Starting a Drum Circle
Article ID: 12630
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: June 8th. 2008
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Drumming is a great way to raise energy and while you can raise good energy drumming by yourself, it is even more powerful to drum with a good circle of drummers. They don’t have to be expert drummers, they just need to be able to participate and interact with each other. Don’t have a drum circle near you to join? Start one yourself! Here are a few things to think about…
A drum circle is a community event where a group of people, typically a mix of experienced drummers and some with little or no real drumming experience, stand or sit in a circle and play improvised and spontaneous rhythms. Usually one of them will start a rhythm and everyone will join in. Individuals will take turns informally improvising on the basic beat while the main body of the circle will continue to play the basic rhythm. Instruments range from handclaps to traditional ethnic drums. In a drum circle, there is no audience – everyone is part of the circle. It is a group experience, not a performance.
Drum circles can be organized for different purposes ranging from casual fun to serious education. I’m going to focus here on having fun, but it’s important that you decide up front what the purpose of the circle will be since various other decisions will be affected by this. The main purpose, however, should be to have fun. Drum circles are fun from a musical perspective, they can be fun social events, and drumming is a great way of raising both individual and group energy as well. You should spend some time up front deciding what flavor you want this to be: purely family drumming fun, more oriented towards learning and musical growth, spiritual energy raising, meditative trance drumming, etc. Be very clear up front what type of drumming people can expect if they come.
The drum circle will obviously need someone to organize the coordinate the events. Ideally, this person should also be a good enough drummer themselves to lead the circle in drumming although that function can be handled by someone else. The facilitator will be responsible for finding a location, promoting the events, providing a basic set of percussion instruments for newcomers, setting up and cleaning up afterwards.
While a drum circle should be open to all, this carries with it some burdens as well. If everyone who shows up has no drumming experience or ability at all, it can be challenging to get and hold a good beat. It is best to make sure that there is at least some percentage of the people are more experienced drummers and can start up a beat and carry it as needed.
One thing you will need to decide up front is whether or not to invite kids. If you plan on serving alcohol afterwards and combine the drumming with more of a social event you should consider limiting it to over 21. If not, you should definitely invite teens at least. Some of the best drummers I’ve seen in circles have been teens – remember that our requirements for a drum circle are a sense of rhythm and a creative spirit, not 20 years of instrument lessons. Younger kids will surprise you at times with a great sense of rhythm. On the other hand, sometimes young kids may not have a sense of rhythm yet, and also won’t know it. It can be disruptive to have someone banging away loudly completely out of time. Parents may find it difficult to come if they can’t bring kids, too. These are all things to think about. Be very clear about it in your invitations up front. The only thing worse than paying a sitter or using up IOUs to have someone look after your younger child is to show up with your child and find out they are not welcome.
Some people will have their own percussion instruments, but it is best to have a selection of instruments available for people who show up with no experience. A set of shakers, blocks, rattles, and other instruments can be made at home easily and cheaply. For example, take an empty small plastic soda bottle, fill it ½ inch with dried beans or even small gravel, screw the top on and voila – a shaker! You can augment these homemade alternatives with a few low-end tambourines or other simple instruments.
For more serious drums there is a wide variety available but there are a few that are common. The Djembe, an African goblet shaped drum, is the backbone of most drum circles. There are varieties of traditional wood and goatskin Djembes as well as modern synthetic ones. I have a Remo Djembe that is a good modern choice: http://www.remo.com/portal/products/6/15/28/175/dj_kt.html A drum that is also seen sometimes is the Djun Djun http://www.remo.com/portal/products/6/15/29/af_djun_djun.html which is a African bass drum used to keep a basic rhythm. Various forms of frame drums are common ranging from the Irish Bodhran to the Native American buffalo drum http://www.remo.com/portal/products/6/26/120/639/bd_standard.html . The fourth type of drum, which is less common, is the Middle Easter Doumbek http://www.remo.com/portal/products/684/685/686/do_crystal_doumbek.html which is also a goblet style drum but one that is played sideways across your leg. The Doumbek is familiar as the sound you usually hear accompanying belly dancing. I have all of the Remo drums linked above although the Doumbek is my primary instrument and I recommend all of them. The Djembe and the Doumbek are good for basic rhythms as well as leads, whereas the buffalo drum and Djun Djun are bass drums that are best for holding a basic rhythm.
Traditional or Modern?
