I wrote this article for The Witness magazine in March 2001. WARNING: It's long. I'm posting it here because I was thinking of my indebtedness to Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect and the brand new Healing at the Speed of Sound, who has end stage pancreatic cancer. He encouraged me at a very low time in my life, and turned me on to the world of music and healing. He was also the person who suggested that Ruth Cunningham and I should sing together, which we currently do as the eponymous HARC.
Entering Life's Rhythm's: Drumming a way into sacred time
God set the sun to rise and set every day, and put the earth into orbit. The moon makes it around the earth every 28 days or so, the locusts come back every seven years, Advent comes before Christmas, Lent before Easter, Sunday before Monday, and work comes before play -- a really bad idea. We eat, sleep, and brush our teeth, our hearts seem to pump without any prompting, and many other events and phenomena seem to repeat themselves in the same order and at the same intervals through time. We start out riding tricycles, graduate to bicycles, and, if we're lucky enough to reach enlightenment, we get to view it all as one big interconnected unicycle. Through it all, we are rhythm.
The first thing we recognize on this earth is the vibration of our mother's blood through her veins and arteries, and later on, the sound of our mother's heartbeat and breathing while we are in the womb. The ear being the first sense organ to develop, somewhere between the fifth and sixth month of gestation, we begin to actually hear these internal rhythms. By 28 to 30 weeks, we can also respond to both the internal and external rhythms (by kicking or changing our heart rate). After we are born, there aren't many opportunities for such a nice rhythmic massage.
Rhythm is the most powerful organizational tool we've got. Since the ancients, rhythm has been used to mark communal events. The earliest drummers were women, using frame drums for liturgy. Look what rhythm did for King David, and the Benedictines; we're still hooked on the psalms. Armies still use drums to boost morale and energize tired troops (maybe if more people drummed, we wouldn't need wars), shamans use rattles like white noise, to scatter thought, and there's nothing better than Motown or the Poulenc "Gloria" to clean by; believe me, a clean house is a successful revolution. Rhythm has been used to celebrate, to warn of a storm coming, to ensure a good harvest and to accompany farm work. Dancers clap, stomp on the floor, make mouth noises, wear ankle bells or use their bodies as percussion instruments.
So what is it about rhythm that energizes us? What is the hypnotic effect that can happen with any kind of music, from the beginning of "She Loves You," by the Beatles, to a Bach fugue, to the latest sounds coming from the DJ's booth above the dance floor? The scientists say that it is the nature of rhythm to turn on the switches in the limbic system (or what used to be called the "visceral" or "reptilian brain"). The adrenaline starts to surge (bringing up our emotions and feelings), the information is then processed by the neocortex, and we are moved in myriad ways. Or something like that. I can never pay attention long enough to figure it all out; I get distracted somewhere around "She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAHHH..." In her book, When the Drummers Were Women, Layne Redmond says: "Scientific studies have shown that our moods, emotions, thoughts and bodily processes are rhythms of chemical energy. The Puerto Ricans call this fundamental rhythm that marks how we walk, talk, and interact tumbao. It is an expression of the totality of our personality." The verb tumbar means to knock down, to knock over, and is used figuratively in the sense of mixing somebody up, taking the senses away from you, or messing with your whole sense of being.
Rhythm can also calm and soothe us. It's no accident that one of the basic forms of meditation consists of counting the breath. If you're trying to get the kids to sleep, lullabies work like a charm by helping to slow the breath, relaxing them, and sending them to never-never land. Think of the tune "Silent Night," and breathe with it. We are all made of the same stuff. We all breathe the same air, the same air that people have been breathing since the dawn of time. I like to think that all of my favorite people have breathed the same air throughout history. Make a date for you and your breath, and put it in your book. Take a moment, find a quiet place to breathe, and think of all of the people whose air you are sharing.
Rhythm is more like dancing than knowing. We don't have to control or even be aware of what's going on for it to have a profound effect on us. It's our body that hears where to go next. When my uncle was in the hospital a few years ago for an angioplasty, the nurses were worried that his oxygen levels weren't improving a few days after the surgery. They were watching his monitors, and as they watched, his oxygen level rose to normal. A nurse asked, "What are you doing?" He said, "I was just lying here singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt in my head." She said, "Well, keep singing it, because your levels are great." The body hears where to go next.
I first began drumming around 1990. I had a Djembe from Ghana, in West Africa, and had been told that it was used to invoke the divine spirit and its healing power. Then, while on vacation, I was in a beautiful park in Ithaca, N.Y., with some friends, picnicking on the lake. A man walked by and said "Drums for Sale." I couldn't believe what he had in his arms: four rectangular boxes with slits of various lengths and widths cut into the top that looked like tongues. I called him over and asked him to show me these "drums" he had made, which he called "slit drums." The sound took my breath away. I needed a slit drum. He volunteered that he had "more in the van," so I went for a peek, and found one that I really liked. I proceeded to drive my friends crazy all the livelong day, banging away on that drum.
