Drumming & Wellness: The Beat Expands
By Mabry Doyle
“If everyone on the ‘net’ bought just one drum, there’d be no war.”
– IBM, in a nationally televised ad
“Drum fever is sweeping the country as people discover the physical, psychological and spiritual rewards . . . even for those who can’t read a note of music.”
– Claudia Ricci,
The New York Times
These quotes in the age of the computer, our most advanced communication tool, about the drum, humankind’s most primitive tool, suggest some fascinating back-to-the-future connections.
These links seem especially poignant in the middle of what the United Nations has declared “The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” (1994-2004).
For centuries, indigenous peoples have kept alive their traditions of honoring the Earth as sacred.
Native peoples seem intuitively to have understood that human beings are coded for ritual.
These cultures have always drummed in ritual at births, deaths, weddings, harvests, and rites of passage.
The drumbeat echoes the heartbeat, connecting us to our deeper selves.
It’s a universal language which communes with people from other cultures.
Native people say the drumbeat also communes with the Earth, a reminder that all of creation is alive and, therefore, sacred.
Now it appears that the gift of the drum may be an antidote to modern society’s worst ills.
According to current medical research, stress is a cause of 98% of all disease.
Not only heart attacks, strokes, immune system breakdowns, but every disease known, with the exception of two viruses, has been shown to be caused by or exacerbated by stress.
Recent biofeedback studies show that drumming for brief periods can alter the brainwave patterns, dramatically reducing stress.
Just 15 minutes of drumming along with our own heartbeats can double the alpha brainwaves.
So drumming actually meditates us!
Drumming has also been used with Alzheimer’s patients to focus attention, with prison and homeless populations to promote self esteem, with war veterans to end trauma, and in corporate America to promote team spirit-building.
Other exciting applications of the drum’s potential to enhance wellness are emerging as the millennium draws to a close.
Some of these give us hope in situations formerly believed to be hopeless.
Heather MacTavish was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease on her 46th birthday.
With symptoms which included debilitating pain, falling down, and dropping things, she gave up her bookkeeping business and decided her productive life was, effectively, over.
Being a quitter ran counter to Heather’s nature, however.
She began exploring a variety of holistic therapies, and she took a drumming class.
Miraculously, her health began to improve.
Instead of deteriorating, Heather began sharing her healing success with others.
At her 50th birthday party, she hired professional percussionist and teacher Barbara Borden to facilitate a drumming ceremony.
Borden, who has been drumming since age 10 and has recorded many albums, including the irresistible “Beauty in the Beat,” is a charismatic performer and peace activist.
She was awarded a Marin Arts Council grant to take drumming into the schools, and created “Restorative Rhythms”®, a therapeutic technique which opens pathways for healing.
Inspired by one another, these women began a creative collaboration to spread the drum’s healing uses to some seemingly unlikely new populations.
The Redwoods Retirement Community in Mill Valley, California is one of these.
Its Director, Marianne Gontarz York, was already aware of the healing power of music when she bought her first drum during a one-year study program with well-known healer Angeles Arrien.
With no musical training, she began a drum circle with independent elders at the Redwoods, and later enlisted Barbara Borden’s help.
Shortly thereafter, at a local hospital’s annual Art and Healing Workshop which showcased drumming, Marianne met Heather.
With characteristic enthusiasm and verve, Heather got involved, and the three women took the Redwoods elders drum group to new heights.
Having experienced marked increases in self-esteem, authenticity and awareness, the elders began performing at regional senior centers and were featured on cable TV and local news programs.
A large drumming workshop at the 29th Annual Learning Faire in Santa Clara is scheduled for November.
Heather calls her tireless work “an integral part of my healing process.”
Despite having what has always been known as a progressive, degenerative disease, her condition has continued to improve.
“The pleasure I get from drumming,” she explains, “as well as the joy that becomes mine as it is passed on to others, has energized me, lifted my spirits, and has unleashed a charge of creativity such as I have never before experienced.”
The Redwoods group has expanded, interacting with preschoolers and multi-cultural groups for whom the common language is the drumbeat.
They drummed in an Earth Day celebration and won First Place with their drum float in the Memorial Day Parade in Mill Valley.
The float featured a banner from All One Tribe Drum, the primary drum used by the elders.
“It’s the only drum with a soft, sheepskin handle that lets any hand, even an arthritic one, hold the drum in comfort.” says Heather.
“And it’s the easiest drum for a beginner to play because it’s lightweight and uses a beater.”
