Musicians can sometimes be solitary creatures. Especially drummers.
It’s not easy to find people who love listening to someone practice paradiddles all day, so necessity causes us to find our own space to shred.
It can also be hard to meet other musicians in general, and so many drummers can go for long periods of time without finding opportunities to play with other people. And let’s be honest: jamming along to YouTube can be fun, but it’s hardly sociable.
This feels like a pity. It seems a little bit like becoming fluent in French, but never actually going to France.
I bet there’s a real buzz about walking into some Parisian cafe and giving your order – in near-perfect French – to the guy serving the coffee. It must be exciting to be able to make yourself understood in a different language, and meeting some real life locals is surely the best way to improve your vocabulary and grammar. Of course you can settle for reading French books and watching French films, but I doubt it’s the same thrill.
Yup, you can learn some things all on your own, but a community of real people can bring things to life in a way that just doesn’t happen otherwise.
This is certainly true in music – which was arguably developed to be a community pursuit in the first place.
With this in mind, you might imagine that joining a rock band, a jazz ensemble or an orchestra would be the best way for a drummer to find a group of like minded people to develop their skills alongside, but there’s at least one other option that you may not have considered before.
Namely: the drum circle.
In this article, we’re going to be talking a little about the key elements of drum circles, from their history to their unique approach to music making. We’ll also be talking about ways to find your local drum circle, so you can go and get stuck in.
In the next article, we’ll look at some practical ways to start a new circle in your local area, and I’ll share some new drum exercises, rhythmic phrases and drum games to help get you started.
What is a Drum Circle?
If you’re not familiar, a drum circle is comprised of a group of people who usually (but not exclusively) use African drums like djembe and conga drums.
You could say that circle drumming is as old as the the drums themselves; certainly ancient African, Asian and North American indigenous populations all have some form of drum circle as part of their heritage.
In the freewheelin’ 1960s, and into the 1970s, circle drumming underwent a kind of renaissance in the Western world. This style of playing grew in popularity out of – and alongside – hippie culture, and the golden age of Woodstock.
Since then, drum circles have become something of a drum subculture in and of themselves, with major drum company Remo even offering specific circle training, resources and accreditation to circle facilitators.
It’s worth highlighting then, that drum circles are a great social activity, but they’re also a serious undertaking for those who want to push the envelope a little. Renowned players like Mickey Hart (of The Grateful Dead) and Kalani Das are two big proponents of the drum circle approach, and there are many others beside.
The Drum Circle Philosophy
Circle drumming is usually wholly improvised.
Players don’t usually show up to a session to practice for some future event, or to rehearse with a higher aim in mind; the circle itself is the only reason to be there, and the present moment is all that matters. Circle events are typically structured in one of two ways: either a nominated person facilitates the group, and directs the music as it develops or, alternatively, the group can be entirely free form, and lead by each member simultaneously.
In the second case, each member holds equal influence over the development of the music. Sometimes people meet to play this way as part of a wider expression of spirituality and faith, and other times, drum circles can be used in a therapeutic way, to promote overall wellness (more on that later). Most frequently however, they just offer a chance for a community of drummers to meet together, to make music and to have fun.
Over the last ten years I’ve ran, or been a part of, a large number of drum circles in different contexts. I first experienced circle drumming as a teenager growing up in church, before becoming involved in one or two circles at music college.
Since then, I’ve ran drum circles in youth clubs, schools and care homes. I was also part of a performing group of improvisational circle drummers, who played in and around London for a number of years.
In all of these experiences, I’ve been amazed at the variety and flexibility which the drum circle provides for all those who want to take part, and have seen and experienced the many benefits of getting stuck into this kind of group.
Musical Benefits of Drum Circles
Kit drummers can learn a lot from the drum circle experience. On a drum kit, the kick, snare and hi hat create multiple layers of rhythm, which are often complimented by toms and other cymbals too. It’s easy to take that level of choice for granted.
In a drum circle, one is usually restricted to a single drum. The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention really rings true in this situation. Playing a single drum forces a drummer to be a lot more creative with the little they have at their disposal.
This means discovering the wide variety of sounds which can be played on one drum, and it also means exploring a wider variety of rhythms, techniques, dynamic levels, timbres and subdivisions too. It also forces a drummer to work in a much more communal way; it becomes wholly necessary to contribute intelligently to the music being created, and so a high level of listening, communicating and responding is required.
Playing this way also helps to develop an internal sense of pulse, as each drummer locks in to time with the other. Since rhythms don’t tend to be prescribed to each member of the circle, this kind of drumming will sharpen the ability to improvise and to think quickly.
