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With the rise in popularity of drumming in music therapy, and many other areas including music education, recreation, and even corporate events, the term “drum circle” has become nearly synonymous with “group drumming,” but there are more than a few reasons a music therapist should carefully consider including the term as part of his/her professional practice.
The following is not a comparison of the relative value of drum circles vs. music therapy. Both have value and both are useful. It is an argument for the dis-use of the term “drum circle” within the profession of music therapy.
1. The definition of a drum circle is completely different than that of music therapy.
In her book, Music Therapy Improvisation for Groups – Essential Leadership Competencies, Susan C. Gardstrom, MT-BC, PhD, writes, “It is critical that you understand the distinction between clinical improvisation and a drum circle. The two experiences are often mistaken for one another, even though they are more different than alike.”
A drum circle is a community-based experience wherein participants self-organize, self-select, and create in-the-moment music as a form of both self-expression and community. It is the participants who decide why and how they participant, whether or not a facilitator is present. This is not how music therapy works.
Clinical improvisation is the process whereby the therapist and client(s) improvise together for the purposes of therapeutic assessment, treatment, and /or evaluation. In clinical improvisation, client and therapist relate to one another through the music, and the improvisation results in a musical product that varies in aesthetic, expressive, and interpersonal significance. This is how music therapy works.
2. Drum Circles Have a Stigma.
Drum circles have been in the news for years, but not always presented in a positive light. They’re often portrayed as gatherings of half-naked sweaty men and woman dancing around a bonfire, or tie-dye-clad hippies flaunting dread-locks and patchouli oil at a music festival. Even though the term has been pushed into schools and even the corporate training world, the stigma of the drum circle as a counter-culture “psychedelic music jam session” still remains to this day. The fact is, public drum circles, such as those found at places such as Venice Beach, are notorious for the unrestricted use of drugs. Music therapists may wish to not intentionally associate what they do with the stigma attached to some drum circles. It’s true that many facilitators create “drum circles” that are almost nothing like their public counterparts. Nevertheless, drum circles continue to be joked about as “hippie” culture to this day.
3. The Term “Drum Circle” is Misused and Overused.
The term “Drum Circle” has been used to describe so many types of drumming experience over the past two decades that it has lost most of its meaning. Because of over-marketing and selling drum circles as just about any type of drumming experience (from elementary school drumming to retirement home activities and corporate training), the term is often misused to describe everything from conducted improvisations, to singalongs with drums, traditional drumming, drumming games, guided interactive drumming, conducted drumming, and more. The are MANY types of group drumming beyond drum circles, but many people don’t know the difference and label everything a “Drum Circle.” Some people even use terms like “Drum Circle Games,” which adds to the confusion. Is it a game (a structured experience with clear guidelines for participation, procedures and play rules) or a drum circle? Who knows! This over-application of the term may be due to an effort by some to cram as many types of experience under the “drum circle” umbrella as possible, thereby creating the impression that the “drum circle movement” is much larger than it actually is. In any case, the term is now almost meaningless when compared to its original definition. See this Taxonomy of Drumming Experiences for some examples.
4. The Term “Drum Circle” is Not Part of the Profession of Music Therapy.
“Drum Circle” is an American term that rose in use during the 1960’s often to refer to groups of people gathering in public to play improvised music. Music Therapy, as a profession, pre-dates the popular use of the term, and has seldom included references to it in professional writings. The canon of music therapy literature and pedagogy, makes little mention of drum circles and instead, focuses on the use of various drumming types, some of which are mentioned above. Music improvisation has been part of music therapy since its inception and continues to play an important role to this day. On the surface, there are some similarities between a drum circle and a group music therapy session using drums and percussion, but as mentioned previously, the purpose, methods, techniques, roles, and responsibilities of the therapist and clients are entirely different.
5. Clinical Improvisation Already Provides Everything Music Therapists Need.
Although many music therapists are still not familiar with the term, “Clinical Improvisation,” the study, teaching, and codification of this aspect of music therapy predates the popular use of the term drum circles by several years. Music Therapists including Kenneth Bruscia, Tony Wigram, Susan Gardstrom, and Kalani Das (me), have all written about the use and applications of clinical improvisation, which can account for virtually every conceivable technique, strategy, and structure a music therapist would need in his/her work – even when using drums exclusively. It is likely because of the explicit nature of drum circles and the heavy promotion by drum companies, that the term rose in popularity, even when music therapy already provided the tools from within the profession. (What’s the definition of a “professional?” – Anyone from out of town!). Click your heels together three times and look no further than your own front yard!
