Monday, April 9, 2007

Like the beat of a heart, a drum can bring new life to its owners. Its most avid proponents say a drum — used alone or when beating a hand drum in unison with others — promotes both physical and psychological well-being.

At the very least, the activity is an expression of community and connectivity that follows a tradition in many native cultures across the world. The practice has taken hold dramatically in this country in recent years. These days, a person doesn’t even have to own a drum to be able to participate in a movement that attracts young and old alike.

“Everyone is basically a drummer who has a heartbeat,” says Karl Dustman, representative for the Ohio-based Percussion Marketing Council, which is co-sponsoring an educational curriculum for District fifth- and sixth-grade teachers this spring called Roots of Rhythm that will use instruments as visual and aural aids.

“Some nursing homes have drums instead of treadmills,” he adds.

Port Discovery, the children’s museum in Baltimore, regularly sponsors a “Healthy First Saturday” program with drum facilitator Jonathan Murray, a private teacher in Columbia, Md., that draws up to 100 people each time and includes a Friday afternoon performance as well. The “healthy” label applies, he says, because “it most definitely gives them exercise — cardiovascular and upper body work.”

Mr. Murray, who works with the Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation, also is helping organize a 1,000-person drum circle at the District’s National Music Center, outside the old Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, opposite the Convention Center, on April 22, Earth Day, that he predicts will be the largest event of its kind ever held on the East Coast. Proceeds will benefit the Anacostia Watershed Project, the combined community-government campaign to restore the health of the Anacostia River.

Drums can’t cure disease, Mr. Murray is at pains to point out, only “facilitate” wellness. “We are rhythmic beings, born into a world of rhythm. Every solid particle [of us] is just a bunch of vibrations, so no wonder we respond favorably.”

“We all respond to drums,” says teacher Karen Wallace, of Columbia, Md., who reports that, after a first class with Mr. Murray, “it felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer, my reaction was so unbelievably good — life changing.” She says drumming has brought an “extra dimension” to her life, making her “a little less hurried, more patient with myself … Perhaps this is a good definition of wellness.”

Social worker Kara Koppanyi, of Towson, Md., says “even thinking about drumming makes me smile. It is a wonderful fun way to deal with stress.” So much so that Ms. Koppanyi bought herself an African drum called a djembe that she uses in circles, in Mr. Murray’s classes and in the evenings alone. “It really gives me a lot of energy.”

Her first exposure was through a statewide adult services seminar he gave for social workers when, she says, “he had this whole huge group of stressed-out state workers drumming. It was just an exhilarating experience.”

New York psychotherapist Robert Lawrence Friedman, another drum facilitator, writes in his 2000 softcover book, “The Healing Power of the Drum: A Psychotherapist Explores the Healing Power of Rhythm,” how even Alzheimer patients have been able to stay focused for short periods with a drum in their hands. He currently is president of Stress Solutions Inc., providing stress-management seminars to corporate clients and is also affiliated with the St. Barnabas Health Care System in New Jersey. His book is both a personal account and an introductory guide to the subject in which he quotes many leading authorities on their experience drumming in different settings.

Andrea Nelson, a nurse from Columbia, Md., who is employed by the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Research Center, had brought in a trained facilitator when she worked at a continuing-care retirement community in Alexandria and found people there “got very engaged,” even those who could no longer talk or express themselves in other ways. She, herself, has been taking lessons for several years, at one time with a woman drummer.

“Playing the drums for an hour is the same kind of exercise as riding a bike,” says Martin Walls, managing editor of Making Music, a lifestyle magazine for amateur musicians published in Syracuse, N.Y. “We write about drumming for social, psychological and physical benefits,” he says, naming Arthur Hull the “West Coast guru of drum circles” who was promoting drum therapy as far back as the 1960s. Facilitators, Mr. Walls says, take drums to corporate functions “to break ice and build team protocol” as well as into medical health facilities.

Dr. Barry Bittman, a neurologist who is CEO and medical director of the Mind Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pa., is a pioneer in the area of using percussion instruments as an effective therapeutic strategy. In 2001, he looked at the effects of group drumming on the immune system and documented how the experience elevated “white killer cells” — the specialized white blood cells that find and destroy virally infected cells.

A second study done in 2004 with 75 associate degree nursing students at Allegany College of Maryland showed a marked reduction in stress resulting in lower burnout rates and fewer mood disturbances. The students took part in six weekly one-hour sessions, during which they were asked to express their feelings nonverbally using drum and percussion instruments to respond to a series of 12 questions.

The two studies were done using a method called HealthRHYTHMS Group Empowerment Drumming developed by a drum manufacturing company in North Hollywood, Calif., called Remo Inc. (, after the founder, Remo Belli. HealthRHYTHMS is a company division set up to train health professionals in the use of percussion instruments to promote mind-body wellness in community settings.

Dr. Bittman began his work in recreational music making and drumming in particular — what he calls “music for nonmusical outcomes” — because, he explains, the drum “is a basic instrument without the challenges of a steep learning curve. People could participate from the start.”

His recent research focused on seeing “if creative work could reverse the genomic changes or switches that get turned on in human stress” using keyboard instruments, and especially the Clavinova — an electronic computerized musical instrument made by Yamaha. In conjunction with the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems, his team found stress reduction greater among those taking a keyboard lesson than subjects who simply relaxed by reading.

Music making is a means of engaging people on a level he says he hasn’t found possible in other ways. There is little resistance, he claims, “and the opportunity to express oneself musically is nothing short of transformative. … Frankly, when we ask people how they deal with stress, it [the answer] is typically passive: listening to music and such. Most people don’t meditate or do yoga or tai chi.”

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