We are seated in a circle, joining our hands in the large gathering space, as the warm sun streams through stained glass onto our smiling faces. We are diverse in age and gender, in race and in faith. We’re from various generations and backgrounds. Some of us are friends, family or neighbors, but many of us are meeting for the first time. There are more than 30 of us. But when the drumming starts, we are one — celebrating life, community and the joy of the present moment.
Welcome to AARP’s community drum circle, a frequent offering of the Arizona state office in Phoenix, where I’m the associate state director for community outreach. Drum circles use rhythm to promote healing and self-expression, and we’ve also held these wonderful events in other states. In the circles I facilitate, we use West African djembe drums and other percussion instruments, including woods, shakers and bells. Group drumming is a form of recreational music-making available to all people, regardless of musical experience. And there are so many reasons to try it.
Rhythm is in our roots! Black women attending these gatherings often tell me what a transformational experience it is. “Once the beats and rhythm align, if you close your eyes it takes you to a place of almost levitation and calmness,” one sister shared recently. “As we began to beat the drums in unison, I felt such a spiritual charge, as though I was communicating with my ancestors,” another said. “The energy was one of healing. I walked away feeling renewed and refreshed.” Not all of us were born on the continent of Africa, but Africa was born in us.
Drumming is accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be able to read music to participate. And unlike other instruments that require fine motor control — the ability to move your fingers — drumming can be done by people with neuromuscular and degenerative diseases and many folks with disabilities. Drumming therapy has been used for everyone from older adults in nursing homes to at-risk youth. All that is required is a willing spirit to let loose.
Drumming can be good medicine. In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 39 participants in a group drumming program reported several health benefits. These included positive moods; pleasant physical effects; a sense of initiative, control and accomplishment; a sense of focus and flow; enhanced self-regard and a sense of social connectedness. Other studies spanning the last two decades link drumming or recreational music making to physical improvements related to stress, blood pressure, memory and brain health, immunity, pain relief, anxiety and depression. (More information about long-term benefits is needed, and follow-up studies would help give researchers more clarity about these findings.)
Circles create a special connectedness. Our diverse drummers enter our space and step away from their worries as they contribute to the group and the rhythm. They also make new friends. When first-timers come in, some are shy and hesitant. They soon brighten and blossom as they get into the beat, serenity and joy of the experience.
Sessions give time for self-expression. AARP Arizona’s drum circles last for an hour. We use an evidence-based protocol call HealthRHYTHMS, which includes fun icebreakers, wellness exercises, rhythmical games and inspirational beats. Ultimately, we aim to empower each person to feel free to express themselves and to have fun as they contribute their music and spirit to the circle.
Many community organizations host local drum circles. You can find contact information for your state’s AARP office here. If drum circles aren’t currently a part of your state office’s programming, and you’d be interested in attending one in the future, tell the office! You also can find local drum circles by searching Meetup.com and Facebook.