Drum Circle Tips

Check out these ideas for enhancing your drumcircle experience:

  • Learn about the drum circle you are thinking of attending;  Every drumcircle will have its own flavor and intention.  Consider visiting several different drumcircles in your area and getting to know what each one is like.  You will hopefully find one that  you like,  if not maybe you can start your own.
    • Is it spiritual?  Some drumcircles involve spiritual ceremony with drumming and possibly dancing, that allow participants to engage in spiritual work and process.  If there is a match between your personal spiritual beliefs and the intention of the drumcircle this can be a very powerful and uplifting experience.  However, if this is not your thing or feels conflicting to your faith, it could impact your experience.  Finding out about whether a particular circle has a spiritual intention is important to determining your level of comfort.    
    • Is it culturally specific (i.e. Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern)?  You may be expected to know specific rhythm parts or play instruments particular to that cultural group.  If you are versed in different culturally specific rhythms (and own the right gear) these drumcircles can be wonderfully rewarding.  Even if you only know a couple of parts, its worth giving it a try.  you can probably fit in with the parts you know, and you will hopefully learn some new stuff.  If you can make the basic sounds on your instrument and have some basic rhythmical sensibility, you should be ok.  Just be polite when entering and ask someone for a simple part to play
    • Is it facilitated?  Facilitated drumcircles are a great way to get started with the whole drumcircle experience.  A facilitator is there to make the experience better for everyone, and may often provide a variety of instruments to use.  Maybe you might prefer a non-facilitated drumcircle where no one takes responsibility for the music, and it just goes where it goes.
  • Consider bringing more than a drum;  Drumcircles work better with a diversity of sounds working together to create beautiful music.  Everyone shares an equal responsibility for the outcome of the group's music.  When people only bring and play one type of instrument (i.e. djembes) the music is very one dimensional.  When there are more sounds in the mix, there is more texture and depth to the music.  So along with your drum of choice, bring a bag with some hand percussion to spice things up.
    • Drum types.  There are many more drums on the planet besides West African dembes, although you would never know it by going to a typical drumcircle, because that's all you see.  To make the best music in a drumcircle you need 1) more than just drums, (i.e. hand percussion instruments (below)), and 2) more than just one pitch of drum, (i.e. low, medium and high).  In many traditional ensembles (Mandingue, Yoruba, Cuban, Brazilian Samba, etc.) there are different pitches of membranophones (drums), with each pitch holding a specific part.  The combination of different pitched drums (along with hand percussion) holding rhythmical parts, each hitting specific spots in time,  creates the beauty in the music.  Figuring that most of the people will be playing djembes, often tuned in a medium pitch, consider bring a drum with a lower pitch (conga, dunun, etc.).  Usually these drums are headed with cow, or other thick skin.  Some may be played with sticks or mallets, which adds a different timbre to the mix.  The low pitch will help to act as a foundation and the tonality will enhance the musicality.  On the other side, consider bringing a high pitched drum like a doumbek to occupy that high end and help add some excitement.     
    • Percussion.  An experienced drumcircler will not only bring their drum to the drum circle, but will also bring a bag with some different hand percussion instruments.  Four main classifications of hand percussion instruments are: shakers (maracas, shekere, caxaxi); bells (agogo, cowbell, gonkogui); tambourines (headed, non-headed), and woods (woodblock, guiro, claves).  Each of these main types does something to the music.  Shakers create a texture by filling in with 'shushung' sounds.  Wood instruments have a very precise sound; very static and sharp which gives them a timekeeping quality that helps to serve the circle.  Tambourines can act like shakers, but they can also do much more depending on how they are played.  Tambourines add a brightness and liveliness to the sound mix.  Bells have tones with long sustained notes that give a melody line to the rhythm.  Very often they can act as timekeepers playing a fixed pattern that holds all the players together, giving them something to pin their rhythms to.  All of these different percussion instruments will add an appreciated voice to the mix of drums and will give your hands a break.    
    • Dance.  Drumming and dance are symbiotic.  The drummers give energy to the dancers through their rhythms, and the dancers give energy to the drummers through their motion.  If you feel shy to get up and dance in the middle of the circle, go to the back and dance there.  Dancing to live music is very energizing and will give your body a break from drumming.
    • Song.  Your first instrument - voice.  Try adding your voice to the drumcircle with some tones.  you can be subtle about if you wish by just opening your mouth a little and singing a tone in one long breath.  If the situation permits, you could try leading a specific song or chant with the group. Your voice, along with others can combine to create an amazing effect along with the drums in the drumcircle.
  • Take some lessons;  Many drumcircles are totally beginner friendly and require no experience in order to participate.  However, if you enjoy drumming, I recommend taking some lessons.  It will go a long way to increasing your enjoyment of playing and will broaden your scope of world ensemble playing.
    • Improve technique.  Taking lessons with a qualified teacher will go along way to enhancing your drumcircle experience and your love of drumming.  Improving your technique will improve your sound and your ability to get the voice out of your drum.  Drumcircles can be great places to practice your technique.   
    • Learn patterns.  Studying traditional and universal rhythm patterns will give you great insight into playing meaningful rhythmical parts in a drumcircle.  Taking lessons will also give you a collection of 'go to' rhythm patterns to fit into a drumcircle.   
    • Support playing.  If you take a group class with a teacher you will learn the nature of polyrhythms and how they rely on supportive playing.  Bottom drums, in particular are all about supportive playing.  Supportive playing means playing and holding steady, a rhythmical part, often with little embellishment.  This is done in service to the group and the music.  
Keeping these simple things in mind can help you to get a lot more out of your drumcircle experience and drumming in general.