairs about 20 feet across the circle, or as you see in the photos, sometimes a semi-circle so everyone can see.

I use only body drums, djembes, doumbeks, darbukas, congas, bottom drums, and a few frame drums. No lollipop drums or sound tubes, give them a real drum to play if you can, they can feel the resonation more.

My experience working with deaf, or the pc version “hearing impaired”, is many prefer to embrace the term deaf, and why not? It makes sense if I think about it. Something else as many know, is if one sense is weakened, often one or all the other senses, are heightened. So, hygiene, no colognes or perfumes. I don’t really care for TV shows with sub-titles, but this Russian series titles Sniffer” is about a guy with a heightened sense of smell, and it’s pretty good also. It’s beautifully shot, the relationships of the characters fascinated me, and the plot lines were pretty good as well. There was this strange familiarity of the main characters for me. It was like I had seen them somewhere in something. I used to get that look a lot from my acting peers when I had a number of commercials running.

That’s the life of working as an actor, you tend to watch more than what you see, and it takes a well produced film or TV series for me not to be looking at the filmmaking process or mistakes. It needs to draw me away from that world, and “Sniffer” did that. Maybe you will enjoy it as well. I’m definitely not a film critic.

I’m also not an expert on deaf drum circles, but I do have many years of drum circle facilitating experience, both with adult, kids, and mixed families. My hope is, if you are offered to facilitate a deaf drum circle, some of this may help you.

Something I didn’t know much about early on, is that there are varying degrees of deafness. Someone who might be clinically considered deaf may have limited hearing of certain different pitches and sounds. It meant that they could only hear sounds in a very high sound register. Like in super soprano, but that was all they could hear. Others can only hear just a hint of, or feel a hint of the bottom bass beat. My experience is that on the whole, people who are deaf still can be highly functional, and very musical.

Some only can feel the vibration of the drumming. Repetition, repetition, repetition. This is one reason I like to bring 2 beach towels, or yoga mats, and have people lay down flat in the center of the circle and close their eyes for a moment somewhere during the circle. To see things without the eyes, and to feel, even if they can’t hear a rhythm, they can feel it. Many times after just one circle I’ve had many different people come up to me and tell me how delighted they were. Their other senses are so acute, many feel more than say just a public gathering drum circle.

Watching someone signing to music or a rhythm is a beautiful thing to watch. It flows so nice to a drum rhythm if someone is signing to it, and it feels really nice. Or even vice versa. It looks like a sort of hand bound Tai Chi. Signing gives a beautiful sense of rhythm to the music. Many concerts or events I’ve been to have someone signing off to stage right or something.

I’ve facilitated many deaf drum circles over the years, and seen many different signers. I’ve learned a little signing myself in the process, and I use it as often as I can during events while I speak. It is not easy to sign, just try it if you haven’t, but if I could learn the basics of it, so can you. I love it when the interpreter interprets the rhythm and prompts everyone to participate. Try to make sure that there are interpreters present if you encounter this. When I am working with a signer, I just have to remember that they have to hear what I am saying, keep my head up when I speak, but not exaggerate it, or speak more deliberately, that is a bit insulting.

If it’s possible, when I load in my gear I try to find the signer and make a new friend. I let them know how my speaking will work, and what I’m going to be saying. For many, it’s the first drum circle they’ve ever seen, they have no idea what to expect, and it is much appreciated most of the time for the head’s up.

I explain to the signer, (or signers) I’ll be saying short bits here and there, but mostly rhythm names, drum names, cultures, and what they will sound like using 3 or 4 different methods. Middle Eastern doume tek-ka, Babatune’s Godo –pa-ta, a boom chick a boom boom, I may just scat out a few. Lots of them with a strong downbeat. Some modern stuff, and etc. That gives them a heads up, saves time, and helps everything go smoother.

At this kids camp event, they were swapping in a new signer every 10 minutes, so be ready for that if it happens. We jammed out like is was swapping out drummers mid-jam like Parliament Funkadelic back in the 70’s Mothership days.

Often times, it will be a transitional event, where people have time restrictions, but they can feel free to enter, or leave the drum circle at any point during a rhythm. Sometimes it is up to you to keep the groove going.

It makes good sense to do your homework beforehand on any group or condition that might be present at a drum circle. So I can be respectful, understanding, patient, considerate, and have a better understanding of it.

Then I can help them feel more comfortable, and if necessary, stay within their boundaries. It’s always better to do a little research on deaf culture or anything else you might run into before working with them. Like all cultures, they have their own habits, values, and language. Generally, the deaf community does not see their deafness as a disability. As I said, my experience is they embrace it. It’s a deaf drum circle. Nobody wants to be treated differently, so I never do that. It takes some experience to just trust yourself, and do this. It’s a regular drum circle. Heads up,  no windows behind you or the signer, and slow the pace a tad, especially when presenting the names of rhythms, and what they look like being played.

Do this simply, and there’s no communication barrier. We just speak a different language, and it is a beautiful one at that. Connect your rhythm whenever you get a chance. It’s not a variety of challenges, it’s a drum circle. Come have some fun!

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My drum circles book on Kindle, 300 pages $8.

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Shannon Ratigan