6. Anyone Can Facilitate a Drum Circle.
There are no limits, rules, regulations or standards about who can lead a drum circle. If you’re a music therapist who claims to deliver “drum circles” as part of your music therapy services, then you’re opening the door for anyone else who offers drum circles to do what you do. As music therapists, we know that what we do is much more than just a drum circle, but do your clients know that, or the people who hire you? With the rise of corporate-driven training of drum circle facilitators, there are more and more people looking for jobs with special and sensitive populations. By using a non-music therapy term, such as ‘drum circle’ in your work, you could be opening up the door for increased competition from anyone with a car-load of drums and a weekend of training.
7. Music Therapy is About More than Fun.
REMO Inc., founder, Remo Beli, used to assert that drum circles were mostly about having fun. He was right! We can all appreciate the freedom of music improvisation and the good feelings that can come from self-expression and playing music with others, but music therapy is about a lot more than feeling good and having fun. Your job, as a music therapist, is to assess, treat, and evaluate your clients every single time you see them. You’re not there to just “have fun” and see that they “feel good.” If that’s what you’re doing, then you may not be practicing music therapy! Drum circles are fine, but you do so much more in your clinical work. Every music therapist needs to make sure that he/she is communicating a depth of knowledge to other healthcare professionals, especially those for whom we work. If you tell your supervisor that you “had a drum circle” during your music therapy session, what will they think about your professionalism? It would probably sound more professional to say that you “provided an improvised group drumming experience that sought to develop self-determination, confidence, and build trust among the participants.”
8. Drum Circle Facilitation Training is Not Music Therapy Training.
You may ask, “What about drum circle facilitation training? Can’t I use that in Music Therapy?” As mentioned above, drum circles and music therapy have very different goals and relationships between the “leader” and participants. They are about as different as hanging out with friends and a group therapy session. It doesn’t matter if they appear to be similar, they are actually quite different. Drum Circle Facilitation trainers may make claims about the applications of such a training program in music therapy, but are they truly in a position to make those claims? Why is there little mention of drum circles or drum circle facilitation in the music therapy literature? You may ask, “Why are there drum circles at music therapy conferences if they are not part of music therapy?” Good question – Easy answer: Fun and Marketing. Music therapists use drums and drum companies want to build relationships with music therapists. Having a fun drum circle at a conference is a great way to get your product into people’s hands and build your brand. This should not be taken as a directive to include drum circles as part of your music therapy practice; however. Drum Circle Facilitation training is aimed at helping the facilitator create accessible and fun musical experiences. Personally, I recommend that music therapist learn how to play drums and percussion instruments, then practice clinical improvisation techniques. These two areas of study will provide more than enough skills, techniques, and strategies for the professional music therapist to provide quality services – and, since music therapy training includes other methods besides improvisation, such as recreative, compositional, and receptive methods, it will open up more options for using drums than any drum circle training ever could. (See Taxonomy of Drumming Experiences above.)
9. The Term “Drum Circle” Can Be Confusing to Clients and Employers.
Music therapy clients and those who hire music therapists can be confused if a music therapist uses the term “drum circle” to describe what he/she does in music therapy. As already discussed, the term is somewhat of a slang term to describe casual music making in a community setting. There is a stigma around the term, like it or not. The term describes an experience that is largely unstructured, has no clear goals or objectives, and no clear client-therapist relationship. If a music therapist calls what they do a ‘drum circle’ and then proceeds to design and deliver a structured experience with specific goals and objectives (does their job), they are, by definition, not doing what they said they were doing – having a drum circle. This could cause confusion and even break down trust between the clients and therapist. For those clients who have participated in traditional drum circles, they may expect something completely different than what is offered. For those who have not experienced a traditional drum circle (either individually facilitated or group-lead) they may leave with an unrealistic perception of what a drum circle is, which doesn’t honor drum circle culture or the people who facilitate drum circles.
Drum circles are accessible and fun music-based experiences that can help people of all ages and abilities enjoy playing music in a community setting. The term has been in use since the 1960’s and is generally thought of as a counter-culture experience, sometimes among those on the “fringes” of society. Drum circles have been heavily promoted by drum companies and those who offer drum circle facilitation training courses and certification. Because the term has been heavily used for the past 20 years, it’s meaning has been somewhat diluted and distorted. Many people confuse the term with other forms of group drumming, such as traditional drumming, rhythm games, guided interactive drumming, and even drumming in music therapy.
