Drumming and Wellness:
The Birthing of Rhythmaculture
By Mabry Doyle
Ancient wisdom is making a comeback, thanks to advances in 21st-century technology. Modern technology is providing the tools for us to measure the results of many practices of the ancient indigenous world. Primary among these is drumming. Biofeedback research has shown that the drumbeat alters brainwave patterns, increasing Alpha (a light meditative brainwave), and dramatically reduces stress.
The jury is in on the effects of stress on the human system: 98% of all disease is now known to be linked to stress. Wellness is right behind technology as the fastest-growing market in the country. People are spending more on health-related items and therapies than ever before. The drum’s power as a tool for wellness has long been acknowledged among indigenous populations, and has recently been explored by a variety of practitioners and researchers.
“Rhythmical Evangelist” Arthur Hull, who credits legendary Nigerian drummer and teacher Babatunde Olatunji as a mentor, has taken his mission worldwide. Hull is author of the currently sold-out “Drum Circle Spirit: Facilitating Human Potential Through Rhy-thm.” The book gives readers a blueprint for how to “use drums, the drumming experience and group rhythm as a tool for unity in their communities.”
Hull’s message is clear and as accessible as his material. “The application of the technology of drumming is universal,” he explains. “This is because (1) the language of the drum is universal, speaking to all people, worldwide, equally; and (2) the act of drumming is a universally healing experience — it releases body tension, emotional stress, and mental fatigue.”
“The ability to drum,” he adds, “is alive in all of us — not based on musical knowledge or rhythmical expertise. It’s something we all did naturally as children while expressing our rhythmical spirit by hitting things and making sounds. This ability has been socialized out of us by Western culture to the point that, as adults, most U.S. citizens believe they are rhythmically challenged and that only musicians can drum.”
Arthur sees it as his mission to help reverse this unhealthy belief, which may underlie some of modern society’s worst ills, including addictive behaviors. As we reconnect with the natural rhythms deep within our bodies, we are simultaneously feeding our souls, which have been starved for ritual.
Feeding these two vital areas, body and soul/spirit, while giving the overworked brain a well-earned rest, is extremely healthy for balance. “It allows us to bring more of who we are to the party, so to speak,” said one drumming student. Many believe this reintegration of body and spirit explains why drumming is spreading so widely and deeply into the 21st century. “What we’re seeing,” says Hull, a gifted phrasemaker, “is the birthing of ‘Rhythmaculture’.”
Hull has himself become a mentor for many younger drum circle facilitators. His work has progressed from leading drum circles at national conferences, to taking drumming to the “Suits” (i.e., introducing drumming into corporate America to promote team spirit-building), to teaching others to facilitate rhythm-based groups at his annual “Rhythm Playshops” for facilitators.
More than half of attendees are school teachers, music teachers and therapists, prison psychologists, clergy, women and men, and facilitators in the personal-growth movement. The rest are people who are fascinated by rhythm, want to facilitate drum circles or integrate the drumming experience into their own lives and enhance the lives of others.
“These people are making a huge contribution by learning to facilitate rhythm-based groups,” says Hull. “What better way to share your bliss than through service, bringing the drum into the community as a tool for unity?” Hull’s book may currently be ordered through Village Music Circles in Santa Cruz, CA, (831) 458-1946.
Heather MacTavish is surmounting the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease using the drum. And since her indomitable Spirit demands that she share this miracle with others, she has taken her drums on the road. She’s drummed in managed-care centers, at conferences on wellness, on cable television, and with elders in retirement communities. A graduate of Hull’s facilitator Playshops, she also gives workshops to teach others how to do what she does.
Heather has recently formed a non-profit organization called “New Rhythms” whose mission is to (1) promote a dynamic model for wellness and unity; (2) celebrate cultural diversity using drumming workshops and events focused on integration of diverse generations, cultures and levels of ability and disability; and (3) develop research programs through innovative use of complementary approaches to traditional medical care.
“I use a variety of drums and percussion instruments in my work,” says Mac-Tavish,” but the mainstay is the All One Tribe Drum because of its patented sheepskin handle. The drum is lightweight and portable, and the handle allows people to ‘wear’ the drum comfortably for long periods, even if they are arthritic or have a disability. People love the beautiful indigenous artwork. And I love that the company has a vision of world Unity with the drum as a symbol and tool.”
