INTRODUCTION TO DRUMMING CIRCLES
A drum circle is any group of people playing drums and percussion in a circle. They may also use: movement, dance, voices (chanting, singing, poetry, spoken), and other devices. The drum circle is an end in itself rather than preparation for a performance. The drumming is improvised and co-created by the participants.
Drum circles can be used for: team building, recreation, wellness, education, celebrations, spirituality, or personal growth.
Drumming can provide the following benefits:
- Reduces tension, anxiety, pain, and stress.
- Releases negative feelings, blockages, and emotional trauma
- Boosts the immune system.
- Induces synchronous brain activity.
- Produces natural altered states of consciousness.
- Creates connectedness with self and others.
- Synchronizes us with the natural rhythms of life.
- Provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power.
- Keeps one in the present moment.
DRUM AND RATTLE INFORMATION
A shaman’s drum is the typical type of drum used for spiritual drumming circles. It is a frame drum that has an animal skin stretched over one or both sides. If one sided, the back side has a handle to hold the drum. The drum is beat with a stick called a beater. These drums are usually 4” deep and up to 30” in diameter. Other types of drums that can be used are: tom toms, congas, djembes, bongos, and bodhran.
The drum can be used for calling in healing spirits, purification, power dances, extracting negative energies, calming anxiety and agitation, and as a divination tool.
Most drums sound best when the head is struck about halfway between the center and the rim. The tone at the center tends to be harsh with few overtones. A ringing tone works best for journeying and a more strident tone helps facilitate extraction work and the power dance.
Generally, the larger the drum, the deeper the tone. Also the thicker the hide the deeper the tone. Hides used on drums are generally one of the following (listed from highest to deepest tone):
- Cow: medium weight; light color; rougher texture
- Elk: thinner, lighter weight
- Buffalo: thicker hide; darkest color
- Moose: produces the deepest sound; lighter color than buffalo
Commercial plastic headed drums are available that retain their tone in all weather and do not need to be tightened like natural hides do. They cost considerably less and are “vegetarian” for those who don't want to own animal hides.
Store the drum in a warm, dry place. Natural hides tend to loosen and stretch in different types of weather especially humidity. The drum head can be restored by heating the instrument slowly in front of a fire, using a hair dryer, or warming it on a heating pad. Don't heat it any hotter than your hand can tolerate. Heat and dryness could split the head.
Clean your drum by rubbing it softly with a slightly damp cloth. Once in a while, the rawhide on the drum will benefit from a very light coating of Neatsfoot Oil compound on the back surface and on the cords.
Honor and respect the drum by not displaying it ostentatiously, by keeping the drum face up when setting it down, setting it down on a textile, and by smudging it regularly.
When a drum is new, it needs to be awakened. A relationship will develop with your drum and you will discover that your drum has moods. You will get spiritual benefit and guidance from playing your drum regularly. The following list of procedures will facilitate a good relationship with your drum:
- Smudge it with sage.
- Run your hand over the skin so that your oils will moisten it and wake it up.
- Play it gently at first.
- Journey to the spirit of your drum and meet the animal it was made from to say thanks and begin a partnership of healing work.
- Journey to the tree who gave the wood for the frame.
- Journey to the beater.
- Journey to the spirit of the drum itself. Ask your drum to be your sacred partner. Ask for an opening symbol to be shown to you that you can draw on the skin each time you drum.
Known as the voice of the spirit, rattles are used for: ceremonies, healing, cleansing and purifying, soul retrieval work, visionary work, and to gently call ancestral spirits. (The drum is not normally used to call The Ancestors lest they be awakened in a sudden, loud manner.) A shaman’s rattle possesses strong powers and should be kept in its own special medicine bag. Rattles can be made from many different items such as: turtle shells, snake, buffalo testicles, rawhide, gourds, deer hooves, and horn. There are many different items to make the rattle sound such as: seeds, crystal chips, pebbles, and bone pieces.
Besides rattles and drums, other instruments that can be used are: flutes, whistles, conch shells, fiddles, clappers, tambourines, and clappers as well as singing and chanting.
DRUMMING CIRCLE STRUCTURE
A general outlive of a drumming circle session is listed here:
- Smudging (see more below)
- Opening sacred space (see more below)
- Checking in (passing the talking stick, see more below)
- Jamming (informal drumming session)
- Journeying (optional, see more below)
- Jamming (informal drumming session)
- Closing (passing the stick again)
- Closing sacred space
- Social (optional)
The above is just a suggested framework from which you can design your own circle. Your drum circle can be structured in any way that you wish. One structure that I particularly like is called a Medicine Wheel Drumming and Prayer Ceremony and is outlined in Jim PathFinder Ewing’s book Finding Sanctuary in Nature: Simple Ceremonies in the Native American Tradition for Healing Yourself and Others. This ceremony recognizes the 4 directions by including 4 rounds of drumming allowing the energy of each direction to come in and facilitate prayers. It is similar to a sweat lodge without the sweat.
Being an informal jam session, drum circles do not play established songs. Drumming is started by one player beginning the rhythm and the other players chiming in with complementary rhythms. It is good to designate who the leader for a session is. This can be rotated among members or remain the responsibility of one of the more experienced drummers.
The following drum circle principles were created by Christine Stevens:
- It is inclusive.
- There is no teacher. The drum circle is led by a facilitator.
- There is no audience. Everyone is part of the musical experience.
- There is no rehearsal. The music is improvised. Spontaneity thrives.
- There is no right or wrong. It's about much more than drumming.
It may also be fun to add some drum circle games to your sessions, such as the following:
- Play your name on the drums. It can be done in call and response, or to start a groove.
- Use Simon Says to call out rhythms or things like "Simon Says play the drum 2 times." "Simon Says play the drum with your elbows."
