Djembe Drummer Playing

How To Start Your Own Drum Circle

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This is the second of three articles all about drum circles. In the first article, we talked about the meaning and history of drum circles and discussed the musical, social, and health benefits of circle drumming.

In the following article, we’ll be talking about starting a drum circle in a social care or school setting; but in this one, we’re talking about starting a drum circle in your local area.

If you’re joining us for the full article, I will presume that you haven’t run a drum circle before and start from the beginning. First, I’ll give some information and tips on organizing the logistics and then run through some ideas for your first few sessions.

We’ll look at everything from practicalities to boundary setting, and we’ll also look at some drum games and exercises, which you can use to get the ball rolling.  

If you feel like you’re pretty solid on the basics, feel free to scan through to the section you’re most interested in—hopefully, there’ll be a helpful tip or two along the way.

Before anything else, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend attending a few drum circles run by other people before starting your own. It’s not essential, but attending a few circles can help to give you a clear sense of how your sessions could look.  

If you’re unable to participate in one locally, you can find drum circle sessions on YouTube, and it may be helpful to check those out. 

Let’s go through some of the practicalities first, and we’ll dive into the musical stuff later on.  

Logistics of Starting a Drum Circle

If you’re a pretty good drummer—or if you know some excellent drummers—you might be starting a circle to socialize, improve your playing, or have fun.

If that’s the case, you’ll need five or six participants, a venue, an agreed date, and some hand drums (djembe, bongos, congas, etc.).

It probably helps to find the cheapest venue possible, including community centers and churches in many areas. In addition, it may be a good idea to split the cost of venue hire between everyone who attends.  

The length and frequency of the sessions are up to you. However, I recommend that each session lasts between 1 to 1.5 hours, with a coffee break in the middle. 

It’s worth encouraging everyone to bring their own drum, but it can’t hurt to have a couple of spares for newcomers who might like to join in. Of course, there’s also always one person who forgets!  

Have a Plan 

It’s not as essential to have a detailed plan for each session if you’re facilitating a group of seasoned circle drummers.  

Planning can be beneficial if you’re relatively new to this kind of drumming. A plan may seem to cut against the free-spirited drum circle ethos, but it takes time to build up to the meditative, improvisational flow. Planning will help you have fun and give you some things to work on while you gel as a group.

Time usually flies when circle drumming, so consider having a main plan comprising only a few items; then have extra things in the locker that you can draw on if you need to fill some time at the end.

If the group keeps meeting, it doesn’t hurt to hold some of these activities back for future sessions. There’s also a wealth of online resources with different drum games and exercises you can use for your circle if you run out of ideas.

Here Are Some of the Things Your Plan Should Include 

Communicate information about the group, including introductions, schedules, and boundaries. 

At the start of the group, it’s worth taking five minutes for introductions and briefly outlining any information about the group or the venue, which may be helpful to know. If you’re having a break halfway through the session, let people know at this point.

It isn’t usually necessary to outline clear boundary expectations. Still, it may be worth voicing any relevant reminders about payment for venue hire, venue rules, and some easily forgotten points of etiquette, like not tapping when people are talking.

Feel free to start at a relaxed pace and ease people into each session gently – especially at first. Of course, you’ll want to start drumming as soon as possible, but it’s amazing how quick a session can go, and you don’t want to exhaust your plan with half an hour still to run.

If Needed, Explain the Drums 

If there are a few newcomers in your group, take some time to explain each drum. Demonstrate the different sounds you can make with each drum, and explain the best way to hold each one. This should only take a few minutes, but it can make the session better for everyone.

Warm-Up Games  

The first few sessions can usually help to start with some warm-up games. We’ll talk about some of these later in the article, but again—don’t rush. Allow people to experience each game, enjoy the process, and get used to playing together.

Introduce Three or Four Rhythms  

Taking one at a time, introduce three or four rhythms to the group. Spend some time with each beat. Allow people to enjoy playing together and get used to each rhythmic phrase.  

Don’t underestimate how challenging some of the rhythms may be to people who don’t usually play in a drum circle. Five minutes of playing each rhythm is probably a reasonable amount of time. If it helps, you can use short sentences, movie titles, place names, and other spoken phrases to allow people to play each rhythm accurately. 

Here are three examples:

Drum Circle Music Examples

Introduce Dynamic Changes  

Explain how the group can use dynamic changes to develop a musical variety. For example, when everyone is playing together, you can raise and lower your hand to signal to the group that they should get louder and quieter.  

Eventually, you can remove this hand signal and encourage the group to listen for (and to follow) each other’s dynamic changes.

Split the Group in Half, Thirds, or Quarters and Assign a Rhythm to Each Group

In doing this, the idea is to get the group used to playing different rhythmic phrases simultaneously while staying in time with one another. This is another area that people can struggle with at first, so if your group is relatively new to circle drumming, start with two simultaneous rhythms and build from there.

Save Time for Free Play, Starting From Straight Quarter Notes

It’s an excellent idea to have a time of free drumming in each session—even if it’s just for ten minutes at the end (though you could undoubtedly budget more time than that as people grow in confidence).  

If you’re new to circle drumming, you could try getting everyone to start playing simultaneous quarter notes at 80bpm. Then, invite people to branch out by improvising their own simple rhythms, which develop naturally over time.

Starting in this way can help to ensure that everyone stays together and that the group maintains a consistent pulse.

Try to encourage everyone to remember some helpful musical principles—like dynamic variation—and remind people that they don’t necessarily have to play all of the time. 

Sometimes, when people drop in and out of the music, it can help to create more variety, and that’s no bad thing.

The Balance Between Planning and Smothering

Try to find a balance between over-preparing and giving too much freedom. Like starting a campfire, it’s all about the right balance of ingredients, activity, and timing.

