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Why Freestyle?


Why freestyle drum circles? When facilitated drum circles are so popular why do I prefer the non-facilitated variety?


In a facilitated drum circle everyone plays the beats assigned by the Drum Circle Facilitator (henceforth called the DCF). This limits the group to the beats the DCF favors (unless he/she signals the group that it's time to improvise.) Some DCFs use very simple beats, some favor complex beats, some exclusively use beats of particular cultures so that much of everyones drumming experience is dependent on the skills, preferences, and personality of the DCF.


In a freestyle drum circle, anyone may begin a beat...even a novice. Everyone else in the group either mirrors that beat or plays a beat that complements it. The evening's drumming may begin with a wild and fast testosterone tango... while the next piece may be mellow and meditative. Drum pieces that follow may have a Native American flavor...or Latin, African, jazzy, techno... You get the idea. Everyone contributes. If you didnt like the last beat, you may like the next. Didnt hear any you cared for? Then you start the next one! Some of the best grooves I've drummed to were started by novices who were experimenting. They started playing something awkwardly and then the more experienced drummers picked up on it and made it groove... and then the piece took on a life of its own.


I think it is an injustice when DCFs write us off under the heading of "thunder drummers".  I have drummed in rooms with literally hundreds of drummers playing under the capable facilitation of Arthur Hull. I have also been present when our freestyle drummers weave a percussive backdrop as delicate as lace behind an improvised and un-amplified Native American flute. "Thunder drummers"?  The term implies that, without a trained DCF, we can achieve no more than volume, speed and chaos.


I have found that letting anyone begin a beat also neutralizes the war between the sexes that plagues so many drum circles. You usually get a wide enough musical range in one evening to please most everyone.


When there is no designated leader actively directing the circle, then there can be a shared leadership. It is ok to take the floor and share a poem or a passage or news of a percussion event or a good drum sale. One incredible soul I used to drum with was in his late 70s. He loved Native American culture and played a simple medicine drum that he had built. At some point in the evening, he would visibly calm himself and say something like... "In some Native American traditions, a story is told about an eagle and a coyote..."  He would hold everyone spellbound with his telling of a story. When the story was over, he would begin to play his drum... simply... almost hauntingly. One by one, the group would pick up their drums and another piece of drum music was born. That is shared leadership at its absolute finest.


A novice drummer recently made an insightful observation about freestyle vs. facilitated drum circles. She tried both for the first time in the same week. What she noticed was that in facilitated drum circles the focus is on the DCF whereas in freestyle circles the focus is on the group song.


Another observation of hers was that freestyle circles allow a piece to end... either by ending on one note, fading the music to silence, or letting the piece collapse into laughter. She noticed that DCFs tend to keep a piece of drum music going... sometimes long after many drummers have lost interest in it. She found our 5 - 10 minute pieces easier on her hands and less monotonous than the DCFs considerably longer pieces.


Shared leadership doesn't work unless some rules are agreed upon. In our freestyle drum circle drummers are expected to LISTEN to one another. They are expected to play supportively when someone else is playing lead. And, if they played lead on the last song, they are expected to play supportively for the next few. The person who sets up the initial beat also sets the tone and tempo. People are responsible for their own volume level in the mix. By agreeing upon rules we prevent chaos.


In freestyle drum circles we trust one another. We allow one another to be heard, to take risks, and to make mistakes. We allow one another to grow. In freestyle drum circles we are all teachers... all helpers... all contributors. We are a true Community.


Arthur Hull describing a women's freestyle circle:
"...but the song and energy coming out of their drumming circle was totally different than what I had ever experienced. There was a sense of conscious cooperation rather than unconscious competition. There was power with out loud volume. The women were using their notes to make space for each others creativity, rather than trying to fill up the space with notes which, at that time, was the standard operating procedure for the male drummers. The result of all these elements combined was something little heard in the thunder drummer circles back then or today; subtle grace and beauty.

     Then I heard something that I also never before experienced in a drum circle; the women's drumming group slowly faded their rhythm groove into silence. In the end, the silence was as loud as the drumming had been, and the rhythms were still moving inside it. As I sat in tears and in awe of what I just experienced, one of the women drummers looked at me sitting out side the circle and said to me, 'you can join us if you promise to listen.' "

Different Drummers Drum Circle

Drum Circles: Guidelines and Tips

The NBUU Circle: A History

Drum Circles: In the News 1

Drum Circles: In the News 2

Drum Circles: In the News 4

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