Drumming and the Mind, Body, and Soul

As a psychotherapist, stress management consultant and drummer of thirty years who began drumming on a practice pad my father created out of three-parts love and one-part rubber and wood, I’ve been pondering a question that went beyond the technique and mechanics of my drumming.  That is, were there any benefits to my drumming on my mind, body, or even, dare I say, soul?

I knew that it felt good to play my drums, whether it was my six piece kit, or a djembe, conga or ashiko drum; the positive feelings were not limited to a particular style or drum.  As I grew up, whenever I felt stressed or angry, I would always gravitate to my drums.  They seemed the perfect vehicle for the expression of my emotions and I always felt relieved afterwards.  The drums seemed to have an innate ability to welcome whatever negative emotion I was feeling and usher it through my hands to be transformed somehow.

For my entire life, I have been what one would call a seeker, one who strives to find the meaning and purpose of what I was handed, and the drum provided another opportunity for me to look beyond the playing, to discover the psychological and physiological changes that occurred when I drummed… this became my quest and the driving force behind my writing my book, “The Healing Power of the Drum.”

I decided that in addition to musicians, I needed to speak with music therapists, drum facilitators, researchers and ordinary folks who, like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind who was driven to model a mountain he saw in his inner landscape, these people, non-musicians were driven to use the drum to reap its many benefits.  My thought was that if non-musicians can benefit from playing a drum, what does this mean to musicians who use the drum everyday?

One of my first discoveries was the benefits of drumming crossed all lines, all boundaries.  Everyone could benefit from drumming, whether it was children or senior citizens, patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis, stroke, down syndrome or autism.  Whether it was at-risk kids or prisoners with anger issues, to the grief of a mother who son had recently died, to employees with stress, the drum had no prejudice, was not selective.  All could benefit in some way from drumming for -the benefits crossed all lines.  The more I searched, the more it seemed that there wasn’t a population or ailment that couldn’t receive some benefit from drumming, and the benefits were often profound.

For instance, how was it possible that an Alzheimer’s patient who couldn’t spend more than a minute or two doing anything else, could using a paddledrum, spend 35 precious minutes with family members.

For instance, how was it possible that a woman who was a nonmusician and whose son had recently died of cancer, was able to take her inexpressible grief, and using a simple hand drum, move through her emotions to a place of joy and lightness.  The majestic drum gave her something that probably twenty years of therapy couldn’t bring.

Throughout my research there were a number of patterns that emerged in many of the experiences I heard.  One of the patterns that emerged was that the drum provided an opportunity to release out of the body whatever negative emotions were within.  The drum has the capacity it seemed to alchemically transform negative to positive!

There has been much research on the importance of getting out of the body sadness, anger, for holding these feelings within has deleterious effects.  For instance, individuals who are self-described loners who don’t share their feelings are 15 times greater to develop cancer.

Recent studies by Barry Bittman, MD, confirm that drumming boosts our immune system.  Therefore, when we drum, we are not only feeling good, but physiologically changing our internal landscape.

There were other patterns that emerged in my book.  Playing drums brought people together, like magnets, and when together there was a unifying effect.  This was demonstrated most aptly by Nathan Brenowitz, a counselor and drummer who discovered that the drum had the capacity to bring together warring nations.  Travelling to the Middle East, he used the doumbek drum to bring together two countries, Israel and Jordan, through the common bond of drumming.

The drum enabled individuals to express nonverbally through the drum emotions that often couldn’t be expressed.  Many people don’t feel comfortable sharing their emotions.  The drum provided a unique expression, pounding away anger, for instance.

The drum also provided a landscape of communication.  Family members with issues of anger were able to listen and talk, all at the same time, yet harmoniously, creating bridges of togetherness that no other form of communication could  provide.

The other significant pattern that emerged was through something called entrainment.  Entrainment is the tendency of people and objects to follow a dominant rhythm.

An example of entrainment occurred the first time I took a trip to New York City’s Wall Street area.  Though I had nowhere to go, as I took my first steps with the other pedestrians, I found myself walking at a very brisk pace for a few minutes.  The funny thing was I had no idea why I was walking fast?  Glancing down, I noticed that everyone else was walking fast too.  I realized that I was pacing myself with the other pedestrians.  I had to move out of the “dominant rhythm” and consciously slow down.   Another example of entrainment is what occurs when we hear a rhythm and begin tapping our feet to it.

The benefits derived from entraining to a rhythm were described by Dr. Michael Thaut of Colorado StateUniversity who uses rhythm to provide a steady beat to Parkinson’s patients, enabling them to walk more steadily and improve their gait.  Dr. Connie Tomaino, from the Institute for Neurological Function described a man with Parkinson’s disease who couldn’t cross a stress due to his freezing when confronted with a street.  Freezing is what occurs to a Parkinson’s patient when he inexplicably cannot move.  This man’s answer was to bring a cassette of rhythmic music and whenver he froze when coming to a street he couldn’t cross, he would slip on his headphones and the driving rhythms would unfreeze him, enabling him to cross the street.

In hospitals, nursing homes and centers for the elderly, drums are being used to ward off depression and loneliness among patients and as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The theories as to why Alzheimer’s and stroke patients are able to drum is that rhythm is processed in both sides of the brain, and the cerebellum, which is the lower brain stem is the most primitive part of the brain.  Thus, when other parts of the brain are not functioning, this part of the brain often is.

In terms of the brain, Layne Redmond describes that when we are drumming what is occurring is called hemispheric synchronization. This is what occurs when an individual reaches a deep trance state.  She describes that listening and playing rhythms if one of the most effective ways of inducing hemispheric synchronization.

Drums have also been used with veterans who have experienced post–traumatic stress syndrome and patients in drug and alcohol recovery programs. Dr. John Burt, describes how veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were able to use the hand drum to work through their disorder, reenacting the sounds of battle through their drums, and learning to modulate the emotions.

In addition, drums are being used to help corporate executives relieve their stress and as a way to help adolescents release anger.

Some of the other benefits of drumming include immediate reduction in feelings of loneliness and alienation, being able to relate to others non-verbally, the development of leadership skills, expressing anger in a constructive format, stress relief, expanding social and personal connections, developing ideas for constructive leisure time activities and experiencing the creative process through improvisation.

In terms of stress, by hitting a drum, an individual is placed immediately into the ‘here and now.’  When a person is in the present moment, it is very difficult to be stressed, for stress generally occurs when a person is thinking about the past or future in some negative way. Secondly, the drum grounds a person into his or her body. When people are stressed, they are generally in their minds, thinking about something negative. Through hitting the drum, a person’s conscious awareness is immediately placed solidly into their body. When a person is focused on her or her body, it is very difficult to be stressed. This same experience will occur when a person is involved in an aerobic activity or exercise. Thirdly, the drum gives a person a sense of personal power. The drum allows people to release tactilely their negative emotions and stress, in many ways like hitting a pillow as a way of releasing anger.

Drumming also gives us physical vitality because it is a very physical activity. It gets our heart pounding, our blood flowing and releases the endorphins (the pleasure hormones, that are associated with “runners high”).”

“Drumming is also great fun!  It’s a great way to feel the pure joy of being alive. Drumming by ourselves allows us to move deeply into our true nature by eliminating distractions and societal constraints. Drumming with others is a universally time-honored way to creating a feeling of community and trust. Drumming is simply one of life’s many gifts.