Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ten Tips For A Successful Drum Circle!

I have recently had the opportunity to facilitate many drum circles as I am now teaching a therapeutic drumming class at Florida State University. My experiences have reminded me of some of the things I have learned over the years about making it possible for a good drum circle to occur. All of these tips do not apply in all situations because there are so many sizes and settings for drum circles, but these are good, general rules I like to follow:

1. Adapt! - Drum circles usually ebb and flow, changing as new beats and sounds are introduced or faded out. Every drum circle has a different set of people or moods, so you can never go in thinking that you want a certain sound or outcome. It is okay to start with a theme or even some prompted rhythms, but pay attention to the ability levels of the participants and take advantage of moments when you hear a cool beat or sound develop.

2. Experiment! - In my class I have encouraged the students to try out different instruments, sounds, singing, movements, etc. Drum circles are an amazing setting where so many things are possible in a supportive and non-judgmental environment.

3. Listen! - It is important to take time to listen while you are facilitating. You don't always have to be providing guidance. Listen for complimentary rhythms or interesting crossings of timbres. These can be your chance to facilitate and direct the circle into another direction.

4. Live the beat! - Allow the drumming to go where it wants to go. Don't prematurely end a drumming experience unless time is an issue. A drum circle will usually come to a close on its own or settle down to a point when it can easily be facilitated to finish. Just enjoy it while it lasts!

5. Engage your whole body. - Use your whole body to facilitate and not just your hands. Sometimes stomping works or a simple wink in a person's direction. You will want to find a comfortable way to dance to the beat as you are facilitating. Dancing energizes the circle and visually grounds the pulse.

6. Act like you're having fun! - Hopefully you ARE having fun! The point is not to stress about what you are doing. There is not a right or wrong way to facilitate a drum circle, although helpful strategies have been provided by experienced people to aid you in leading a successful drum circle. Drum circles should provide a supportive environment for many types of personalities and people who want to facilitate.

7. Watch for the "whites of their eyes!" - Good eye contact with the participants is a key to success. Try and look at all the different people and not just concentrate on a few. Their faces will tell you a lot about how they are feeling and what kind of experience they might be having. Obtaining eye contact is also vital before you provide non-verbal instructions or "sculpt" the drumming experience.

8. Start with "Passion" - Stop with "Clarity!" - You should approach a drum circle with a purpose and objective just like any other therapeutic intervention. Drum circles are powerful and can open up a world of emotion and thoughtful reflection for participants. Be prepared to process thoughts and feelings after the drum circle is over. This tip also reminds you to demonstrate excitement for the drum circle before it begins and to be in charge when the drum circle has reached the end of its natural life.

9. Mix and Match! - When possible, provide plenty of different types of drums, shakers and bell sounds mixed all over the drum circle. It is also a good idea to have at least two of each timbre so that everyone has a "partner" and doesn't feel like they stick out when playing a certain instrument. The availability of different timbres will also help you to facilitate when you are using techniques like Arthur Hull's "sculpting" ideas.

10. Make a Transfer! - What is this, you ask? Be prepared to relate something you learned or experienced in the drum circle to something meaningful in real life. It is nice to sit and drum for awhile and we do benefit while engaged in the experience, but hopefully we can take some essence of the circle with us when we go. A short discussion or processing of the drum circle experience after it ends can often spark an idea that can apply to another setting.

There are many wonderful drum circle facilitators out there doing some incredible work. Christine Stevens, Arthur Hull, Kalani, and so many others. They also actively present workshops and trainings to help people learn how to be good facilitators. You will learn about all these tips if you have a chance to participate in one of these events. These are just the way I like to think about things after many years of trying drum circles in a variety of settings. Maybe you have some other ideas you would like to share?

Now--go find your groove!


  1. Thanks for this post, Daniel. In spite of having been a music therapist for the past 23 years, I've never quite gotten the hang of drum circles (probably a result of early "drum fear" which I experienced when I was getting my undergraduate degree in MT). It's not something I tend to use in my daily work (at an institution for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities), largely because many of my clients don't tend to want to use instruments. I am, however, invited to do presentations about music therapy and such, so this list will be helpful at some point, I'm sure!

  2. Your tips are great! And most all of them have to do with being present and in the moment. That's my favorite part of a drum circle ~ It's organic, it's natural, it's at our core. We are biologically programmed to drum in groups! I'm always amazed at the reaction of a first-time drummer when the tilted, confused eye brows turn into to big smiles and social connection. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Your insight is right on the money! It is interesting to see musicians and non-musicians alike start out very tentatively in a drum circle and then slowly relax and enjoy the experience. Drum circles are therapy for everyone, including the therapist, if we allow ourselves to become part of it!

  4. Thank you for your thoughts, Roia. I think there are many therapists who feel like you do and do not use drums in their therapy. The focus of my drum class is to help music therapy students feel more confident and knowledgeable about using drumming in a variety of settings. It seems this is a much needed area! I hope you are able to use the ideas sometime. Good luck!


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