Using Rhythm to Strengthen Wellbeing

by Penny Sharland  




Rhythm is a basic universal language that everyone understands. It is a natural aspect of the human experience.  

Many of us will instinctively say that we cannot drum, that we have no rhythm or that we’re uncoordinated. Watching classical percussionists and band drummers we may feel that these individuals possess a strange metronome inside their heads that helps them keep time and prevents boredom setting in. Some of us have experienced the rigours and agonies of trying to learn complex Latin American rhythms during the Samba boom in the 1990s. But all of us have rhythm within us, and by putting the idea aside that it is a skill to be learned and honed over many years in smoke filled rooms, the drum circle can take us straight to the powerful effects that rhythm can deliver. 

Participating in a drum circle is a healing experience for the heart, mind and body. In the States the drum circle is well established as a way of encouraging individuals to come together in a temporary ‘community’ to make music and promote unity. People of all ages and abilities participate in a ‘rhythmical expression’ that contributes to their individual feelings of wellness and a group experience of harmony. No experience is needed; the rhythms evolve naturally. All that is required is a large array of drums percussion instruments or other objects that will make a noise. No-one conducts or gives out parts; there is no rehearsal in a drum circle – it is all part of the experience. Over time the group – that is - all who are present, become a single entity, inventing music from apparently nowhere and together gently shaping the direction, tempo and style. People who are reticent of placing hands on a drum skin for the first time soon find themselves tapping gently on the instrument in front of them, responding to the rhythm they are feeling in their physical selves and in their hearts and souls.  

Individuals who know something of drum facilitation lead the group in a gentle development of our natural instincts for rhythm. Yet you may be hardly conscious of their interventions as they unobtrusively guide the group in what it has already decided it wants to do. Few words are used – the ‘community’ dictates the direction and flow of the music. For example, facilitators who aim to speed up the music may find their efforts gently resisted by a group who somehow silently know that the perfect tempo for them is the one they are already playing. In Britain many of these drum circle facilitators have been taught by world leading authority on circles – Arthur Hull from Santa Cruz. He himself learned at the feet of his mentor Babatunde Olatunji – an eminent African percussionist in America. Arthur holds workshops throughout USA and annually in Hawaii and UK.  Arthur says:  

“When a group of people who are of common mind and purpose come together and harmonize with each other through song, music and percussion, they create a synergized force that solidifies the group vision and purpose. We are dedicated to making this happen by using drumming as a tool to create unity. ” (Drum Circle Spirit:  White Cliffs Media:  1998) 

Drum circles are open activities to which all are welcome. Those of us lucky enough to have been involved in this growing phenomenon understand how apparent strangers, many of whom will not know each other and will have no experience of drumming or of playing live, can collectively make the most amazing music. Every circle is different, because each group identity is unique and the circumstances also vary. Women’s circles tend to have a different feel to them, as women together tend to listen more than play, often finding pieces that naturally end in a period of silence or evolve with only one or two women playing. Young people love the liveliness of circles because they do not have to compete, but find great fun and personal satisfaction in sharing the space and yet achieving a lot in the sounds they magic from nowhere. Many people with both learning and physical disabilities join circles, and source a place within themselves that bypasses language, attention and ultimately discrimination. For spiritual practitioners circles can bring the spiritual more in tune with their physical and emotional worlds, and for some they feel closer to the Earth, to the Source, to God.  

Drumming provides an opportunity to step out of the technological world and into another, more connected with ancient resonances, where people feel a part of an extraordinary experience – sharing and creating the rhythms that emanate from our temporary ‘community’. Practitioners often say that the goodwill and connectedness generated in a drum circle affects the locale in positive ways that resonate for days afterwards. For others there is a cleansing and healing influence on the venue and individuals that continues into other activities. Babatunde Olatunji says  

‘All people from all walks of life, all colors, have various things they can do together to create harmony, and it is the simplest thing to make music and sing together.’ 

Circles can take place anywhere – festivals and community events, the workplace or within extended family groups.  


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Penny Sharland works with Framework which she describes as an independent sector organisation delivering training and consultancy to the not-for-profit sector.  Website:  Penny may be contacted direct at  Phone: 01706 648067.