Music Mends Minds Drum Circles
Joys and Benefits of MMM Drum Circles
Rhythm and drumming are musical opportunities for full self-expression regardless of our age, background, or any challenge we may face. Making music elicits joy and connects us; essential elements for a sense of well-being.
Music Mends Minds drum circles require no musical training or experience and we provide colorful and accessible percussion instruments of all sorts: hand drums, tambourines, shakers, and more. A skilled and experienced facilitator creates an environment free from judgment, and full of play, curiosity and connection, and music making, dance and singing emerge spontaneously.
Those we love who may be facing challenges are seen, heard and felt in their fullest and most joyful expression, and their sense of being valued for their unique contribution is restored. Caregivers and family members are equals in the circle with those they care for and love. We’d like to emphasize this point: too often those who care for others are overlooked, and this is an opportunity to step out of the role of caregiving and be a playmate and fellow explorer.
And this experience gives access to the exquisite neurochemical pharmacy that resides in our brain.
Recent research about the effects of music on the brain point to many benefits, which include social bonding, an enhanced sense of identity, and reduced levels of stress - all gifts of the moment!
The synchronized rhythms that are incorporated in drum circles stimulate up to 12 areas of the brain that are integral in motor skills, auditory and sequence processing, and working memory (Bengtsson et al, 2009).
The “putamen”, a biological clock that regulates movement, is compromised in Parkinson’s patients and can be replaced by the timing and cues of rhythm (Nombela et al, 2013).
The group activity of drum circles facilitates a sense of community and is associated with enhanced mental well-being as measured by the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (Mason, 2021).
Simple Steps to Begin Your Drum Circle
Drum circle facilitation is an art, one that is used with every imaginable population, from young children to our elders, from people with challenges of all kinds, to corporate communities. While we do use percussion instruments of all kinds, in truth, the drum circle is less about music, and more about self-expression, joy, community connection and wellbeing.
Professional facilitators have years of experience, and have taken a variety of trainings. The community of facilitators as a whole is very supportive of new facilitators (YOU!) and can be your allies as you explore this wonderful way to support your community.
In that spirit of support, we offer some simple suggestions and activities to get you started, along with a list of resources.
Setting the Tone
Your first priority as a facilitator is to create an atmosphere of safety, where all contributions are welcomed. This is a non-judgement zone where exploration, wonder and play are encouraged. Facilitation is not teaching, conducting, or leading. The word means “to make easy”, and what we are making easy is a connection to our unique self-expression and to one another. You are an equal partner in the circle, though you have a role and responsibility that is distinct from the other participants.
New facilitators may try to demand rhythmic accuracy, or musicality as they understand it. This is challenging especially for those with musical training. Letting go of that expectation unburdens your participants and you!
Bringing the group into a common rhythmic connection is a goal, but not THE goal. Below you will find a few ideas to help you connect the group to the rhythmic pulse, along with activities that will increase their confidence and their awareness of one another.
One last but very important point. Empowering the group happens when you trust them, and that means Getting Out Of the Way (GOOW is a term used by many facilitators). If the group feels connected, then they become part of music. This may mean sitting back in your chair and not calling attention to yourself, or stepping out of the circle if you are standing when you facilitate. This allows the group to focus on themselves, not on you.
Instruments and Set Up
Having instruments for the group may look like a challenge, however there are a number of ways to address this. But first, let’s look at the combination of types of sounds that will create the greatest opportunities for exploration and play.
- Traditional percussion instruments -
If you have access to hand percussion instruments, we suggest a 50/50 mix of full body drums and held percussion instruments. It is important to have a low drum to hold the fundamental rhythm, the pulse. Low frequencies are most deeply felt in our bodies, allowing participants to feel the beat more deeply.
Pictured below are full body drums:
And here are hand held percussion instruments:
This mix allows for diversity of musical expression and choice, and can be used to speak metaphorically about themes of diversity and inclusion, listening to quieter voices and more. And hand held instruments are less expensive, so this reduces the cost of the overall kit, and they are small, therefore easier to transport and to store.
It is certainly possible to facilitate a drum circle using only drums or hand held percussion instruments. This just gives the greatest number of benefits.
- Found Sounds -
Just about anything can be a musical instrument; pots and pans with chopsticks, or wooden spoons, vitamin bottles filled with beans, bundt pans, mixing bowls. Seed pods, bundles of leaves, have been used for millennia. Anything that can be shaken, scraped, or tapped that won’t break can be used in your circle.
Asking participants to explore their homes, environments for interesting sounds. This in itself is a creative engagement activity for both loved one and caregiver.
- Homemade Instruments -
Making and decorating instruments is yet another fabulous way for loved ones and caregivers to play together. Below in the resource section you will find links to a variety of websites with simple instructions.
- Setting Up The Circle -
Using chairs without arms, lightweight if possible (let’s make this easy on ourselves!), create a circle with what you feel is appropriate space between them, leaving an opening for an entrance. We recommend a single row for groups up to about 25 people, and creating a 2nd and 3rd row if the group is larger.
A note about where to place yourself as a facilitator. If the group is small, single row, facilitate from a chair within the circle. If the group is larger, have a chair you can use, but step into the center of the circle when you want to facilitate. Don’t forget to GOOW whenever possible!
Preset the instruments on the chairs. There are many ways to distribute instruments. In general we recommend alternating between drums and hand held instruments (feel free to place 2 or 3 hand held instruments on those chairs. They will be shared with neighbors). So a drum on one chair, next chair gets percussion, and so on.