Music therapists can avoid confusion and clarify their work by using professional terms, such as clinical improvisation, drumming improvisation, and group drumming. Music therapy training and drum circle facilitation training are more different than similar and are not interchangeable. Music therapists can differentiate themselves from “drum circle facilitators” by not using the term drum circle in their work, with clients, or business partners. Music therapists can facilitate drum circles outside of their music therapy practice by employing the techniques and skills learned in traditional drumming and clinical improvisation training. Clinical Improvisation training contains adequate and substantial information for any music therapist to effectively design and deliver group drumming experiences to his/her clients.
For more about drumming-based training for music therapists, visit the Music Therapy Drumming website and see my book, The Way of Music – Creating Sound Connections in Music Therapy.
Bruscia, K. (1987). Improvisational Models of music therapy.
Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Das, K. (2011). The Way of Music:
Creating sound connections in music therapy. Denton, TX: Sarsen.
Gardstrom, S. (2007) Music therapy improvisation for groups:
Essential leadership competencies. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona.
Wigram, T. (2004). Improvisation: Methods and teachings for clinicians, educators and students. London: Jessica Kingsley.
This 90-minute DVD is THE complete guide for learning HOW TO PLAY the UKULELE.
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With the recent rise in the popularity of drumming over the last 10 to 15 years, there are more and more opportunities to take part in this form of community music making. That’s the good news, but it’s not the only news. There are also some serious health considerations that come along with group drummingand any form of community music making for that matter.
According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) poses a real threat for the health and well-being of people the world over. Although the study focused on sustained levels of noise in the workplace, even temporary exposure to high levels of sound can cause permanent hearing loss. What?
The consequences of noise induced hearing loss include:
- social isolation.
- impaired communication with coworkers and family.
- decreased ability to monitor the work environment.
- increased injuries from impaired communication in isolation.
- anxiety, irritability and decreased self-esteem.
- lost productivity.
- expenses for workers’ compensation and hearing aids.
- tinnitus, or what is often referred to as a ‘ringing’ in the ears.
As the number of musicians in an ensemble increases, the potential for hearing loss also increases. Traditional ‘world music’ drumming ensembles consists of 4 or 5 drummers at the most, with a possible 2 or 3 additional small hand percussionists playing instruments like bells and blocks. The introduction of large format group drumming a.k.a. drum circles, introduces an entirely new challenge when it comes to keeping sound levels at a healthy volume. Drum circles are certainly not the only types of drumming ensembles that can produce high levels of sound. Marching bands and traditional drumming groups can as well.
At a recent conference, I personally experienced sound levels exceeding 95 dB. these were measured using a decibel meter on my iPhone at a distance of 10 feet outside of a drum circle with an estimated 100 participants. The world health organization studied two types of noise in the workplace, those between 85 and 90 dB and those above 90 dB.
Just how much short term exposure to sound levels over 90 dB might affect the one’s hearing is unclear: however, it is generally agreed that any sustained exposure to sound levels over 90 dB should be avoided. If you don’t carry around a sound meter with you, you can use this general rule of thumb. If it feels like it’s too loud, it probably is. Your physiology is likely adequate to warn you if sound levels become unhealthy. The important thing is that you listen to your body and take action, rather than waiting until it’s too late. What was that you said?
Some things you can do to avoid hearing loss include: using earplugs, moving away from loud instruments and avoiding placing yourself in extremely loud environments. If you are a drummer, musician, teacher or therapist who works in settings where group drumming takes place, you can help to educate your peers and participants as to the potential health risks posed by large group drumming ensembles and take steps to reduce risk.
Keep in mind that most drums and percussion instruments, at least the kind that are commonly used in drum circles, are traditionally played outdoors. Bringing these instruments indoors and increasing the numbers by ten-fold or more, poses unique challenges with regard to health. As my friend and drummer Chrystine Jullian is fond of saying, “Drumming can be a lot like hitting your head against the wall – it feels good when you stop.”
There’s some truth to this statement. Whether you realize it or not, when you expose yourself to sustained high levels of sound, your body experiences a low level of trauma, triggered by a mechanism in your upper spinal column and lower brain called the reticular formation. Because your body reacts to the sound levels as if it were under attack, possibly in an earthquake, thunderstorm, or stampede, certain hormones and endorphins will be released into your bloodstream. One of these may include dopamine, a feel good hormone that is often associated with runner’s high and other activities where the body feels the need to self medicate.
An interesting question that could be explored is: Are the good feelings that drummers often self-report due to the activity of drumming itself, or the result of the body’s natural defense mechanisms protecting it from potential pain?
What we do know, is that if we are all going to continue to enjoy community drumming in large numbers, and indoors, then we must all find a way to preserve and protect our hearing. After all – what good is music making if you can’t enjoy it? Huh? I didn’t catch that last thing you said.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Please leave your comments and suggestions below.