Circle drumming is usually best enjoyed when there is the freedom to play and improvise without many boundaries. However, new circle drummers can find it tricky to improvise without a structure to guide the process.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If you fill every session with structured activity, you risk squeezing the spontaneity out of each session. Eventually, things could feel stale, and the sessions could grind to a halt.

The aim is to use structure to give people a foundation to build from and then gently remove that structure so that people become increasingly confident when improvising.  

If you can get the balance right, you’ll find the session bursts into life. 

Eventually, you can start each session with a warm-up game or two and then move straight into free drumming.  

Warm-Up Games 

Here are a few warm-up games that can be a good starting place for your session. These are particularly good for newcomers to circle drumming, but they can be used in any context. There are many drum circle resources online, so feel free to do some Google searching, too! 

The Name Game 

The Name Game is a great way to introduce everyone to each other, and it can help put new faces at ease. Each drummer in the circle takes turns playing three quarter notes and then says their name after. Try to ensure that each person says their name on beat four and that the next person starts playing on beat one. 

It’s a simple game, but it may be tricky for non-drummers, so feel free to go around the circle twice if you have to, and remember to be encouraging at every step of the way! 

To make things trickier, you could use some more complex rhythms for the first three beats and try quickening the tempo.

Finally, you could go around the circle a few times while changing the category for each round. So you could—for example—find out people’s favorite food or their favorite TV show. 

The Mirror Game 

In this game, one person is nominated to play a rhythm, and the whole group has to repeat the rhythm back to them. So, again, try to ensure that everyone stays together as they do this.

You could start by playing a few rhythms yourself and then nominate other circle members to try. You can raise the tempo, make the beats harder, and add things like dynamic variation to make this trickier.

Telephones

This is like the Mirror Game, only this time, a rhythm must be passed around the circle. Again, you may like to kick things off with a few rhythms before passing the responsibility on to other group members.

As with the Mirror Game, you could try speeding up the tempo, changing dynamic levels, and making the rhythms harder as you go. You could also slow some of the rhythms right down and—for seasoned circle drummers—send two different rhythms in opposite directions. 

I Like to Play the Drum 

In this game, the facilitator says the phrase, “I like to play the drum.” On the word ‘drum,’ everyone should play their drum once. Make sure that everyone plays simultaneously and cleanly. 

You can then say the sentence faster and slower, varying the pace to try and throw the participants off their game. 

You can vary things further by leaving out the word ‘drum’ – or any other word(s) in the sentence. Even though there are missing words, each drummer must still play simultaneously when they get to the point where the word ‘drum’ would be said.  

For example, you might say, “I like to…”

Here, the words ‘play the drum’ have been left out, and each participant must imagine those words and play at the right time (you can also leave all the words out of the sentence and see if people can still stay in time).

For a bit of fun, you could decide that they have to put their drum down and not play until the game restarts when someone is caught out.  

You can determine a ‘champion’ of the game based on who plays through to the end without being caught out.

Extra Inspiration

If your circle meets regularly, you may eventually find yourself looking for ways to add variety to your sessions.  The following ideas are designed to be starting places rather than destinations. 

Each can be used as a foundation for getting started. The music can then be allowed to grow and evolve naturally out of these starting ideas.

Drumming From a Picture

Ask the group to bring a photograph, picture, or painting that they like the look of to a session. Then, choose one of the images to put in the middle of the circle.

Use the image as a starting place for drumming. This is highly subjective, and there are no rights or wrongs. A sea storm image might inspire a loud improvisation in 6/8; a macro photo of insects might evoke something quieter and quicker.  

Drumming From an Object or Animal 

In this approach, everyone in the group takes turns naming an object or an animal. From that list, one is chosen. The subsequent drumming flows from the qualities of that choice.  

For example, an elephant may inspire loud, slow, plodding drumming, whereas a sports car might evoke fast, flowing drumming.  

Drumming From a Phrase 

As we discussed earlier, sometimes using a spoken phrase can be an excellent place to start. This time, the group doesn’t have to play on each syllable of the phrase—though this is an ideal place to start—instead, the meaning or sound of the phrase may evoke something interesting.  

For example, when I was at school as a kid, we’d play a game where you had to avoid walking on the cracks on the sidewalk. We’d say, “Don’t step on the crack, or you’ll fall and break your back!” 

Using this phase, the word ‘don’t’ might be found at the center of the djembe; ‘back’ and ‘crack’ might be found on the edges.  

The group could start by playing the syllables in the phrase but then develop different rhythms and other musical ideas.  

It may be that the group tries to focus less on the syllables or sounds in each phrase and chooses instead to focus on its meaning.  

For example, the phrase “There’s a storm brewin'” could be articulated with each drummer playing things that sound foreboding, tense, and dark. The well-known lyric “The Sun has got his hat on and is coming out to play” might evoke something light, bouncy and quick. 

Final Thoughts 

Circle drumming can be extremely fun and very gratifying. If you’re a seasoned drummer and know a group of solid players, you can probably start a drum circle quickly once you’ve got the logistics down. 

If you’re less advanced, I hope this article has presented you with a few ideas to help get the ball rolling and shake the sessions up a little along the way.  

If you don’t know many drummers or are new to drumming yourself, you might need to develop your circle slowly and patiently—bringing people along with you and having fun.  

Feel free to take these ideas and run with them or change them in many ways to suit your group. But, in the end, the best way to start a drum circle is to contact some friends and get going. So, I hope you do, and I hope you have a whole heap of fun in the process.  

In the following article, we’ll be talking about starting a drum circle in a school or care home setting. This is a valuable thing to do, and sometimes it pays pretty well, too—so keep your eye out for that. 

See you in the next one!

About the Author

Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.

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