In most Festivals Gatherings and other Events, we can find a kind of Drum Circle which at first seems chaotic: no set theme, occasionally you can pick out a recognizable rhythm only for it to evolve into something else. This is not the Classical Form you would find in Africa nor the Caribbean. This is an Open Drum Circle.
So, one shows up at one of these Open Drum Circles and asks:
“How do I join in?”
In the previous article I suggested listening to what is being played before starting, then warm up with a down beat. I cannot say enough about “warming up” when entering a Drum Circle. This gets you in sync with the other drummers and allows you body to match the “swing” of the rhythm. But what then?
I would like to offer a few suggestions about rhythm and technique.
It is important to protect yourself from your own enthusiasm.
If the energy is high, we have the compulsion to start hitting the drum as hard as you can. Harder is not louder. Before you start to drum here are some options.
Before you show up at the circle, try out your drum’s voice. Start tapping (yes, tapping!) around the drum head and listen to the kind of sound it can produce. “Bounce” on the drum head with your fingers and listen to the change of tone as you move from the center of the drum head to the rim (or edge). As you do so, listen to the various tones produced. In addition, try using your finger tips rather than your whole hand and the various spots between the center and the rim.
At this point, to get the idea, I would recommend spending time with an instructor of the drum. If you do not have access to a teacher, YouTube is a great resource for instruction. The important thing here is to take your time. If you simply start pounding on your drum and knuckles hit the rim too hard, you can actually hurt yourself.
For my own part, I tried simply “jumping in” without pointers in technique and consequently knocked the knuckles of my thumbs on the rim of the drum and raised some painful lumps. I learned after the fact the importance of raising the thumbs when hitting the rim. This kind of hand position allowed me to heal over time and I now have a better tone because of it.
The question as to what to play also requires a little bit of planning. Before you start, listen to the rhythms of music. Again, check out YouTube for drum lessons. The African Rhythms are very popular in Drum Circles and in the Open Drum Circle harnesses the classical beats as a starting place. Once the rhythm is started, you can begin by adding or omitting beats to slowly alter the beat. For my own approach, I do not play the same pattern more than four times before slowly altering the rhythm. This gives the rhythm pattern life; it grows, alters, evolves into something different. From my point of view, a Drum Circle is at its best when evolving into new rhythms, altering the old ones into others and trading rhythms between drums.
Another resource for drum rhythms is in the music you already listen to, no matter what kind of music it is. All music uses rhythms: from classical music to rock and roll, every kind of music uses rhythm. I recall one drum circle which broke out in to some Scott Joplin!
When at the Drum Circle, be sure to remember the Circle is like an Orchestra: it has many different people playing different drums, each with its own set of tones. This makes a wide variety of sound available. That being said, no matter how good one drummer can be, it is important to provide spaces for everyone to be heard. Drum Solos are great for performance groups, but are not too important for the Circle. If one of the stronger drummers dominate the circle for too long, other drummers will abandon the circle because there is simply not enough room (sound wise) for other players.
Finally, attitude is one of the most important aspects of a healthy Drum Circle. The goal is to generate Good Will in the Circle. Many people attend the Drum Circle to raise their spirits. I recall recently after a very trying time I attended a local Drum Circle. Being with others at such a time is like a calming salve over a blister.
If you find your are too hurt, attend and simply listen and allow yourself to become raised by the sound itself. Once you are able to contribute in a healthy way, start to drum: ease in and play. However if for some reason you are angry, withdraw so as not to contaminate the circle with “bad vibes” (as they say). Conflict of this kind has no room in the circle and will sour a Drum Circle. Join in when you feel better. For those Drum Veterans who have been attending Drum Circles for years, many of us have watched Circles fall apart or turn into actual wars between factions because anger dominated the rhythms. People get hurt and walk away angry and depressed, the opposite of what we are working for.
When in doubt: don’t.
Always: Listen to the circle and pay attention to your own state of mind. Sometimes even the most experienced drummer will withdraw and simply listen or leave the circle entirely.
The Drum Circle (at it’s most healthy state) can heal, elevate the spirits and enlighten the participants and the observers alike; a goal we can all agree on.