Lost in the Rhythm

Drum circles draw people together to create a feeling of community.

Every Tuesday night, Emil Hogen marches - no, plays - to the beat of a different drum. He leaves behind the relentless pace of his job as manager of a computer store in suburban Sherman Oaks, Calif., and drives to nearby North Hollywood.

Still in his workday garb of suit and tie, he enters a warehouse, chooses a drum from the dozens stacked on shelves and along the walls, and takes a seat in a semicircle, removing his suit jacket and rolling up his shirtsleeves.

He is joined by as many as 40 other people - young and old; male and female; black, Latino, and white - who have come for the same reason: to drum together for an hour, to find both an individual and a collective way to step out of the frenzy of daily life.

By the end of the session, led by a percussionist known as the Chaz Man, Mr. Hogen is sweating, his tie loosened, his shirt partly unbuttoned. He has found what he came for: a sense of well-being and calm.

"There's such a huge contrast between the stressful routine at work, and doing this," says a smiling Hogen, who had never drummed before starting to come to these gatherings in January. The sessions are sponsored by Remo, a drum manufacturer. "I just know that I go home happy."

He is not alone. Across the country - in big cities and small towns, along beaches and rivers, in parks and even in corporate retreats - more Americans are picking up drums. They're joining with friends and often complete strangers in "drum circles," to play what is perhaps the most ancient and accessible form of music, the steady beat of hands forming rhythms on the head of a drum.

"It's a grass-roots movement," says Arthur Hull, a self-professed "rhythm evangelist" who has been leading drum circles for nearly 20 years, and is author of "Drum Circle Spirit: Facilitating Human Potential Through Rhythm." "Drumming is accessible," he says. "It's a joy, and it's a release. It's a celebration of life. Bottom line, it's the most natural thing we have."

Primal appeal

Almost unnoticed by the media, drum circles have become an increasingly mainstream movement, drawing people from virtually every walk of life. An Internet search of the phrase "drum circles" yields more than 50,000 references, with drum circles and events being held in communities ranging from Spokane, Wash., and Missoula, Mont., to North Jacksonville, Fla., and Cleveland, Ohio.

The same search reveals a growing number of drum circle "facilitators," people who help lead drum gatherings - whether in informal community groups or as paid consultants to corporations looking for fresh ways to approach company morale issues. In addition, scientific researchers are exploring the effects of drumming on well-being.

The drum's appeal, say its proponents, is almost primal. The drum itself is a highly accessible instrument to almost anyone, regardless of his or her experience. Its basic pulsing beat is a natural rhythm, they say, as innately familiar to humans as a mother's heartbeat is to a child. And the drum defies arguments that someone just isn't good enough or musical enough to be able to play. ("If you couldn't keep a beat," notes one drum circle facilitator, "you couldn't walk across a room.")

Mary Strand knew nothing about drumming when friends started a drum circle called Community Through Rhythm in Spokane. But she was intrigued by the idea, and for a year now has been participating in monthly drum circles.

"My goal is not to become a good drummer," she says. "It's more like a return to innocence for me. It's a kind of childlike play that has been educated out of us as adults by society."

Drumming also gives her a respite from the demands of her work as a criminal defense paralegal. "It gives me a chance to shut out all that ugliness," she says.

Drumming as a metaphor

Drum circle enthusiasts also point to the drum's traditional role in nearly every non-Western culture as an integral part of community gatherings and celebrations, in everything from courtship and marriage to harvesting and burials.

Drumming, they say, is by nature a communal experience: it requires several drummers to play together, establishing different rhythms as individuals, but also listening closely enough to others to create harmonious patterns.

"It's an incredible metaphor for community life," says Martin Marsolek, a percussionist and drummaker who helped start Full Moon Drumming Circle in Missoula. "I think a lot of folks involved in drumming circles are concerned about a sense of community in America, and in fostering community," says Mr. Marsolek, who is also a member of a group called the Drum Brothers, which performs and leads drumming workshops.

In today's growing movement, drum circles usually take one of two forms. In what are termed "free form" circles, drummers simply get together and play, with no one leading the group. Venice Beach, Calif., for example, has gained at least local notoriety as a place where hundreds of drummers gather on weekends.

But the kind of circles that appear to be most appealing to the increasingly mainstream newcomers are known as "facilitated" circles, where one individual leads the group. Facilitators may teach some of the basic hand and body movements involved in playing, they may suggest rhythms to different parts of the group, or they may build on rhythms that are coming from individual players in the group.

"The facilitator is empowering the group towards collaboration, self-expression, and improvisation," says Mr. Hull, the author and drumming guru, who not only leads circles but also trains facilitators in special workshops. They help the group understand that quality is based more on relationship skills than on musical skills.

Many corporations are also beginning to discover the benefits of drum circles, as companies from Toyota and Sony to Levi Strauss and the Discovery Channel turn to facilitators to help them deal with workplace challenges.

Christine Stevens, a registered music therapist who has worked with many businesses and nonprofit groups through her company, UpBeat Drum Circles, was asked to lead a drum circle for the Discovery Channel retail stores shortly before the onslaught of last year's busy Christmas season.

Management, she says, brought her in to help build morale and team spirit. With more than 100 people from different parts of the company joined in a drum circle, drumming became a metaphor for building a common language.

"Today's corporate culture is really rapidly changing," says Ms. Stevens. "It's in such need of creativity and innovation. Things are changing fast. Drum circles involve creativity and sharing, but they also demonstrate that things need to be coordinated to sound good."

By speeding up tempos in the workshop with Discovery Channel employees - which led to a collapse of the music - she tried to show what happens when group members stopped listening to each other. With practice, they learned to speed up their own tempos without losing their rhythm, as each player listened more closely to the group.

"It was a wonderful team-building experience," says Kim Airhart, director of communications for Discovery Consumer Products. "We really created a symphony.

"We were coming up on our holiday season, which is a busy time for us in the retail world, and it all just sort of jelled," she says. "Everybody was coming together to understand a common goal."

The company had one of its best retail seasons ever. Though no one can pinpoint the drum circle as the cause, she says, "It had a wonderful impact on morale."

A better "social lubricant"

Drum circle enthusiasts predict that drumming will only grow in popularity, as more people discover its individual pleasures and its community-building potential. Human beings, they argue, have a basic need to feel connected - and drum circles seem to help satisfy that need.

"We've become a very mobile society," says Martin Werr, who helped launch Community Through Rhythm in Spokane. "Everybody wants community," he says. "It's a better social lubricant than alcohol is. It's a way to sit next to a stranger and bond with them. We need that sense of extended family and community. There's just something innate within us that wants to recapture that."

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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