This is especially true, since—in the context of a drum circle—the music making can last long periods of time without interruption, meaning there’s space for experimentation. Since everyone plays at the same time, there’s also an environment in which people feel liberated to try things out – no one is ‘on the spot’, performing to a large crowd of spectators.
On top of this, the free form nature of the drum circle means that there’s no real pressure to stick to short section lengths of, say, sixteen bars. Drum circles therefore provide a great opportunity for us to throw off our musical constraints and shackles.
They work best when there’s a communal approach to playing, and when people work as a team, but there usually isn’t a strong emphasis on playing the right part, or sticking to a predetermined structure.
On top of the musical benefits of circle drumming, there are many recognized mental, emotional and physical health benefits too. Many of these are still being studied, but it’s been widely observed that this type of playing can benefit people with mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression. Even people with more severe conditions like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can be helped by drum circle sessions.
For those of us who don’t suffer greatly with a recognized health condition, drum circles are still beneficial to our overall health and well-being:
- Being ‘in the moment’ helps to develop sound mental health
- Long periods of regular, hypnotic rhythm (which is often a feature of circle drumming) help to soothe stress and to increase relaxation
- The physical act of drumming releases endorphins – one of the bodies ‘feel good’ hormones – leaving people feeling happy and satisfied
This benefit to health and well-being is one of the reasons why drum circles have maintained their popularity – it’s not just about the music, or the chance to hang out and meet new people: circle drumming is also great for mental and physical health too.
Everyone Can Be a Circle Drummer
Earlier in this article, I mentioned some of the circle drumming opportunities that I’ve had. In the times that I’ve engaged with this type of playing, I’ve often noticed the accessible nature of the activity.
Drum circles are often used to great effect in care homes for the elderly, or people with neurological conditions. I’ve ran drum circles for people with severe learning difficulties, adults with various physical and mental health challenges and children with special educational needs. They’re extremely popular in these settings.
The fact is: everyone loves to hit some drums, but kit drumming can take years to master. Of course, a high level drummer will approach circle playing with skill and sensitivity, but even non drummers can get involved fairly easily.
Playing in a drum circle is an instinctive activity for most people. There’s no need to master kick independence or a tricky set of fills, there’s no need to read music or to be able to play paradiddles over a samba foot ostinato. There’s just one drum, and you hit it. This is why drum circles can be used so favorably in the aforementioned therapeutic settings.
The scope is even broader than this though. In my experience, kids and teenagers in school and youth settings absolutely love playing drums together, and many love it even more if the facilitator replaces the drums with huge plastic bottles or other household items—there’s a wide scope to be creative in this area.
Adults from all kinds of backgrounds love circle drumming too: here in the UK, I’ve heard of high flying London executives hiring drummers to run workshops at office team building days. I’ve also heard of prisons facilitating a drum circle to help inmates reduce stress and depression, and to grow in team work and social confidence. This can form an important part of their rehabilitation back into society (as well as reducing boredom and a tendency towards bad behavior while in prison).
A specialist drummer can weave all sorts of rhythmic magic through the many layers of sound in a drum circle, but all people of all backgrounds and all abilities can benefit from this type of playing, and the universal nature of circle drumming no doubt helps to account for its enduring popularity.
Finding Your Tribe
If all of this sounds interesting to you, it might be worth taking a look around your local area to see if any drum circles are active in the vicinity. By its very nature, circle drumming is a communal activity. Therefore, local music stores, libraries, community centers, and even churches, are good place to start the search.
Of course, in the digital days of 2022, search engines and social networks are another place to turn. On that note, the good folk at Remo have put together a resource to help people find their nearest Remo affiliated circle. You can find that by following this link.
Many musicians can exist like a lone wolf in their town or city, practicing alone and jamming to mp3s when they want to play songs. This in itself can be fun, but music really comes alive when we’re connected to a wider community. Yes, drummers can play in metal bands, concert bands, church bands and swing bands, but joining a drum circle is another—sometimes overlooked—option, too.
Through this article, we’ve talked about how drum circles have existed for thousands of years; originating in indigenous populations across at least three major continents, and finding renewed interest in America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.
We’ve considered how playing in a drum circle can help us to become better musicians, as we develop our ability to improvise, communicate and play with renewed creativity and sensitivity.
Playing as part of a drum circle can also boost overall health and well being, as well as engaging people of all backgrounds and needs.
I hope this article has inspired you to consider checking out the world of circle drumming. If it has, why not take a look around and see if you have an active circle in your area?
Finally, stay tuned for the next article, where we’ll be exploring the logistics of setting up and running your own drum circle. Until then, happy drumming!
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.