The Health Benefits of Drumming

For the past year, I’ve provided the residents of the Bronx Center for Rehabilitation with a recreational drumming program using rhythm instruments and Remo Soundshape drums.  The program that I provide uses two specific types of rhythm-based exercises.  The first exercise uses shaker eggs played with different styles of music.  The purpose of this exercise is to begin the process of awakening each resident’s sense of rhythm.  The final thirty minutes involves using Remo drums to create a powerful and positive community and rhythm-based experience.  In addition, there are various health benefits occurring simultaneously.

I began my exploration of the health benefits of drumming unknowingly when I was 12 years old.  I was in a small street gang in South Jamaica, Queens, at that time.   As I didn’t like to fight, I was bullied frequently.  I noticed that when I went home to play my drums after being bullied, I always felt better afterwards.

Ten years later after completed my Masters Degree in Counseling Education, I purchased 100 hand drums.   The reason I purchased the drums was to explore my hypothesis of whether individuals who were non-drummers could gain the same psychological benefits from drumming as I did as a drummer.  I began offering drum circles at health spas, nursing homes and hospitals as a way of exploring this idea.

My experience of using these drums led me to uncover numerous psychological and physiological changes that occurred when people drummed and was the driving force behind my first book, The Healing Power of the Drum – A Psychotherapist Explores the Healing Power of Rhythm (October 2000, White Cliffs Media, Inc.), and my second book, The Healing Power of the Drum II – A Journey of Rhythm and Stories (February 2010, Pathway Books, Inc.).

I was astounded to find that the benefits of drumming seemed to know no bounds. The more I searched, the more I discovered that seemingly everyone could benefit from drumming, from senior citizens to executives, from war Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, from cancer victims to Multiple Sclerosis patients, as well as individuals with paralysis and stroke, all were able to find benefits through drumming. The more I searched, the more it seemed that there wasn’t a population or ailment that couldn’t receive something positive from drumming, and the benefits were sometimes profound. I would like to share with you some of the information that I received on my journey.

Barry Bernstein, MT-BC, one of the pioneers of drumming and wellness, described how, through working with a drum, patients with Alzheimer’s disease were able to remain task-oriented for longer and longer periods of time.  They were eventually able to spend thirty precious minutes interacting socially with loved ones, whereas before they could only spend a few minutes.  In his words this was “unheard of.”

I learned in my research that a woman, Ginger Graziano, whose son had recently died of cancer, was able to take her inexpressible grief, and, using a simple hand drum, move through her many layers of emotions to a place of joy and lightness.  She felt as if a “deep inner healing was occurring through my playing the drums.”  Drumming for her was a “way to heal my grief, but it became a way to remember my joy.”

Throughout my research I uncovered a number of recurring themes that occurred in many of the experiences. One of the patterns I noticed was that the drum provides individuals with an opportunity to release whatever negative emotions needed to be expressed. The drum has the capacity to transform the negative to positive – anger to grief, grief turned to joy.

A  breakthrough study by neurologist Barry Bittman, M.D., confirmed that drumming provides biological benefits to the body. In a controlled experiment, Dr. Bittman proved that group drumming significantly boosted the body’s immune system, that is, it increased the disease-fighting white blood cells called T Cells, which are cancer killing cells. This was the first study to demonstrate clinically that drumming actually improves the immune system.

The drum also provides a context for communication. Family members, especially adults who had difficulty speaking were able to very aptly express their emotions to others through drumming. As well, many men who were taught to hold their feelings in check were able to create bridges of togetherness and harmony that no other form of communication could provide.

The benefits derived from entraining to a rhythm were described by Dr. Michael Thaut of Colorado State University who has shown that using the rhythms of a metronome or recorded rhythms, Parkinson’s patients are able to walk steadier and improve their gaits. Dr. Connie Tomaino, from the Institute for Neurological Function, described a man with Parkinson’s disease who would “freeze” when confronted with crossing a street. Freezing is what occurs when a Parkinson’s patient cannot initiate movement. They simply cannot move. Under Dr. Tomaino’s guidance, this man would carry a cassette of African rhythmic music, and whenever he froze when coming to a crossing, 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 stroke patients. The reason researchers believe that stroke patients can drum is that rhythm is processed globally, that is, in both sides of the brain. If one portion of the brain is damaged, there are other portions where rhythm can still be processed.

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.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of drumming is that it is great fun! It’s a wonderful way to feel the pure joy of being alive.   Drumming with others is a universally time-honored way to creating a feeling of community and trust. Put simply, drumming is simply one of life’s many gifts.