The following interview was published in Science of Mind Magazine, April 2010 Issue.
Perhaps our innate attraction to rhythm comes from our original exposure in our first home: our mother's womb. During the nine months we live there, we are bathed in all manner of sounds from our mother's body, most prominently the beat of her heart. Steady and soothing, the heartbeat's rhythm surrounds and enfolds us, becoming forever embedded in our psyche and physiology. Even before birth, we are rhythmic beings.
In addition, nature is full of other rhythms--wave beats on the shore, the circle of day into night and back again, lunar cycles, the seasons, and much more--while we might not pay them much conscious attention, they are nevertheless an intrinsic part of us.
Whether a rhythm comes to us from within or without, our instinctive connection with it often moves us to create our own rhythms--and for that, drumming can't be beat.
Drumming at its most basic doesn't require much equipment: a hand or a stick and something hollow to pound on. Give a toddler a wooden spoon and a pot, and you'll see--hear--this in joyful, abandoned action. Yet humans have been drumming with purpose and intention for eons: to make music, to heal one another, to enhance community, to engage with Spirit. When used therapeutically, drumming involves all facets of our being, including the physical, emotional, cognitive, psychological, and spiritual.
Today, serious research is demonstrating how drumming, particularly in drum circles, produces beneficial results such as antiviral and immunologic effects, stress reduction, better movement after a stroke or neurological disorder, and even reduction in addictive urges. It can enhance motor coordination and attention span, reduce anxiety, and help build relationship skills.
Sustained drumming can create the "high" of aerobic exercise because it increases heart rate and blood flow. It also synchronizes the hemispheres of the brain, causing brain waves on both sides to entrain, of fall into the same pattern, which can produce effects similar to deep meditation. Entrainment also occurs among members of the drumming group, bringing about a sense of oneness and community.
Drummers David DiLullo and Rick Allen know these benefits firsthand. Their drum circles have attracted hundreds of participants. Before turning to drum circles, DiLullo directed dozens of marching percussion programs involving up to 100 participants, including the UCLA Marching Band. In 2004, he became a member of the Center for Spiritual Living in San Jose, California, and a year later took over management of its music programs.
Fascinated with world drums (drums from many cultures), he soon gathered a "massive collection" of drums and began wondering what to do with all of them. After attending a drum circle led by Jim Greiner, a pioneer of community drumming, he knew. He started a drum circle at the center, where participants use his drums. Now, he also heads Global Drum Circles (globaldrumcircles.com), the largest drum circle in Silicon Valley, which recently held a drum circle with 230 attendees. All of their events in the last eighteen months have sold out. Endorsed as an educator by two drum companies, he has also worked with the Peninsula Stroke Association in Palo Alto, facilitating therapeutic drum circles for patients recovering from stroke and brain injury.
DiLullo began playing drums at age fourteen and later became a professional. In his teens, drumming was simply fun. Now, he says, "Drumming is the way I connect to Spirit. I've never been good at traditional meditation techniques."
Drum circles can range from totally unfacilitated, where there is no leader and spontaneity reigns, all the way to extremely structured groups directed by an experienced leader. Many circles are also targeted to people who already know how to drum. But DiLullo's are open to everyone, even people who have never picked up a drum before.
At one of his recent circles, he says that about one-third of the participants had never touched a drum before and another third had never participated in a drum circle. Yet everyone joined in enthusiastically, and they are coming back with their friends.
Most people who come to his drum circles don't realize the benefits of community drumming, at least at first. They might come out of curiosity or because it looks like fun or to add music-making to their lives. Then, DiLullo explains, "People get hooked. There's a sense of community that doesn't happen in a concert, for instance. A violin circle would take months to teach the first song." He laughs as he imagines this. "But with drumming, it's instant. You're making music together in minutes, and everyone realizes they are now drummers."
Just the physical act of sitting in a circle enhances the sense of unity with one another, which is further enlarged to connection with something higher and more universal when everyone is playing the same rhythm. Sustained drumming, especially in a group, touches a primal, spiritual place in the participants. DiLullo suspects this has something to do with our ancient cellular memories as well as physiological responses that occur far below conscious awareness. He believes the vehicle that carries drummers to an altered state is the vibration, since our bodies vibrate along with the drums and in a way become drums themselves.
Shamans have known of drumming's transformative powers for millennia, understanding how it can take people to an altered consciousness where they can heal. In his drum circles, "People have shifts in consciousness," DiLullo explains. "Drumming can be a platform for meditation. And it's very clear that people are turning to it as an alternative healing method."
In contemporary society, we live very much in our head and often ignore our bodies' subtle sensations and messages. But with drumming, says DiLullo, "You're very much in your body, and it takes you to a place where you can reach your inner-self. Historically, drum circles were used for celebration or rites of passage, and even today it's as if we're still gathering around a fire at night," he explains. "Native American shamans called drumming the 'canoe' that would carry your consciousness across the passage [to a spiritual state]."
The ancient practice of drumming for spiritual purposes is beginning a real reemergence today, with a small but enthusiastic base of drum circle leaders eager to bring others into the fold. DiLullo has no doubts it will continue to grow, comparing to the emergence of yoga in the West. "With drumming, you can bring music, beat and rhythm into your spiritual practice very easily," he says.
Like DiLullo, Rick Allen began drumming in his childhood and joined the band Def Leppard on his fifteenth birthday. But when he was twenty-one, an auto accident ripped away his left arm. At first, he thought he wouldn't be able to do much of anything, let alone drum. But then his brother brought a stereo to his hospital room and played Allen's favorite bands, like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. Almost without thinking, he began tapping out the rhythms with his feet. He realized that all his years of drumming had made it almost instinctive for him. As he said much later in an interview with Beliefnet, "All the information was in my head. I just needed to channel it somewhere."