Of her own experience, the exuberant MacTavish, 51, says, “Drumming has completely changed my life. It has uplifted me, increased my intuition and unleashed a charge of creativity such as I have never before experienced.” For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call (415) 435-4870.
Mark Seaman opened “Earth Rhythms” in West Reading, PA, with a vision to create a safe space where people could explore their rhythmical possibilities using a variety of percussion instruments. Described by his employees as a “rhythm guru,” he’s been credited with pioneering the successful use of drumming in recovery programs for drug and alcohol addiction.
Seaman says drumming gives addicts an opportunity to vent frustration, connect with other people (since addicts tend to isolate), and gives them a creative outlet which they lacked. Many addicts feel that their joy in life is over when they quit drinking or using substances. He tells them “Life isn’t over; it’s just begun.” He shows addicts that they can have fun without being stoned.
Much of Seaman’s work is in treatment centers. Last year he led a program at the well-known Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, CA with 60 men. He has led drum circles in programs for hospitals, corporations and schools, including a conference on peer mediation at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. His work has also included “Mentoring in the Arts,” a six-month program for inner-city, at-risk youth already in the detention system.
Recently he led drumming at a huge regional conference called “Innovative Addiction Treatments . . . Theory and Practice,” sponsored by the Caron Foundation. Seaman himself sponsors “Unity with a Beat,” a three-day Drumming, Dance and Movement Camp for facilitators and drum enthusiasts. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll free, (877) 610-3743.
Melinda “Mo” Maxfield wrote her PhD. dissertation on the effects of drumming on EEG (brain waves) and subjective experience. Her research cites sources ranging from Dr. Michael Harner, who founded the world-famous Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, CA, to Neuroscience literature.
For the past 13 years, Mo has worked for the Angeles Arrien Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research, whose purpose is to integrate into contemporary culture the rich wisdom of indigenous peoples by honoring their oral traditions, arts, myths and their deep respect for nature.
Her own innovation is “Drumming the I Ching”, for which she has created a step-by-step instructional manual. The underlying theory is that each of the ancient Chinese hexagrams represents a state of being which can be induced by drumming the beat of its pattern. The workbook is available from the Angeles Arrien Foundation, P.O. Box 1277, Sausalito, CA, 94966.
About the drum, Mo says, “I have found that drumming for and with a collective is a powerful tool to aid the transformational processes of healing and personal growth. It is a sure way to come back into our own natural rhythm.”
The non-profit All One Tribe Foundation has taken drumming into several New Mexico managed-care facilities and witnessed up close the dramatic changes in people with a myriad of disabilities, especially Alzheimer’s, where most of the qualitative research has been done. All of these care centers’ therapists or CEO’s have written letters of testimony and have incorporated drumming into their programs. For more information, please see www.allonetribedrum.com.
Why should drumming work with so many diverse populations and disabilities: at-risk teens, autistic kids, Alzheimer’s elders, Parkinson’s patients, addicts in recovery, traumatized war veterans, prison and homeless populations, corporate execs and everyday people suffering from stress and stress-related illnesses?
A two-page article in the Jan. 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek gives a strong clue. The article, entitled “Rewiring Your Gray Matter — The brain: You can teach an old brain new tricks. Neuro-plasticity promises to give a whole new meaning to ‘changing your mind’,” by Sharon Bagley, presents exciting new research.
The underlying premise — that sound therapies can create new neural pathways in the brain at ANY age, bypassing damaged pathways — is perhaps the most hopeful news to emerge for human wellness in recent memory. Heather MacTavish is a striking example of how brain circuitry can be rewired.
Here’s a compelling dream: Groups of diverse people around the world drumming in community; overcoming barriers of age, race, language; eliminating stress, addiction, trauma and diseases formerly believed to be incurable; communing wordlessly with one another — healing their bodies and feeding their hungry souls. Aho! (May it be so...)
Mabry Doyle is a writer, drummer and entrepreneur who lives in the mountains of Northern New Mexico with her life partner, Lionel, and a Jack Russell Terrier named Granya.
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