Drum Circle Guide

By Kalani • November 9th, 2010

What is a Drum Circle?

A drum circle is a musical jam session where the focus is on fun, recreation, and community. Each member is encouraged to participate in ways that are appropriate and productive. For some, this might mean playing instruments. Others might sing, dance, or just listen. The goal of the drum circle is to use the process of informal music making as a vehicle for having fun, being creative, and forming community bonds. The DCM approach to drum circle facilitation is about:

  • using non-invasive supportive and shaping techniques.
  • facilitating primarily through¬†musical means.
  • encouraging self-expression, exploration, and fun.
  • providing instruction and guidance only when needed.
  • becoming an equal member of the group.
  • leaving space for input from all members of the group.
  • helping people make personal connections through active music making.
  • promoting recreational music making and other forms of creative expression.
  • empowering people to create an aesthetically pleasing experience.
  • incorporating singing, movement, and melodic instruments.

How can I tell a Drum Circle from other kinds of Group Drumming?

A noticeable feature of a drum circle is that it is improvised. Many other types of group drumming, such as traditional drumming ensembles, drumming in music therapy, and drumming in music education, although they may also include improvisation,  include specific instructions and goals that are shaped by the leader, therapist, or teacher. A drum circle is co-created by all the participants, each contributing in ways that feel right. Although a drum circle can share results with other forms of group drumming, such as learning about instruments, socializing, and providing a means for stress reduction or a spiritual practice, there is no directive methodology or system for reaching specific goals and objectives, therefore these results are not predictable, but are left to the individual experiences of each participant.

I because the drum circle is based on improvisation and is co-lead by the participants, if someone in the circle begins to instruct, limit, control or otherwise attempt to influence everyone else in the circle by insisting that everyone follow his/her directions, it becomes something other than a drum circle. This does not mean that guiding the group can not have benefits. There are many forms of guided group drumming that produce wonderful outcomes. Those will be discussed in other articles.

Below are two YouTube videos that show the Griffith Park drum circle and the very famous, Venice Beach drum circle. These show you a what a typical community drum circle can be like. Notice that everyone is playing what they want and some are not playing at all. Some people are dancing and others are just enjoying the music from a distance. The music takes on a life of its own and everyone co-creates it together. At some point the music will change, end, and start again. There are hundreds of drum circle videos on YouTube. When you're done here, watch some more to get an idea of the variety and diversity that exists in the community of recreational drummers.

The Griffith Park Drum Circle

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The Venice Beach Drum Circle

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How to get involved in a drum circle.

If you would like to participate in a community drum circle, there are some do's and don'ts to be aware of.

Do:

  • Join the music in a way that shows that you are listening and blending in with the primary rhythm, volume, and feel of the music.
  • Look around and notice what other people are doing and playing.
  • Support the music by playing WITH the beat, aligning with other players and choosing different players to align with at different times. If the rhythm is not steady, try ground the rhythm by playing a simple rhythm.
  • Leave space in your music and the music in general to allow others to be heard.
  • Allow the music to follow it's natural ebb and flow. Sometimes the tempo gets faster and sometimes it gets slower. Sometimes the volume goes up and sometimes down. Sometimes the entire rhythm seems to crumble for no particular reason. These events are all part of the natural process of a group of people improvising music together.
  • Show your playful spirit by being open to doing things differently than you might have done them in the past. Try playing a new instrument or rhythm. Try singing, dancing, or just listening.
  • If you can, help others with techniques, rhythmic support, and generally plugging into the music and the community.

Don't:

  • Play in a way that is incongruent with the music as a whole.
  • Play an instrument that is not yours, unless you have been invited to do so.
  • Talk loudly during quiet musical passages. Honor the music and the silence.
  • Play loudly next to someone else. (Consider the volume of your instrument and make adjustments to keep people's ears safe and their mood light.)
  • Enter the center of the circle and begin to conduct or control the group, unless you have been invited to do so.

Where can I find a Drum Circle?

Drum Circles happen in many public places on a regular basis, usually on weekends. Check your local community calendar for drum circle listings. Some common places to find drum circles are parks, beaches, community centers, yoga and dance studios, and private homes.

What should I bring to a drum circle?

It is quite common for there to be an organizer and host. If you can, contact the host before hand and find out about the specifics before you go. Most drum circles invite you to bring low to medium volume drums and percussion instruments. Drums such as bongos, doumbek (darbuka), frame drums, congas, djembe, dunduns, and other hand drums are very common. Occasionally someone brings a snare drum, timbeles, or tom tom. Band instruments (such as those found in concert bands and parts of drum sets) are not typically used in drum circles but, if used appropriately, they can certainly be used effectively.

Hand percussion instruments, such as shakers, blocks, bells, rattles, chimes, and other non-drum noise makers are also common. Many people bring a drum as well as an assortment of small percussion instruments.

Other instruments that people often bring to drum circles include flutes (and related wind instruments), didgeridoo, marimbas & xylophones (african style), gongs, whistles, and kalimbas. Singing is very common and can take the form of a folk song or be completely improvised, usually taking the form of a simple chant. Vocal improvisation that involves spontaneous lyric development is very common (This is also known as soliloquizing).

Summery:

  • Drum circles are in-the-moment, community drumming (music) gatherings that are co-lead by the participants.
  • Everyone contributes to the music, which is the main purpose of the drum circle.
  • Benefits of community music making can parallel those found in more directed forms of group drumming, such as drumming ensembles, music education, and music therapy sessions. Some of these benefits include socialization, learning about instruments and musical techniques, and gaining an outlet for stress reduction and possibly spirituality.
  • Drum circles have their own 'culture' that everyone follows. New participants can benefit from learning about a specific drum circle before attending and asking questions of the host or leader (facilitator) as they come up.
  • Drum circles happen in a variety of locations including parks, beaches, and community centers.
  • Instruments that are used in a drum circle vary from larger drums to small hand percussion, wind instruments and melodic percussion.

DCM Students learn how to host drum circles in ways that are consistent with their origins. In addition to hosting drum circles, students also learn how to design and lead other types of group drumming that are goal oriented, such as those for specific populations and outcomes.

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