Group drumming has risen in popularity over the past decade because it offers myriad features and benefits for helping meet the goals of music educators. Some of these include:
- opportunities for ensemble and solo play
- improvisation, composition, and recreating traditional music
- abundant, affordable, durable instruments
- vast musical material, vis a vis folk music from around the world
- opportunities to explore various roles, such as leader, follower, and partner.
- opportunities for musical and social skills assessment and development
- tie-ins to geography, sociology, cultures, customs, languages, and more
- connections with singing and dancing in various genres.
- performance goals and opportunities for achievement
Not all “drumming” may be equally “potent” when it comes to meeting the educational needs of teachers and students; however. While there are many resources (both published and via live training courses) that provide educators with the skills and knowledge they need to create developmentally appropriate curricula for their students, there are also some approaches to group drumming that may fall short in terms of content.
Most music educators will have heard the term “drum circle,” largely due to heavy marketing my drum manufacturers and “facilitators,” who present them as accessible musical experiences where there are “no wrong notes” and where the focus in on “community” over musical quality. While the message sounds wonderful, a closer look at the content begs the question: What is being taught and how will students use what they learn?
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with focusing on “making music easy” or “building community,” it’s also important to make sure that students are learning. Because drum circles are improvisational in nature, musical content is often limited to what students can already play, which doesn’t provide them with new and challenging musical material. Because there are “no wrong notes,” students may not be developing critical listening and performance skills they will need in band, orchestra, and other ensembles. Because the focus in on “community” and not on the musical product, students may gain a false sense of achievement, much like getting a “participation trophy” for playing a sport, which can result in a casual attitude towards their ensemble responsibilities.
Drum circles are casual, improvised drumming experiences that provide maximum freedom for participants. They are best suited for after-school programs, fund-raisers, and “special events” where music education is not the focus or goal. When music education is the goal, traditional drumming ensembles (learning, practicing and performing) is still the most potent tool to provide students with the content, skills, and opportunities they need to become successful, both musically and socially.
The “myth” of traditional music education is that it tends to “place students into stress mode” and can “take the fun out of learning.” I disagree! It’s true that poorly taught lessons by a teacher that has lost his/her spark can be a drag, but most educators I know are absolutely some of the most amazing, inspiring, and talented people on earth. The myth that a “facilitator” (who may or may not be a drummer or a musician) is a better person to bring the joy of music to students is likely more about marketing drum circles to schools and less about supporting students with high-quality curriculum, teaching process, and the inspiration they need to be their best.
This is why I, and many other music educators, are turning towards traditional drumming, such as the World Rhythms program, as a platform for group drumming in educational settings. Music educators can still give their students plenty of opportunities for improvisation and community building without abandoning quality music in the process. Rather than lowering the bar, we can help students clear it by giving them the skills and resources they need to reach their greatest potential.
Let’s honor the power of music to transform lives, not by diluting it, but by diving deeper.