What is a drum circle and how is it different from a drum class or workshop?

A drum circle can mean entirely different things to different people. There is no absolute, universally accepted answer to this question. There are different styles of drum circles just as there are different styles of playing musical forms such as Rock or Funk! This experience, though, is rooted in the concept, found in many cultures, that the average person can have fun making music even if they have no desire to perform.

I usually avoid calling any of my programs drum circles since there is no universally accepted definition of the term. I use the blanket term Rhythm Based Activities to be an overview of my work, and then define my different types of programs with terms that give specific images of what they are and what their goals are. For example, Interactive Rhythm-Based Team building Program.

I would very loosely define drum circles as drumming or rhythm-based jam sessions. Some are led, or facilitated, by one or more people and some are more freeform, spontaneous experiences. Some people refer to any gathering of percussionists as a drum circle. Others feel very strongly that a group that is playing traditional rhythms with the intention of staying true to the traditions is not a drum circle. Again, there is no wrong answer or one right answer.

Some people refer to rhythm games and exercises as drum circles, even if no drums are actually used. All are acceptable, if somewhat vague, definitions.

How is a "drum circle" different from a drumming class or workshop? Again, there is no single definitive answer. Different leaders and facilitators have different styles and approaches that range from "don't teach, just let people play whatever they want" to various amounts of instruction.

I always incorporate elements of teaching in all of my drumming programs. I've found that people usually appreciate knowing something about the instruments and the traditions behind them. This gives them a sense that they are part of the rich tradition of drumming around the world, and shows respect for the people who developed the instruments. I also make it a point to teach something about the playing of the instruments so that people get the best sounds possible and avoid hurting their hands (in the case of hand drums). In some of my programs I just give the fundamentals of playing and the traditions, in others I go deeper into these elements. It all depends upon the themes and goals of my clients and of the group.

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What is more important when playing recreationally with other people; technique or feel?

Neither is more important than the other! Technique and feel are intertwined and interdependent. Technique should include what to play and when to play it, as well as how it feels. Feel should include the ability to play clear and consistent sounds (technique) in patterns that groove and serve the music. Always remember that we get good at what we do! In other words, to get good at technique and feel, as well as to develop the ability to listen, communicate musically and work with other musicians, we should always play with the intention of including all of them. Remember also though that it does take time and patience to get anywhere worth going, so don't be overcritical of your playing. Just be aware of all these elements within the context of having fun while drumming!

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What is the role of a leader or facilitator in a drum circle?

This depends upon the style of the leader/facilitator and the needs and goals of the group.

Facilitate means to "make easier", so I approach my job as making it as easy as possible for the group to play together, meet their goals and have fun.

In some groups, such as community festivals, I do a short introduction to the concept of drumming together and how it relates to building strong, effective communities. I then demonstrate some easy, fundamental playing techniques and patterns, get the group playing and then just let them play. I encourage the more experienced players to create parts that support the groove and remind them that experienced players already know the importance of grooving and not just playing flashy chops!

I will play along unobtrusively from the circle and move around to give low-key help to individuals or to the group only when necessary. It's up to the leader to know how, what and when to facilitate and when NOT to facilitate. There is always the temptation to over facilitate, just as there is the temptation for a musician to overplay. My basic concept is to have the group experience grooving together rather than get in the middle and start doing things just because I can.

In other groups, such as in-depth team-building programs for corporate clients, I will build upon the basic groove and introduce elements that are targeted at giving long-term solutions to specific teamwork and communication issues. I emphasize that I always build upon the groove; it is the experience of grooving together that gives the group the most profound lessons in teamwork, communicating, risk-taking, harnessing creativity and alignment with shared goals and values.

We train ourselves to have a number of facilitation tools available to us, but we want to use only those tools that will effectively serve the group. It takes time, intention and training to develop the intuition and experience to know when to use the tools we have.

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How do you get novice drummers to play consistent parts?

I use the "say it and play it" method of teaching that I learned in Africa. That is, I introduce the fundamental playing techniques, assign verbal sounds to them that sound like the sounds we want to play, and then have the players say the patterns using those sounds. Keep it simple for beginners! Don't get too complicated when assigning sounds.

When we say our part we are getting the part into our bodies, where our voices originate, and out of our heads! If the conscious mind tries to analyze, process, categorize and authorize each and every sound within the pattern, then we get into "mental & physical gridlock" and it simply just doesn't groove.

I've found that this method also makes it easier for beginners, and others, to get back into their patterns if they get off, since the muscle and nerve memory of the body will remember the pattern, while the conscious mind might go into a panic state and hold the body back. This works!

