Friday, November 30, 2007

Schoolhouse Strategy: Drum Circles for the Special Needs Classroom

Drum circles offer a sense of independence within a community situation. A typical drum circle usually involves a variety of instrument sounds including different sized drums, shakers and bells. The participants play their instruments, dance and even sing around a central drum facilitator. Sometimes a large drum may provide a steady underlying pulse for the group to build upon, but other times the group plays to whatever rhythm develops, changing as the drumming continues.

A drum circle depends on the ability of the participants to play a steady beat or respond to the musical dynamic with a part that fits into the musical experience. A few people off the beat or not able to follow the directions of the leader will not disrupt the cohesion of the musical product. In a classroom with children with special needs it is still possible, however, to use a drum circle effectively for a group activity. The following strategies may be helpful for successful drumming with children who have disabilities.

1. Establish a strong beat. You may want to use an audio recording in the background to provide a steady pulse and supportive drum circle atmosphere. It is important to have a pleasing musical product in order to encourage participation by the children. Some good recordings are found on Christine Stevens, The Healing Drum Kit or Sweet Honey In the Rock, Still the Same Me. Christine Stevens has recorded drum circle tracks specifically to be played as a background for an individual or small group drumming experience. The CD from Sweet Honey In the Rock has recordings of traditional African drumming. Another way to establish a pulse for the drum circle is to use a large paddle drum or gathering drum to play a steady, consistent beat that is solid enough to be heard and felt during the group drumming.

2. Vary the instrumentation. A drum circle does not require a majority of drums. The circle activity will become too loud and lack variety. Use at least three different timbres in the drum circle. Different instruments will appeal to individual children and the drum circle facilitator will have flexibility in having different timbre groups play.

3. Have a drum circle facilitator. The facilitator is key to the successful drum circle. Children with disabilities can learn to start and stop a drum circle using gestures. A four count start or stop is a good way to practice this. They can also direct the group to get louder and softer or have selected groups of instruments play. Adaptations can be made to help the children be facilitators by giving them adaptive technology such as "Big Mac" switches for verbal commands to start and stop. The drum circle facilitator may also be the "DJ" and operate the audio recording to guide the drumming experience.

The drum circle allows for much creativity and exploration. Concentrate on non-verbal communication skills that go along with objectives from Individual Education Plans. Focus of attention, imitation and following directions are all skills that will naturally occur during group drumming. Encourage the drumming to continue for several minutes at a time before doing starts and stops. This will allow the players to entrain their playing with the beat of the pulse. The entrainment effect happens naturally over time as a steady beat is played.


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