Making It Work: Facilitating Drum Circles for Healing with Children
In a world that is connected through technology and social media, we still remain disconnected with one another, ourselves, and as a community. As I write this article, I sit in awareness of millions of people who are isolated from one another due to the coronavirus pandemic. All of us have been affected, including our students who need human connection now more than ever. How can drum circles help meet children’s social and emotional needs?
Synthesizing what I learned through my Orff-Schulwerk, Village Music Circles, and Remo Health Rhythms training, I initially learned that drum circles can provide many benefits to any individual, regardless of their age or musical ability levels. They are an avenue for engaging more people in making music, creating connections between individuals, and providing healing benefits. Drum circles can be successful even with a small amount of provided drums, such as tubanos, bongos, frame drums, and djembes, or accessory percussion. Drums from home, found sounds, body percussion (such as clapping and stomping) create interest and emotional expression in a community song. In 2020, I conducted my own investigation of an elementary school teacher who facilitated drum circles and further learned that drum circles sharpened participants’ attention, enhanced their emotional awareness, and made them feel empowered. The teacher suggested that drumming brought participants into a state of mindfulness, a practice of bringing awareness to the present moment with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment that has a range of cognitive, social, physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological benefits. The competencies of self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills from the social emotional learning (SEL) framework are used throughout the drum circle experience. The SEL framework comes from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, an evidenced-based source for social and emotional learning (CASEL, n.d.).
Prior to virtual learning, I had used drum circle as a way for my students and me to build community, mindfulness skills, and empower them. We learned each other’s names and favorite foods using rhythms and explored the sounds of each instrument. I would also have students take on leadership roles to start, stop, and direct the class. These activities were empowering to students and allowed them to develop their communication, teamwork, and leadership skills, which all align to the core competency of relationship skills found within the social and emotional learning framework.
Presently the drum circle has gone virtual and is confined to squares, which presents some challenges for facilitators and students who are used to sitting in a circle. Not everyone can hear one another in the group, the timing is delayed when students echo the teacher, and the rhythmic communication between participants is lost because they cannot hear each other. While being in person is the most ideal way to experience the drum circle, it is possible to get the same physical, emotional, and musical results during a virtual setting. In response to this dilemma, I weaved together lessons that included pieces of social and emotional healing, mindfulness, creativity, community building, as well as musical elements such as echo-imitation, trading 4’s, rapping, chanting, singing, and drumming. In particular, the Orff-Schulwerk process of exploration, imitation, improvisation and creation to be an organic sequence for facilitating the drum circle online.
Exploration and Imitation
I begin the virtual drum circle with exploration. Students explore the various sounds of the drum, body, or found sounds during the rumble (i.e., sustained sound, such as a roll in percussion). Then, they copy me in producing non-traditional sounds on their drums, such as scratching the drumhead with their nails, knocking on the drum with their fists, sweeping the drum with their palms to create the sound of wind, and clapping/drumming combinations of rhythms. Exploration also occurs in the drum circle when I or a student leader invites participants to play a variety of rhythms on their signal. The exploration of sounds can be heard when the facilitator sections-off different groups or scaffolds the improvisation. Exploration provides the participant with time to get to know all the sounds their instrument or body is capable of making. The competency of self-awareness in the social emotional learning (SEL) framework is achieved through student and teacher-guided icebreakers which include the rumble and non-traditional sound explorations.
Early lessons in the drum circle begin with echo imitation to help instill a rhythmic vocabulary and to get everyone’s hands coordinated to play the drums. I treat this time like a mini drum lesson to show them where to play the drum for low and high sounds and proper playing technique. This is also a great time to entrain individuals with feeling the beat while they are imitating rhythms. Through speech, individuals are invited to play what they say on their drum. There are numerous resources through which speech can be used in the drum circle to facilitate rhythmic facility. In my e-book “Drum O’ Clock” (2020), I ask children a question that pertains to the topic that we are drumming, singing, and/or rapping about for the day. The student responses to my question are what creates the rhythmic building blocks for our ostinato. Through building rhythms individually and/or as a group with rhythmic building blocks, students are building their schema to facilitate rhythmic improvisations with confidence. In this setting, the competency of self-awareness in the social and emotional learning framework is being highlighted with the feeling of confidence. Self-awareness is the capacity to identify one’s emotions, strengths, limitations, and thoughts.
When the students are at a level of comfortably echoing rhythms, playing a steady rhythmic ostinato, and keeping a steady pulse, improvisation will come naturally. In the community and student drum circles that I facilitate, improvisation is approached like we are having a conversation with one another through the drum. The social and emotional competency of relationship skills is being fostered through effective listening and rhythmic communication skills. Students are also practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving skills through the rhythmic conversations that are taking place.
Improvisation occurs during trading 4’s (when the teacher plays a four-beat improvised solo and the student plays a four-beat improvised solo in return). This is an exciting time for students, because it provides them with the opportunity to shine through self-expression. The competency of relationships skills in the social and emotional learning framework is observed as rhythmic entrainment and transfer of leadership. I have noticed that when my students take a solo, they get a rush of excitement and feel amazing afterwards. This is where the fun really begins as a facilitator and teacher. Learning to section-off the group and direct the ensemble with duets, trios, soloists, drum groupings, accessory instrument types, and more creates an empowering experience for everyone.
Drum circles can be used as a tool to encourage students to create their own rhythm pieces which can contain singing, speech, and movement. In my drum circles, I love adding a song and inviting people to dance. After everyone settles into a groove, I start singing a simple melody that everyone is asked to echo while they are still playing the drums. If a participant feels inclined to move, they are invited to move their body to the rhythm that has been established for them. This improvised movement demonstrates the student’s capacity for self-management and expression.
Once everyone has been introduced to the elements of the drum circle, I invite students to create a composition that includes a student selected form, time signature, instrumentation, melody, movement, and rhythm. If students are experiencing a creative block, I provide parameters for them to ensure a smooth transition from improvising to creating. Keeping the melody and rhythms simple provides another way for participants to express themselves which creates a full body musical experience and aligns to the social and emotional competency of self-management.
Drum circles provide an inviting environment that is conducive to creating music, connecting with others, healing, sharpening one’s attention, enhancing emotional awareness, and empowering participants. This well-rounded approach to making music engages the learner from multiple perspectives using instruments, the voice, body percussion, and movement. Participants in drum circles are capable of achieving a present state of awareness, a sense of belonging, the ability to express themselves, the confidence to lead, and can be healed from underlying traumas leaving participants in a joyous mood. This enables people to cross barriers of language, status and education, and eventually enriches the ability to celebrate differences (Friedmann, 2000).
The drum circle experience does not have to be limited by resources or location. Students who are experiencing virtual learning can also use found sounds from around the home such as pans, buckets, paper cups, or pencils. Whatever percussion instrument participants have, the healing benefits of drumming and rhythm can be received through the drum circle experience. Through drum circles, teachers can bring musical connection to one another—even though it is physically distanced or virtual—which aids in the social and emotional well-being of our students. Whether one’s drum circle is in person or virtual, students will receive the healing benefits this medium has to offer. Following the Orff-Schulwerk process of exploration-imitation-improvisation/creation can aid in these experiences. For free lesson materials and video from my e-book Drum O’ Clock, go to the links below this article.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). Sel: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted? https://casel.org/sel-framework/
Friedman, R. (2000). The healing power of the drum. White Cliffs Media.
Lewis, K. (2020). Drum o’clock: A digital community drum circle experience [e-book].