How they beat stress

Drum circles are becoming a popular way for people to get in tune with the body's rhythms

CAMBRIDGE -- Arnold Thomas, a banker in Malden, was still dressed in office garb -- dark slacks, gray button-down shirt, cellphone attached to his belt -- when he settled into a chair in a Cambridge classroom after work and wedged an African djembe drum between his knees.


Others drifted in with goblet-shaped drums in African print cloth cases slung over their shoulders. Among them were a fourth-grade teacher, a writer, a yoga instructor, a mother, and her son. They all came to take a break from the rhythms of daily life to learn the rhythms of the drum.

 

As the instructor guided her students, palms pounded the centers of the goatskin drumheads and fingers slapped the rims. The drummers counted beats. Pulsating African rhythms soon filled the room. Some closed their eyes; others concentrated hard on their hands.

 

Community drum circles -- groups of people who come together to make music by hand drumming -- have been around since the 1960s. But in recent years, people of all ages and backgrounds have heard about its benefits and are seeking out classes and informal drum circles.

 

People who embrace drumming in a group say it's a transforming experience. It sparks their creativity, helps them release pent-up emotions, and connects them to the people they're playing with. It can be so aerobic that the ''high" they get, some say, is similar to the one that comes from running.

 

Some believe it makes you feel good because the rhythms of the drumming resonate with your own body's rhythms.

 

For Thomas, focusing on the rhythms helps him get rid of stress. ''Coming from work, I'm all stressed out," he said. ''When I leave here I can feel a weight off my shoulders. I'm so relaxed."

Kim Childs, 41, a yoga teacher from Arlington, found the drum rhythms she learned in the class were meditative and lifted her spirits. ''It helps center and ground me," she said. ''I'm hooked."

Pam Naria, 47, a fourth-grade teacher in Hopkinton and mother of two, turned to drumming during a midlife crisis when she turned 45. ''I felt something was missing. Drumming keeps me connected to people I like."

 

The drum class instructor, Audrey Gaffron, teaches for the DrumConnection, an Arlington hand-drumming school that has offered classes in the Boston area for 13 years. Some of the classes are taught through adult education programs in Cambridge, Newton, and Brookline.

 

''There's an element of healing that goes on when you're hand drumming," Gaffron said. ''It's easier to relax and come to terms with things in your life."

 

Getting People Together

DrumConnection's director, Alan Tauber, is a trained musician who learned hand drumming from a master drummer from Senegal, West Africa. DrumConnection initially offered classes two to three nights a week, but as demand has grown in the past few years Tauber has trained more teachers. The school now offers classes every evening, hosts drop-in jam sessions, and gives drum and dance performances.

 

When a group plays in unison, Tauber said, the rhythms sound primal and evoke strong feelings.

''People say this drumming has changed their lives," he said. ''I've had students while they were drumming get angry at their families who didn't allow them to express themselves while they were growing up. I've had students who were alcoholics who stopped drinking."

 

Some health professionals have embraced hand drumming circles and feel they're therapeutic because they get people together. The drum is a vehicle to create community, they say.

 

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Barry Bittman, a neurologist with the Mind Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pa., attended a national medical conference where he witnessed 700 health professionals hand drumming together in a room. ''It was invigorating, enlivening, and at the same time refreshing without being threatening," he said. ''Once people started they couldn't put it down."

 

The experience inspired Bittman to conduct scientific studies on the impact of group hand drumming on health. In one study, he found that stress levels, measured by the hormone cortisol, decreased in participants. In another, he found positive immunological changes in certain cells of the people he studied.

 

Some Fortune 500 companies have used drumming circle workshops with employees to help build team spirit and improve morale.

 

''It's about cooperation instead of competition, listening to each other and using rhythm to make space for other people's creativity," said Arthur Hull, the pioneer of corporate drum circles and author of ''Drum Circle Spirit: Facilitating Human Potential Through Rhythm." Hull has been leading community and corporate drum circles for 25 years. ''It's still a grass-roots movement but no longer a fad. We're no longer the hippie anarchist thunder drummer in the park."

 

Robert Lawrence Freidman, a New York psychotherapist and author of ''The Healing Power of the Drum," has been hired by corporations to facilitate such workshops.

 

''It's the only instrument that allows a lot of people to speak at once," said Friedman. ''In this world of technology, when everything is about speed and creating distance from each other, the drum is a way we as a society seem to be coming back home." Toyota's US headquarters opened a drum room in 2001 with more than 50 hand drums -- djembes, ashikos, djin-djins, and other percussion instruments -- for their executives to use.

 

Friedman and other proponents believe group drumming is a form of nonverbal communication, and he uses hand drumming as a therapeutic tool with troubled teens and elderly patients, focusing especially on memory in Alzheimer's patients.

 

Permission To Make Noise

Hand drumming is easy to pick up even if you haven't gone to a class or played a musical instrument. ''It gives you permission to make noise, which is something we don't always give ourselves permission to do," said Dave Curry, who facilitates a community drum circle in Milford that meets monthly at the Milford Union Church.

 

Curry started the circle four years ago and got only three or four people to come. Now he regularly gets up to 25. He lights candles and adds chants from American Indian traditions.

 

Other circles have cropped up in the past few years in towns around Massachusetts such as Grafton, Hudson, and in the Berkshires. There's also a women's circle in Sherborn. Everyone is welcome, even if they haven't played before.

 

The longest continually running drum circle in the area, and some believe in the country, is the Earth Drum Council in Cambridge. The circle started in the 1980s and meets every Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, on Garden Street. It can attract as many as 40 drummers weekly and dozens of dancers.

 

''Our circle has spawned other circles. Earth Drum Council has been their inspiration," said Morwen Two Feathers, who has overseen the Earth Drum Council for the past 14 years with her husband, Jimi.

 

John Chiros, a coordinator for a technical manufacturing company in Peabody, wanted to meet people to hand-drum with. So three years ago he decided to start his own monthly circle and rented space from the Plymouth Church in Framingham.

 

On a recent rainy night, Chiros came to the circle dressed in a short African caftan that his wife stitched together for him. He played recorded African music while a dozen people hand-drummed corresponding rhythms.

 

Tambourines and cowbells and other percussion instruments lay in the middle of the circle for anyone to pick up and play. Chiros started the rhythms. The drummers followed. Each had the chance to present his or her own rhythm patterns. Even a beginner could follow along.

One drummer, Steve Seminerio, 49, from Melrose, a night manager at a gym, said he was developing his skill as a hand drummer as he would a sport. ''It can be anything -- wild, trancelike."

 

''I just love it," said Liz Kalber, 73, of Wellesley. ''It's exciting, relaxing but invigorating. You feel centered and focused." Kalber took up hand drumming after her husband passed away. ''When one door closes you open another," she said.