Before too long, a friend had designed a custom electronic drum kit with pedals for Allen, and he set about learning to play the high hat, kick drum, snare, and tom-tom with his left foot. In 1986, Def Leppard played their first big engagement since the accident at England's Donington Park, where Allen received a huge welcome back from tens of thousands of fans.
Able to drum again, Allen believed he was fully recovered. But for years he struggled unknowingly to deal with the energetic trauma his psyche had endured from the accident but never released. When he met Lauren Monroe in 2000, the deeper healing began.
A healer from childhood, Monroe has studied with Benedictine monks, tribal healers of Brazil, North America, and New Zealand, and is an initiated minister of Deeksha healing from The Oneness University in Southern India. She also holds degrees in dance choreography, education, and massage therapy. She had never been a Def Leppard fan but was familiar with Allen's story.
"I knew how much suffering and how much bravery was a part of his being and life experience," she says. "When he came to me, I felt a lot of things that guided me to work with him in a very spiritual and energetic way. And I treated this whole person, which includes both of this arms. I don't think Rick's ever had a treatment like that before, but it was important to connect with his arm that wasn't there and also into his heart. It was a beautiful experience, and when he left I felt like I had just worked on some type of spiritual king or something. It was really beautiful."
Allen was also deeply touched with the intensity of the healing.
"I'd never experienced that kind of massage work before, where you incorporate a physical aspect, but also the energetic work that can sometimes go along with that," he says. "And that, for me, was just profound."
They married in 2003, but in 2001, they created the Raven Drum Foundation "to educate and empower individuals and communities in crisis through healing arts programs, drumming events, and collaborative partnerships," according to the nonprofit foundation's Web site (ravendrum.org). Monroe understood that drumming has been used in healing ceremonies and rituals for millennia. And, as an experienced drummer himself, Allen understood the power of drumming as an integral part only of Def Leppard's music, but of music in general.
"It's so primal. It's fantastic," he says. "Any form of drumming, to me, is...this sounds odd, but it really becomes a mindless activity because it you allow yourself to fall into it wholly, you kind of disappear. And time just...oh man, we were just doing that for two hours?"
They began by working with at-risk and incarcerated teens and gang members in the Los Angeles area, conduction drum circles and healing workshops at juvenile detention centers. But in 2005, they turned that program over to a staff member and shifted their focus after Allen traveled to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., to meet wounded military personnel from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He visited the amputee ward and the occupational therapy unit. The experience moved him deeply and inspired him to begin expanding Raven Drum's work with veterans.
"My own experience with trauma is obviously different from combat trauma, but the way it manifests in the body is very similar," he explains. "We're all different; we process it in a completely different way. I just find it really, really easy to connect with people. I don't even have to say anything. I just walk in, they see my physical form, and immediately they welcome me in a way that is so beautiful. They make me feel like a warrior. And they allow me to share my experience, and then, ultimately, what happens is they share their experiences. There's this wonderful thing that happens where I'm inspired by them, and they're inspired by my journey."
Allen returned to Walter Reed for another visit, and this time Monroe accompanied him.
"After experiencing some of the boys there--and they were boys, very young soldiers--that were wounded, we just saw the need," she recalls. "We met their moms or the caretakers or their girlfriends or their wives, and we saw that this isn't going to stop soon. We know we can help; we can do something here. And we came back, and we started working on a plan about how to develop some programs to share."
In order to give back to the men and women of the U.S. military, Raven Drum Foundation created an innovative healing modality, called the Resiliency Program, which included drum circles. It is designed specifically for current and former military personnel from any war to help them deal not only with combat-related trauma, but also with the everyday stresses, anxieties, and depression that are common in military families during wartime. Teens are included with a self-care program designed specifically for them, and female veterans will soon have their own program.
According to the Raven Drum Web site, new research demonstrates that humans experience traumatic experience of any kind primarily as a bodily impact. In other words, even if we believe we have experienced a trauma "only" mentally or emotionally, it still must come through our body to be experienced at all. And so our body is affected by it, and stores this experience as a memory, just as it stores all our experiences. After a traumatic event, many people believe that if they do not consciously think about it, or if they "bury" it, the aftereffects simply will fade away. Unfortunately, this is not true. The trauma remains "trapped" in the body and can lead to all sorts of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, depression, and worse. It will cause physical, emotional, and spiritual pain that often deepens over time.
"When you have any kind of traumatic syndrome or crisis in your life," Monroe explains, "you carry very intense emotions that, oftentimes, you don't even know are there".
Not surprisingly, their drum circles frequently are witness to displays of emotion. Many of the participants dealing with trauma don't necessarily know the extent of their hidden negative emotions. But drumming can help bring them to the surface, where they are released. Participants can trace their experience of how they felt before the circle again how they felt afterward. "We hear more often than not that people have less anger or sadness or feelings of depression after experiencing the drum circle. We also witness a lot of tears from people," says Monroe.
Allen chimes in to say, "Including me. I'm the crier. I love to rain all over the drum kit, you know? But it's so beautiful, it really is. It's, again so experiential you can't necessarily explain it. It's like you just feel this wave of grace and it does something really profound. You go into the gratitude."
David DiLullo is a percussionist, drum circle facilitator, and founder of Global Drum Circles. Rick Allen is co-founder of the Raven Drum Foundation and the drummer for the English hard rock band Def Leppard.
Preview our Digital Books and Music
© 2001 - 2017 Talking Drum Publications