The facilitator or someone who can hold a steady simple beat plays the low drum to ground the group.
Many facilitators like to have a beat going before people enter and simply invite them to explore their instruments (I don’t use any musical terms, or ask them to “play” as many people come with some fear around making music). Playing a simple drum beat on your bass drum or low drum, and smiling, welcoming is often all it takes to get folks involved.
Here are a few ideas to try out. Remember, this is all about non-judgement, including toward yourself! Be playful, have fun!
- Welcome and Check In -
After all are seated, and perhaps have even made a bit of rhythm together, invite people to share their name, and to PLAY how they feel on their instrument, then to share their feelings in words. Model this by going first. There is no wrong or right way to do this and all emotions are welcomed, including, fear, grief or whatever else shows up. In each case, thank the person for sharing, assuring them that their contribution is welcome and important.
- Attention Call -
This is any action that gets the attention of the group letting them know that something is going to happen. Raise your hand high, and if you like, use your voice “Hey Everyone!” We do this whenever we are going to initiate a game or activity, especially when the rhythm is already going.
- Starting And Stopping The Rhythm-
There are many ways to begin a rhythm, often called a “Call to Groove."
Here are a few to get you started:
Start a steady rhythm and invite people to begin playing one at a time around the circle and remind them to LISTEN before the play. If you are comfortable doing so, count them in: 1 2 Let’s All Play! and count up with the fingers of your raised hand.
Pass the Popcorn
Beautiful Day, Let’s All Play!
The name of someone’s favorite food (deserts are always popular!)
If you notice someone who is comfortable keeping the beat, invite them to start and then ask everyone to join in.
Use your attention call, then count down saying 4 3 2 1 STOP. This is called a Stop Cut. Use a big hand and arm gesture to reinforce the request (the gesture used by umpires for Safe is a good one. Whatever you do, do it the same every time. You are teaching them your body language).
Layering out. Layering is a term used to describe anytime we bring in or out, one person at a time, or one subset of the group at a time.
Invite people to stop playing one at a time going around the circle.
Invite one instrument group at a time to stop playing (this is a type of Sculpting that will be discussed below)>
- Rhythm Games -
Rumble. This is a fun and freeing activity that energizes the group.
With your arms outstretched, wiggle your hands and fingers saying “Rumble!” indicating that everyone should play as fast as possible, creating playful chaos. Raise your hands palms up to raise the volume, lower them palms down
Call and Response
While the group is playing, use your attention call and say “me then you, follow my drum” and use gestures as well (body language is very helpful with larger groups when the rhythm is already going).
Play a short, simple rhythm that is easy for the group to repeat (we are creating successes, and also unifying the group). Do this 3 or 4 times, then call them back to the rhythm (Call to Groove) and keep a simple rhythm on your drum or instrument to help reground the group.
You can have a group member do the call while all others respond, and pass this activity around the circle. Being seen and heard is both playful and powerful!
Sculpting - Sculpting is the word used to describe, indicating any subset of the full group. We can do this by instrument type (shakers, shakers, keep on playing! Tambourines, keep on playing! etc.) location (everyone from here to here, keep playing!), by birthday (if you were born in Spring, keep on playing!), by the color of clothes, glasses or no glasses, or any other respectful distinction. Now that you have sculpted, what do you want them to do? Here are a few ideas:
Sculpt a section.
Indicate to one half to keep playing, turn to the other half and give the Stop Cut to the other half.
Have those not playing clap and cheer for the side that is playing.
After a few moments, call the non playing side back in and reverse the process.
Sculpt by instrument type.
This is a great way to increase musicality by showcasing different instruments. It is also an excellent metaphor for diversity, inclusion and listening.
After your attention is called, say “All the (shakers, bells, or whatever you chose first) keep on playing!” Reinforce the beat subtly if need be, and let the group listen to the sculpted group for a few moments. You can then switch to a new instrument group (Let’s switch to the tamborines! 1 2 3 4 SWITCH!), or bring everyone back in before sculpting the next instrument group.
Once you have a rhythm established you can initiate a song that most everyone knows (She’s Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain, Fly Me To the Moon, etc.). If you have someone who loves to sign, let them start the song and have everyone join in!
Books, Videos and Training
Village Music Circles has trained more facilitators than any other organization. Founded by Arthur Hull, widely considered to be the father of the contemporary facilitated drum circle movement, they offer training as well as excellent books.
Here’s a great video that shows the basic facilitation techniques. Well worth the time!
Here is the link to VMC training
Christine Stevens is well respected for her facilitation work. Her book is simple and to the point.
Authored by several music therapists, this book is focused on older adults.
Homemade Instruments Online
There are many sites to explore. Here’s one to start with:
Global Drum Circle Facilitation Community
Here’s a Facebook group where you’ll find videos, stories, and information about training.
[The drum circle] was truly a memorable experience!
The Love and Laughter, The Fun and Joy,... The sense of Togetherness …
[A] highlight to help everyone in need of support!
Your [grateful] Member,
The [drum circle] energy was powerful, invigorating & downright FUN! [The] variety of sounds & movements [brings everyone together].
[The] drum circle… was the most fun I’ve had in a very, very long time. The singing, the dancing, the laughter….it made me feel young and alive once again.
Darling Sam would have loved it.
We are thrilled that you are interested in engaging your community in this playful, powerful experience. They and you will both benefit, and yes, experience joy and a sense of wellbeing.
We encourage you to look for a drum circle in your area. Every circle will be different, so attend several, observe, learn and connect.
Please contact us with any questions you may have. We’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org