You may have noted that the links I gave above are all to modern synthetic drums. I actually build traditional wooden drums with goatskin heads, but I play synthetic drums. Wooden drums are more delicate and prone to damage if you are not careful. Skin drumheads are subject to water and heat damage. In particular, if they get wet they stretch and detune. Wood and skin drums do tend to have a slightly richer sound and tone, and they certainly look nice. Unfortunately they also require care and do not do well in damp environments. Synthetic drums and drumheads are virtually indestructible and are completely immune to weather. You can play them in the pouring rain if you wish! So – for general usage, especially where you may be taking the drum “on the road” or even to a drum circle, I suggest going modern.
The facilitator will need to arrange for a place to meet. Apartments are obviously bad places to meet because of the proximity of neighbors. Drum circles can be loud! Holding a circle in someone’s house might work if there is enough space, but it is better to use a neutral area. Outdoor locations can be great when possible but weather may be an issue as well as insects or other annoyances. Since a drum circle can be loud, someone’s backyard will suffer from the same problems as an apartment. Churches, community centers, and other locations will often make space available for activities like this either for free or for a minimal cost. Make sure there is also adequate parking available. If there is a cost for the space, it is typical for everyone who shows up to pitch in but this can result in uncertain coverage of expenses and the facilitator can be left holding the responsibility. Usually in a group contribution situation they will set a fixed cost and if there is extra money it will be used to buy food or drink for the next meeting.
Unless everyone wants to sit on the floor (rare), you will also need to make sure that there is an adequate supply of chairs, preferably armless, or benches for people to sit on.
Promoting the event
If you are holding the event at a church or similar facility, they may have a mailing list that you can get on. Local newspapers will often allow notices of such events to be run for free. There are many options online as well, with lots of regional or special topic mailing lists, blogs, bulletin board, or other groups that might be appropriate. You can post notices in local colleges, arts studios, local music stores, etc. College newspapers or radio stations are good places to advertise as well. Most of all, tell all your friends and have them tell all their friends – you can’t beat word-of-mouth! Having a web site to refer to with information and directions, as well as any last minute information, is a good idea. That can be as simple as a blog. It’s also a good idea to give them your cell phone number or the number of the event location in case they get lost or have any last minute questions.
When it is time to start, a good idea is to kick off the first rhythm and let people join in as they wish. People will, of course, be showing up during the drum circle and especially during the first rhythm. After the first pause in the music, when most of the people are there, take a short break and have everyone introduce himself or herself. Then on to the next rhythm! Ask someone else to start a rhythm, but be prepared to carry the session yourself if the group is less experienced. If you have food or drink, it is best to wait until the end of the session to break for a snack. Breaking for any amount of time, other than a short break for introductions can derail any energy that the group has been building. The only exception would be to collect money: you will want to do that in the middle of the event after everyone has arrived and before anyone has left.
Don’t forget to set up chairs etc. before hand and placing the group instruments in the center of the circle for easy access. Remind people to remove rings and other hand jewelry before they start to play any of the hand drums. This is both for the drums, which may not appreciate being hit with a ring, and for your hands, which also won’t appreciate the sharp jolt that can be transmitted by a ring or bracelet. It probably won’t do the jewelry any good either. When everyone has gone, put the chairs away and clean up, and start planning the next session!
Frequency and Duration
One and a half to two hours is usually a good duration for each event, but tailor it to the interest level and availability of the group. Consider whether you want to have a time at the end for refreshments and socializing. The drum circle should try to meet on a regular basis. Since this is a fun event, the more you meet, the more fun! Of course, everyone has conflicts and other things to take up their time. This may be a topic to bring up with the group early on – more often, or less often? The more time you play together the more the group will learn each other’s styles and abilities and the tighter the sound will become. The drum circle I currently play with meets every two-week, alternating between Friday evening and Sunday early afternoon. Once a week is good if you can do it but do not expect everyone to come every week. Once every two weeks seems like a good compromise, and even there it is hard to get the same core group at every meeting. Whatever you decide, make it a regular schedule and publish it very far in advance. So people can plan.
The sky is the limit for how advanced you can get with the drumming. If the group is ready to learn new rhythms, multi-part rhythms, etc. then consider devoting part of each session to learning a new rhythm or technique. If you are not able to teach these things, consider asking someone to come in and help as a guest lecturer. Many music stores will be happy to have someone from their staff come to events and talk about specific topics or give a training session. They get to promote their store; you get free instruction.
Even if you don’t want to go to more of a lesson or lecture structure, consider introducing fun techniques. Have the group play question and answer – one person improvises a measure, and then everyone else tries to mimic the rhythm. Start the group playing one at a time, each one adding to the rhythm. Stop the same way – one at a time. There are many fun things to do like this that require no practice, no training, and no particular ability but are fun for the whole group.
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