- Invite the group to jam until someone comes into the center and facilitates a stop. That person says one thing they're celebrating and then go into another jam, waiting for the next person to recognize their personal cause to celebrate.
Smudging is the burning of herbs or incense for cleansing, purification, protection of physical and spiritual bodies, banishment of negative energies and creation of sacred space. Smudging releases the energy and fragrance of the herbs and botanicals so they can heal, cleanse, and purify. Great respect must be given to the process of smudging for a relationship is being formed between you, the plant spirits, the Ancestors, and Great Mystery.
Typical herbs and incense used for smudging are: sage, sweetgrass, cedar, juniper, tobacco, palo santo, bay leaf, cypress, copal, fennel, frankincense, hibiscus flowers, lavender, lemongrass, mugwort, mullien, myrrh, orris root, osha, pine, fir, hemlock, spruce, pinon, rose petals, uvi ursi, yerba santa.
There are “smudgeless” forms of smudging that can be used in environments where people may have sensitivity to burning herbs or incense. One method is to use Florida water as is common in South America (I will demonstrate). The other form is to use rosemary or bay laurel branches to “whisk” the physical body with them.
The process for smudging with herbs is:
- Light smudge stick and wait for it to smolder, letting the smoke start to rise, it carries your prayers to Great Spirit.
- If using a smudge bowl, rub your hands in the smoke to cleanse them. If using a smudge stick, use a feather to direct the smoke.
- Scoop the smoke:
- to the 4 directions
- downwards to Mother Earth
- upwards to Father Sky and Great Spirit. You may also offer to the moon, sun, waters, winds and universe.
- over the left shoulder to the spirits
- over the right shoulder to the ancestors
- to the head, so you will think good thoughts
- to the eyes, so you see the truth
- to the throat, so you will speak in truth, in kindness, and in non-judgmental ways
- to the ears, so that you will truly listen and hear only the truth
- to the heart, so you feel connected to all living beings in a loving way
- to the solar plexus, so your emotions connect with the Earth Mother
- [if a woman] to the womb, so your life giving energies go out into the world in balance and harmony
- under the feet to the dark side of your soul and to walk in peace
- breathe in the smudge, visualizing the smoke purifying your body from the inside
- Say a little prayer asking the powers that be to remove all negativity and unwanted energies. Here is a sample prayer: Great Spirit, may my prayers travel up this smoke to you, that you may bring blessings and peace. I give thanks for all the blessings received.
Opening Sacred Space
Opening sacred space, also called “calling in the directions”, calls in the Spirits that are willing to support and fuel your intentions as well as protect space during ceremony where all will be connected to the divine.
Begin with any cardinal direction that you desire. North American native traditions usually begin in the East honoring new vision and the dawn. Some Celtic and Scandinavian traditions begin in the North, referencing the North Star and Big Dipper. South American traditions begin in the South as a reference to the Southern Cross (Chicana). Usually six directions are called, the four cardinal directions plus Mother Earth and Father Sky. Some traditions add a 7th direction that represents the Within, the Center, or Parallel Dimensions.
Using rattles, whistles, conch shells, drums, and Florida water, greet each direction. Then the caller of that direction invites the spirits to join the sacred space. Usually when sacred space is open, candles are lit or a fire is built.
After all ceremonial work is finished, it is important to close sacred space. Gratitude is given to the spirits of each direction and they are released.
A very nice custom to use when doing a check in at the beginning of circle is the passing of the Talking Stick. A Talking Stick is used to give the floor to one person at a time to speak uninterrupted. The stick reminds the speaker that Great Spirit is listening to the message as well. If the speaker feels they cannot honor the Talking Stick with their words, they should refrain from speaking. All people must listen and not interrupt the individual holding the stick. The stick is passed to each individual in the group so that they have a chance to say their piece. Many items can be used as a talking stick including a stick, feather, peace pipe, wampum belt, shell, or some other sacred object.
Shamanic journeying is a very ancient technique that has been practiced by healers, shamans and medicine people all over the world for at least 40,000 years in many cultures on every continent.
Journeying enables one to mindfully send their awareness into the hidden realms of their own consciousness to connect with inner wisdom, receive healing, receive answers to problems, or to discover information that can facilitate personal growth and understanding.
A shaman is one who can go into an altered state of consciousness at will. While in this altered state, they make a conscious choice to journey to another reality, a reality which is outside of time and space. This other reality is composed of 3 realms: the lower world, the middle world, and the upper world. These non-ordinary realities are inhabited by helping spirits and guides. The shaman is able to establish relationships with these spirit-guides and to bring back information and healing for the community or the individual.
Shamanic journeys are always undertaken with a specific purpose in mind. The classic way of entering the spirit world is by using a steady rhythm of drumming. The drum is known as the horse that the shaman rides into a trance.
Shamanic journey drumming is a 180-cycles-per-second beat that approximates the frequency of the Earth itself. This induces the theta brain wave state of altered consciousness.
Not all drumming circle participants may be experienced journeyers so journeying is optional. If the group does journey they can do individual journeys or they can journey as a group on a common theme. Spirit Canoe is ceremony where shamans journey as a group. Spirit Canoe originated in the Coast Salish culture of western Washington. They ride in an imaginary canoe to travel to non-ordinary realities. The journey is accompanied by singing, drumming, and rattling. The traditional purpose of a Spirit Canoe ceremony was to recover power for a client. Today the ceremony has been broadened to include journeys to the spirit world for various purposes.
One suggestion for a new drumming circle is to have the group journey to retrieve a totem spirit for the circle. A totem is a spirit being, animal, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. The word totem comes from the Ojibway word dodaem and means "brother/sister kin". People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered immediate family.
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