Drum circles have gotten most of the drumming-related press and promotion in the past 20 years, largely due to big spending and marketing efforts from major drum companies and organizations such as the International Music Products Association, but there are some other types of group drumming that offer more functionality and potential.
Why not a drum circle?
To be clear, drum circles can be fun. In fact, that’s what they’re supposed to be. They are a casual gathering of people to make music together, without the need to reach any particular musical goal, level of musicianship, or specific outcomes. These can all be seen as positive aspects, especially when getting everyone involved is the primary goal. But what about reaching other goals beyond involvement or having a good time? What are some of the best ways to reach musical and other goals? There are several.
Traditional Drumming Ensembles
Since drum circles are not about reaching technical music goals, there’s no place in them for focused learning (or teaching) with regard to techniques, rhythms, or even roles and responsibilities that often come with playing in a musical ensemble. To help teach musical skills and tap into the learning potential of music in general, engage people in a basic drumming ensemble where they learn about the instruments, simple techniques, and participate in the playing of a simple simple piece of music, such as a two-bar rhythm. There’s a myth floating around in some circles that asserts that people will feel stressed out if you try to teach them to play music. Not true! People love learning how to play instruments and play together. They get a huge sense of satisfaction from reaching even the most basic level of competency. Rather than playing down to your groups, elevate their self-esteem by giving them a simple goal, teaching them basic techniques and rhythms, and celebrating with them as they achieve something new.
Drum circles don’t have many rules: play what you feel, blend in, try to get along with the groove and everyone in it. They are meant to be flexible and fun, without rules and regulations. Musical Games (also called drumming or rhythm games) do have what we call “play rules” or “givens.” They are similar to other types of games, in that they happen within a structured setting, have specific “cause and effect” actions, rules, if-thens, and other guidelines that form, shape, and ultimately determine how the game is played. Musica games offer the structure that drum circles can’t. They’re great for school-age children, adults in team-building programs, groups who want to socialize in a fun way, group challenges, and more. Musical Games are easy to understand and very easy for most people to participate in. The leader lays out the rules and everyone knows what to do, whereas in a drum circle, people are sometimes not sure how to participate.
Mixed Media Improvisation
Drum circles are all about drumming, but what if not everyone is able to play an instrument or doesn’t feel like it? Allowing for ALL forms of musical expression is a great way to increase inclusiveness and take advantage of people’s fun expressive potential by opening up the playing field to include ALL types of media (music, art, word, movement) while allowing for any and all types of expression (improvisation). By not planning anything specific, the world play becomes much more broad and able to accept any form of play that comes. Mixed Media Improvisations often start in one area, such as speech, then brach out into body percussion, instrumental play, dance, movement, art-making and more. They offer far more in the way of expressive possibilities than a drum circle alone.
Drumming can be loud, especially when more than five or six people are involved. Using drums and percussion instruments as “play objects” is another way to access the novel and fun aspect of the instruments without having to worry about disturbing your neighbors (or your participants). With the average drum circle hitting sound pressure levels of over 90 dB, hearing loss can become a real factor. By using the instruments in a non-musical way, more like art or play objects, you reduce the noise while increasing the play potential. Using instruments to create sculptures is a fun way to spark creativity, story telling, and promote teamwork. Drum Play can be part of a larger music-based program, used either as an ice-breaker or closing session.
Guided Interactive Drumming
Drum circles are fine if everyone is game, but that’s not always the case. Even with an experienced facilitator (conductor/leader) helping everyone along, there may still be question marks hanging over people’s heads: “What am I supposed to do? How should I play? What is this thing? My hand are tired. Now what?” Sometimes, what people need and appreciate is more structure, not less. This is especially true for large groups of people who were not expecting to be drumming together, at a conference or training event, for example. Guided Interactive Drumming helps provide structure by giving participants specific ways to play together. GID events often feature a core group of drummers who do most of the playing and keeping the music together. The participants play “on top of” the music of the leaders, feeling the satisfaction of making music, without the need to know a lot or have musical skills.
Drum circles are fun, but there are many other ways to engage people in group drumming experience that might be more effective. Knowing which ones to use in a given situation, as well as how to create and present them, is part of what a Community Drumming Facilitator (CDF) does. As longtime percussionist, music educator, and music therapist, I help people learn how to present many types of drumming experiences. My goal is always to make sure my students are making the most out of any experience.