If you make a mistake you just can't start playing randomly and try to "find" where you should be; you'll end up playing a lot of sounds that do not fit into the groove which pulls other people off. What you can do to get back into the rhythm is to first let go of the mistake, remain calm and focused, listen to what everyone else is playing, find the place to start, say your pattern, then play it.

Also, if someone is very shy and / or lacks confidence then give him or her a part that can contribute to the group, but not dominate the sound. I use maracas and other light weight shakers for these good folks to help them gain confidence before giving them a crucial foundation part. Have them say "Shaker, shaker, shaker, shaker, etc." with the "shake" part on the out swing and the "er" part on the back swing.

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What do you do if you get off the groove and lose your place in a drum circle?

Listen, listen and listen! Did I mention the importance of listening?! When we hear how our part fits into the complete rhythm, then we can find our way back in if we get off. The rhythm keeps on going, it has a life of its own, even if we drop out. We can't come back in wherever we please, but must come back in where we would have been had we not dropped out.

If we get off, relax and breathe to clear, calm and focus our minds and bodies, listen to the rhythm, say our part to ourselves to get it back into our bodies, and then begin to play. Let go of the mistake and let yourself get back into the groove.

I've found that people also make fewer mistakes using this method because they are not so afraid of making them; they know that they will be able to get back on so mistakes do not have to be a major disaster, ruining the experience for everyone and causing terminal embarrassment!

Some of the comments and observations that I consistently receives from my drumming group participants, especially in my corporate team building breakout sessions, are:

  1. When I let go of the fear of making a mistake, I make fewer mistakes.
  2. When I listen to the group, it's easier for me to play and stay with the rhythm.
  3. When I lose the beat, I can get it back easily by listening to the group.
  4. When I am 100% present and focused it's easiest to stay in the groove.
  5. When I play in support of the group rhythm, I am able to stay on my part.
  6. When I support the group rhythm, I have more trust that the group will support me.

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How do I get started using drumming in the corporate world?

Preparation is always one of the fundamental keys to success in any endeavor. It's not enough to just bring drums to a corporate group and expect that everyone will have an experience that will change their lives forever and make us all kinds of big bucks!

Those who would bring drumming to the corporate world should invest the time, energy and intention to get to know that world and the good folks, our friends and neighbors, who live in it. Learn enough of the corporate language, ways and various operational models to truly understand their needs and wants and their world. Don't just scratch the surface of this world, get to know it if you want to be successful within it.

I always work with my contact people about their themes and goals for the event, so that I will be able to truly address them and shape my program to fulfill them. This always pays off in a number of ways including creating successful programs, learning more about the corporate environment and solidifying my relationships with people in this world.

I have a long list of web sites that explore elements of corporate culture that I've compiled since my first corporate program in 1980; I will gladly send it to anyone who requests it off-list. Or, just start surfing the web; there's plenty of information out there. Also, I highly recommend finding a mentor in the corporate world who can help you learn about it. There's an organization in the U.S. called SCORE which is a group of retired executives who mentor business owners; they are people who want to educate people in the ways of the business world. Visit their site to find a chapter near you.

The bottom line is that drumming can be an immensely productive and joyful way to enrich the lives of people in all kinds of environments. It's up to us as DCFers to create ways to do this that truly serve the people in different settings.

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What are the team building benefits of group drumming for corporations?

Drumming has been used for team and community-building for thousands of years by people worldwide because it works! Group drumming works because we play parts that fit together to create the complete rhythm. The rhythm is the vehicle for a wide range of lessons for corporate groups, such as cooperating, listening to each other, building a supportive environment trusting each other, taking creative risks and creating an atmosphere of celebration in the work place. The bottom line in my corporate drumming programs is that I help groups learn to harness our innate abilities as human beings to create rhythms and patterns in our lives that empower, focus and motivate us to live the kinds of lives that we want to live!

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What kind of drumming event do you recommend for a company picnic to get our employees mixing with people outside of their usual groups?

I would recommend a 30 to 60 minute icebreaking, team building program to quickly get the group bonded, energized and in a celebratory mood, rather than one of my longer, in-depth programs. I've found that shorter programs are much more effective for a company picnic type, socializing event. This would be a wonderful way to jump-start your event and get everyone comfortable and communicating with each other. I've used this model with enormous success for a wide range of corporate groups. I also work your themes and goals into my program in ways that reinforce them in a fun, uplifted way so that the participants immediately incorporate them in practical, real-world ways.

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I know you do a lot of work in drum circles, how do you structure the circle and the participants?