I started to do some research on slit drums. According to Adrienne Kaeppler (in Mickey Hart's Planet Drum), "Slit drums ... are believed to represent ancestral voices which encourage the living to dance into a state of communal ecstasy in order to banish personal preoccupations and bring those dancing into communion with collective forces passed on from the dead to the living and those still to come."
Whoa! One world at a time, please! But I do need to banish personal preoccupations, who doesn't? Wondering about those collective forces, I looked up "spirit": geist, ruach, geest, spirare, esprit. Why had I never noticed that they all either mean ghost or breath as well as spirit? What else was I missing?
I decided to check out the effects of the drum on myself first. I started with the heartbeat rhythm, because it is the thing we all share. I found I could drum myself right into a trance if I kept the beat at about twice my heart rate. Years later I learned from Don Campbell (author of The Mozart Effect and expert on music and healing) that if you drum a simple eighth-note rhythm at 120-140 beats per minute for more than three minutes, it balances the brainwaves, and you start going into a trance. (Kids and people with blood pressure problems, do not try this at home! Talk to your doctor first. There are very real physical consequences when you mess around with your natural rhythms.)
The heartbeat is still the first rhythm I teach in drumming workshops. Along with our breathing, it is the most fundamental aspect of our lives, and just one of many basic things we do not pay attention to. It's also simple to learn, and anyone can do it. Close your eyes, place your hand on your heart or wrist, and feel your heartbeat. If you have trouble, don't worry, you're not dead yet. Imagine the rhythm of your heart. Now, begin to vocalize the rhythm with your voice. When you feel comfortable sounding out your heartbeat, try playing it on your drum, using your hands or a mallet. Try it for five minutes, and see if you don't feel both relaxed and energized.
The point of using the heartbeat is so that you can begin to get acquainted with your internal rhythms, and also to help you feel more relaxed. Try it with a partner, facing each other. It is a good exercise to enhance listening skills, concentration and intimacy. With your eyes open this time, each begin to play your own heartbeat rhythm. You will soon find that you are in synch. This synchronization is called entrainment, the force that brings two or more bodies vibrating with similar rhythmic cycles into alignment. Go into a music store, and strike an A tuning fork, and all the A strings on all the guitars along the walls will begin to vibrate in sympathy. Place two pendulum clocks in a room and come back a day later, and they'll be in synch too. Sit in a drum circle and lay out for a second, and your drum will still vibrate. That many things happen without my "help" was a huge lesson.
Drumming has been a positive revolution in my life. Like most of us, I grew up in that either/or, right/wrong worldview. Let's just say I did not flourish there. I see more possibilities on the margins, and luckily, in a drum circle, everyone's on the margin. The people who come to a drum circle are the ones who are supposed to be there, to energize the spirit and explore unity through music. No words are needed. If you are six or 90, broken or whole, happy or depressed, tuned in or out of touch, blind, deaf, lame, too smart for your own good or not too bright, a democrat, republican, anarchist or atheist, you have a place in the circle. You are a part of the community. Rhythm is a universal language, and you are the rhythm. I like the image of a circle, because it speaks to the mystic in me. In a circle, everyone is equidistant from the center. There is always room for anyone to come and go. All the members are equal in the circle, each with a voice that can be heard by everyone else. Everyone takes turns leading the transitions to new rhythms. The kind of music that is made in a circle is based upon that circle's relationship with itself rather than any externally imposed expectations.
Since I've been practicing drumming without a license, I have witnessed drumming cure headaches and relieve the pain for a woman with a brain tumor. I've seen the faces of many lighten and radiate the joy that was secretly lurking. I've seen bodies that were stiff become fluid, and people who are shy come out to play. I've seen angry people find a place to work it out. People have told me of their lowered blood pressure and of their reduced stress and anxiety. I've also seen how giving people a rhythm that they're not ready for looks exactly like test anxiety. There's a lot of shallow breathing and tense faces; heads go down, people get timid, stop listening, and withdraw from interaction.
I used to be affected by the rhythms of everything and everyone around me. It was distracting and depressing. I felt out of "synch." We often say that when we're getting sick. Trying to play to another's rhythm isn't healthy if the cost is ignoring your own. Drumming has enabled me to hear my own rhythms amid the noise and haste, helps me to find and maintain my balance, and helps to keep my blood pressure down. The increased awareness of my breathing has helped me to throw away both cigarettes and asthma medicine. Drumming has also enhanced my ability to listen, increased my level of patience, helped to work through grief and frustration, and given me a much more relaxed and positive outlook on life, because of its unique ability to ground me and bring me into the magic place of sacred time.