Feeny Lipscomb, founder of the non-profit All One Tribe Foundation, has become a big fan of Heather’s.
“Part of our mission is to support research which explores the healing effects of drumming,” says Lips-comb.
“At All One Tribe, we say that Heather is ‘walkin’ our talk.’
Her own story, and the work that she and Barbara Borden are doing, is all about healing, collaboration and Unity, using the drum as a tool.
Our Native American drum makers, who are deeply spiritual people, say the drums are living things which must be played to be kept alive.
They are especially happy to know that they’re being used for wellness, and as bridges between different generations and cultures.”
Mentorship plays an important role in tribal cultures, and mentorship seems pivotal to the spread of drumming and healing.
Just as Barbara Borden has been a strong mentor for Heather MacTavish, the irrepressible Arthur Hull, best known for taking drumming to the “suits” (ie., introducing drumming to corporate America), has generously mentored many drummers and drum circle facilitators.
Hull is undoubtedly the country’s most sought-after drumming teacher because his energy is so strong and his enthusiasm so contagious that he can inspire even the most blocked and rhythmically challenged types to drum with the beat.
Motorola, Levi Strauss and AT&T are among the giant corporations in which he has led circles with middle managers to promote team spirit.
He now teaches others to facilitate drum circles at his Hawaii-based camps each year.
One of Arthur’s early mentorees was Mika Scott, a drummer who works with disadvantaged people in Berkeley.
A professional performer, teacher and recording artist, Mika has performed with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and widely with his own band, Geist.
For many years, Mika successfully used drumming, movement and dance with groups in the mental health system, and he now teaches drum groups of adults and children in a wide variety of settings.
He holds a strong conviction that inner city youth, seniors and the disabled can experience healing and a stronger sense of community by participating in percussion-based rhythm activities led by others from their community.
Long Island percussionist and “sound healer” Will Seachnasaigh has successfully used drumming and didgeridoo with geriatrics, pre-schoolers, Parkinson’s and Alz-heimer’s patients, autistic and learning-disabled kids, and drug-addicted and at-risk teens throughout the tri-state area.
“It’s dramatic, the way rhythm extends attention spans in autistic children and Alzheimer’s patients,” he notes.
He’s seen drumming in high school groups bring together the often-polarized nerds and jocks.
The drumbeat is the common language, and rhythm is the common goal.
One wonders what effect group drumming might have had upon the high schools in Littleton and Atlanta.
University campuses are increasingly offering courses on drumming in their curricula, UC Berkeley and the University of New Mexico among them.
UNM is offering a fall course entitled “Drumming and Healing” at the Taos branch, taught by Blue Spruce Standing Deer, a medicine carrier from Taos Pueblo.
Standing Deer and his wife, June, travel internationally doing workshops and gatherings focused on drumming and are organizing a huge drumming event in Taos on the eve of the Millennium to drum for peace and Unity.
The event is part of a global drumming where people worldwide will drum together for Unity in the coming Millennium on December 31st, 1999.
The news of the drum as a tool for wellness and an antidote to stress has finally reached the ears of savvy retailers, who are carrying drums in stores of all types to meet the growing demand.
Though drums have been used as musical instruments, decor and furniture for some time, their use as a tool for wellness has only recently come to light.
Legendary Nigerian master drummer and teacher, Babatunde Olatunji, once predicted that by the year 2000, every household in America would own a drum.
If the statistics on stress are correct, everyone would benefit greatly from the fulfillment of that vision.
The uses of percussion for wellness in these and other settings is prolific and growing.
Despite their observable effects, most of the studies are what the scientific/medical establishment calls “anecdotal,” lacking strict scientific method or control groups.
While this does not diminish their value to humanity, it does limit the possibilities for getting the word out more broadly and for funding.
We encourage anyone with hard statistics to contact All One Tribe Foundation to get the research into the mainstream.
We live on a planet which has both benefited and suffered from the advances of technology.
Stress is rampant, and its effects are visible in our physical, psychological and spiritual ills.
Y2K is fast approaching, and speculation about its potential effects is a topic everywhere.
Regardless of what you believe will happen, one thing is clear: If you’re sitting by candlelight and your computer is down, you can pick up your drum for 15 minutes, offer a prayer of thanks to the world’s indigenous peoples, and commune with the rest of us drummers who will be, with you, at peace.
Mabry Doyle is a drummer, a writer and entrepreneur who lives in the mountains of Northern New Mexico with her life partner, Lionel, and her Jack Russell Terrier, Granya.
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