Drumming Up Wellness

On a recent morning at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York, 18 adult day care
patients drifted into a lounge and settled by their percussion instrument of choice.
For the next hour, prompted by a music therapist setting a beat to a keyboard synthesizer,
the group created a symphony of rhythm with an assortment of hand and floor drums
that included bongos, maracas, tambourines, shakers, whistles and bells, some
attached to their wrists because they have been stricken by stroke or dementia.

By Allan Richter

October 2008

Corinthia Bolden, 64, stiff on her right side from a stroke, tapped and palmed an African floor drum just to the left of her wheelchair. In sync with the others and her own cadence, Bolden rocked to and fro, bobbed her head and raised her left shoulder on back beats. “The touching seems to be important to her,” therapist Ariel Weissberger, MTBC, said later. “Touching the drum in different ways helps her ground herself, and at the same time she gets into a very kinesthetic movement.”

Call it a Berlitz lesson with rhythm instead of words. With gaps in their ages spanning decades, these patients—some who speak only Spanish, some unable to speak at all because of their illness—held a conversation with drums. And with science backing the idea that rhythm helps heal, more Western health care facilities are embracing drum circles as therapy sessions. It’s a natural step, proponents say, because we are attuned to rhythms that precede even our own in utero heartbeats.

An Ancient Tune

Sound and rhythm have been a part of the universe for eons. The Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England found ripples spaced 30,000 light-years apart that emanated from an enormous black hole at the center of the Perseus Cluster of galaxies more than 250 million light-years from Earth. With those details, the scientists calculated the frequency of the sound waves and the pitch—a B flat 57 octaves below middle C on a piano—that have been resonating from the black hole for 2.5 billion years.

“We are multi-dimensional rhythm machines and we’re embedded in a universe of rhythm,” Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer and musicologist, tells Energy Times.

Hart has testified before the US Senate on the benefits of drumming, particularly for the aged. Drum circles, he asserts, lift feelings of loneliness and alienation, boost self-esteem, focus the mind, reduce stress, and provide empowerment and exercise. And all participants share equal billing because a drum circle, as Hart puts it, has neither head nor tail.

“Here is one place you can be exactly who you want to be and you’re a success as long as you’re in a group,” Hart says. “All you have to do is listen to the person next to you and go with the rhythm.

There’s a very spiritual content; you’re bordering on the secular and the sacred here. Then there’s the transformative power of rhythm, where it elevates your consciousness and it takes you into like a group high. You experience personal and group power.”

Instruments other than drums, of course, generate rhythm—a piano, with its internal network of felt-tipped hammers against strings, is a percussion instrument—but drums have a flatter learning curve.

The Community Drum

“Drum circles essentially are an access point for music making,” says Christine Stevens, MTBC, MSW, who has developed group drumming programs for 15 years. “If you’re tone deaf, you can still go to a drum circle. You feel some kind of invisibility in a drum circle. You’re surrounded by a community doing the same thing, and it feels natural.”

Stevens says she is involved in a research study whose preliminary data show that hand drumming provides similar exercise benefits as riding an inclined bicycle. “It’s a workout to drum; you’re burning calories,” says Stevens, author of The Art and Heart of Drum Circles (Hal Leonard).

Hart is encouraged by the growing popularity and value ascribed to drumming. “Drum circles have now been elevated to very serious study,” as he puts it. In a study of Japanese corporate workers co-authored by Bittman of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, for instance, drumming was found to have boosted natural killer cell activity and improved moods versus subjects who read leisurely (Medical Science Monitor 2/07).

In another study by Bittman, of 75 first-year associate degree nursing students from Allegany College of Maryland, “statistically significant” levels of stress and moodiness were reduced after six drumming sessions (International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship 2004).

Stevens and Bittman teach people how to facilitate drum circles to help improve health and wellness under a program called HealthRhythms developed with Remo Inc., the Valencia, California, drum maker.

At a Midland, Pennsylvania, HealthRhythms training session last month, 50 music teachers, therapists, nurses and other healthcare providers sat in two circles, one inside the other, to learn the program’s protocol, which includes stretching and breathing, avoiding slapping the drumhead to prevent injury, asking players to beat a rhythm that mirrors their emotions—Bittman cites the “Trojan horse of music” to help patients open up—and cooling down with a guided-imagery drum meditation.

Stevens showed the group “ambient” instruments, like a hand drum with metal beads in it that mimics ocean sounds, for people who have trouble keeping a beat. She demonstrated how, with another hand drum, a therapist can drum and give a massage by holding the instrument’s open face near a patient’s body.

This month, Stevens, who has led drum circles for students at Columbine High School and a New York public school near the site of the World Trade Center attacks, is applying drumming to diplomacy and peacemaking with a return visit  to Iraq. On a trip to the war-torn country last year, she led five days of drum circles with 38 Kurds and Arabs, traditionally enemies. Stevens trained Iraqis from seven governances with some lofty goals: easing sectarian violence, developing leaders to spread the health benefits to their communities and empowering children without a school support system to help steer them from recruitment by al Qaeda.

“The Middle East has different scales and tonality; it’s not that easy to jam together with other instruments,” says Stevens. “The drum is the language of global diplomacy. Drums are compatible with drums.”

Back at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, therapist Weissberger also empowered some novice drummers. As facilitator, he cued the group of patients with a series of rhythmic chords on his keyboard or by beating a large bass drum, or floor tom. With a deeper pitch than the many smaller hand drums in a drum circle, the bass drum typically plays a leadership role. So, on occasion, the therapist passed responsibility for the bass drum to a smiling Joy Moore, 55, who suffered a stroke four years ago.

“It relaxes me,” Moore said, adding that the drum circle took her back to childhood campfires. “It takes me to another level. I’m a music lover and I love to socialize, so it’s in my soul.”

Adds Stevens, “Remove all thinking that you can’t do this. That’s the first step. The next step is to recognize the rhythm of your life. Notice your heart beating. Notice that any conversation has a rhythm. People get hung up on the art stage, but you were born to be a drummer.”

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