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Drum Circles: Guidelines and Tips


I have always winced at Arthur Hull's use of the term "Thunder Drummers" to describe non-facilitated drum circles. To me, the term, 'Thunder Drummers' creates an expectation of volume, speed and raw energy. While many of our drum pieces are indeed "testosterone tangos" we also play meditatively... quietly... introspectively. I've witnessed incredible pieces of music comprised of quiet fingertip taps. Hardly what you'd call "Thunder".
The trick to successful non-facilitated or freestyle drumming is in the drummers instinctively learning what works... how to play together. Experience will teach you how to play and listen at the same time. Experience will teach you how to adjust your volume so that you can be heard without preventing others from being heard. Experience will teach you when to embellish or play a lead part. But experience takes time.
To speed that process along, I have developed a set of guidelines over the years. It helps novices to stay focused on the fact that we are creating a group song. My guidelines sheet begins with a welcome to the drum circle and ends with specific tips for novices.

Rick Cormier


Ours is a community drum circle. We are a diverse group of people sharing a common experience. Our emphasis is on intuitive, improvised, and emotive rhythms and not rehearsed, formal or traditional ones. We welcome your voice in our 'group song'.
Drumming is fun. Drumming can change your mood and connect you powerfully with others. Drumming can entrance and heal. Drumming can provide a vehicle for expressing joy, frustration and peace.  Drumming can raise energies and provide relaxation. Whether we participate for the spiritual experience, the musical experience or the community experience, drumming can bring a dozen hearts and souls to a dozen destinations...yet we journey together...as a community.
In order to help insure that everyones experience is a positive one, here are some guidelines of drumming circle etiquette:
1.  We can transcend time, create a living work of art, and... for moments... become as one mind...one body...one spirit. What is absolutely required is that we LISTEN to one another as we play.
2.  Instruments that are placed inside the circle are being offered by circle members for others to play. Use these instruments with care. A drum that is kept beside its owner is NOT being offered. There are many good reasons for this. Drums can be particularly expensive, fragile, rare, sensitive or valued by their owner.
3.  If you are playing a lead part or soloing or playing loudly and you see that several  drummers have stopped playing it is possible that you have lost the group rhythm and/or caused others to do so. Please play more quietly and practice staying focused on the group song. If you can't hear the drummers beside you, you are probably playing too loudly.
4.  Novice drummers should avoid using bells, loud shakers and claves. Because of their volume and high pitch, these instruments dominate the music. Novice drummers whose sense of tempo has yet to be developed often fluctuate their speed or change rhythms frequently, in an attempt to 'solo' on these instruments, which makes staying on beat difficult for others and can cause an entire piece of music to collapse. Novice drummers often become tired and slow down, bringing the entire drum piece with them. Unrestrained bell and clave playing may even lead to hearing damage in your fellow drummers.
5.  When you change tempo (speed) in the middle of a piece you force everyone else out of the groove they are in. If you wish to play at another tempo introduce it for the next piece. Note: Sometimes the group as a whole will override guideline #5. :-)
6.  Drum heads can be quite easily torn or nicked by hand jewelry. You may wish to consider removing any hand jewelry before playing your handdrum. Please ALWAYS do so before playing someone else's handdrum.
7.  If you played a lead role in the last piece of music please play a supportive role in the next few.
8.  Anyone may begin a rhythm. That person establishes the tone and tempo for that piece. All drum parts should support that groove.
9.  Children: Any child with a sense of rhythm and volume, a reasonable attention span, and the ability to be respectful of other drummers and their instruments will be an appropriate participant.
A.  Novices have a tendency to hit their drums too hard when the energy and enthusiasm gets flowing. This can damage your hands. It is important to understand that experienced drummers achieve volume or speed by knowing WHERE and HOW to hit the drum. Pain is Nature's way of telling you you're hitting the drum too hard.
B.  There are three roles that can be played in a drum circle piece: heartbeat drumming, embellishing and 'lead drumming'.
     1. The heartbeat drummer is usually playing the rhythm of the piece steadily and predictably. He/she finds the groove and stays with it. These drummers maintain the foundation of the music...without them the entire piece of music would collapse.
     2. The embellisher plays between the beats, using accents, syncopation and/or polyrhythms to add musical complexity and character to the piece.
     3. Lead drummers build a creative, yet logical, musical part on top of the whole piece of music.
Whenever possible, novices should seat themselves next to heartbeat drummers as they will help you develop your sense of rhythm and tempo and are less likely to throw you off beat than embellishers, lead drummers and fellow novices will.
C.  When you feel you have mastered alternating from right hand to left hand and back and would like to do something more interesting, try leaving spaces by omitting strokes. Using fewer notes is the first step to creative drumming and it requires that you internalize some beats which helps improve your sense of tempo. Using fewer notes makes musical space for other drummers. Using fewer notes can also help you to keep up when the drumming is very fast paced.
D.  If you wish to drum but are unsure about what to do, play what the heartbeat drummer is playing. Your support will be appreciated. If you lose the beat you're playing...look to a heartbeat drummer...Listen or watch his/her hands and you'll find the beat. If you're not sure who the heartbeat drummers are...ask an experienced drummer. Another useful trick is to listen for the bass notes in the piece, and then play only those notes. This will help you reorient yourself and teach you to intuitively use bass notes as an anchor.
E.  The only 'sin' a novice can make is to be the loudest drummer in the room. Be patient. LISTEN.
1999 Rick Cormier  
Use with permission only.
Revised 2/06

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Drum Circles: Links

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