I do interactive drumming programs for groups of all types and sizes. These include corporations, conferences, communities, private events and therapeutic centers. My smallest program was for five people and my largest was for 2500. I have developed different programs for different situations. Of course, they are all rhythm based and, therefore, share that fundamental process.

Given that, I have developed different models for different situations. For example, my corporate drumming programs include team building, ice breaking, rejuvenating, stress releasing, motivating and celebrating. My community events emphasize creating community bonds and a mood of celebration.

For groups of up to about 50 participants, I prefer gathering the participants in a single circle. For  larger groups I often create concentric circles so that the circle is not too spread out. This way everyone is in communication  with everyone else. It is important to have at least two openings in the circle, or concentric circles, so people can come and go as needed. Also make sure there is enough space between the participants for people to play without bumping each other.

For large groups where the participants will be seated, I will often have instruments already in place at each seat when they arrive. For large groups where the participants will stand I will have my assistants give instruments our as people arrive, and then direct them to their place in the concentric circles.

For groups of about 50 or less when seated, I will often have the instruments in place at the chairs. For this size groups when standing I will either have the instruments set up in a mandala type shape in the center of the circle or have them given to the participants as they arrive. These are general guidelines; it really depends upon the specific group, the physical space and how I incorporate getting the instruments into the hand of the participants into the actual program.

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Do you play African or Caribbean rhythms in your drum circles? Do you have any favorite rhythms that work better in groups?

Out of respect for the people who have created traditional rhythms, I usually do not use traditional rhythms in my drum circles because there is not enough time to play them properly or to understand the traditional context and cultures in which they are played. If I do use traditional rhythms in some of my more advanced drum circles (and, of course in my clinics and workshops that are dedicated to learning traditional drumming styles), they are rhythms that are already embedded in popular culture, are used purely in tradition social context (not spiritual contexts!) and that have been made available to us by traditional teachers.

In most of my corporate and community drumming programs I use basic, universal rhythms based on simple universal patterns that I have arranged to serve specific types of groups and their needs, goals and abilities. There are universal rhythmic fundamentals that are found in many diverse cultures around the world. I use these to build rhythms to serve different needs.

This does not mean that it is wrong to use traditional rhythms in drum circles. Different drum circle facilitators have different styles! I do believe very strongly for myself that it is important to know which rhythms are appropriate to play in different situations and which are not. Back in the 80s, at the height of the "Men's Movement", I guest-led a men's drum circle for a group of really honorable, good-hearted guys who had been drumming together for a couple of years. One of their favorite African rhythms that they had been been playing was taught to them by someone who had learned it from someone who had learned it from someone else whom nobody there knew. Imagine their surprise when I informed them that this rhythm was traditionally used in young women's rites of passage!

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What are the benefits of drumming for recreation?

First, of course, it's a lot of fun! It is also a great way to socialize and create a community of like-minded people. Also, drumming has many enormous physical, mental and emotional benefits; It releases stress, enhances clarity and focus, helps us get into positive life rhythms, activates the creative and intuitive parts of the brain, trains us to listen and communicate, creates group bonds and gets our bodies moving! There have been many recent clinical studies that have demonstrated all these positive benefits, including reducing corporate employee burnout and enhancing the immune system! Of course, we humans have intuitively knows this for thousands of years; otherwise drumming would not be such a time-honored, universal human activity!

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What are some quick suggestions you can give me about leading drum circles?

Some quick suggestions:

  1. Breathe, relax, create a positive mind set about this gig.
  2. Run through your program physically and mentally several times to work out any possible kinks and to create the flow that comes from repetition.
  3. Be yourself; find your own style.
  4. Serve the group; help the group help itself without overpowering it.
  5. Keep it simple; simple rhythms that groove will serve the group better than complex rhythms that don't groove.
  6. Plan for a series of regularly occurring AHA! points; keep them simple and have them reinforce the needs, goals and abilities of the group.
  7. Keep it fun; use humor to break the ice and to engage the group, smile a lot (it's contagious!).
  8. Encourage interplay among the individual participants; have different sections of the group form into groups and have the groups play off of each other. If appropriate, create a space for individuals to step into the circle and solo or dance, etc.
  9. Remember that all groups have the same basic fundamental dynamics; use your own experiences in your life to understand the dynamics of each group with which you work.

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I've seen you do amazing things with a Shekere! What are the fundamentals of playing Shekere?

Relax, breathe, stand with your feel about shoulder width apart to have a good foundation and balance. Place the bottom of the Shekere on the palm of the dominant hand. Place the non-dominant hand around the neck of the Shekere with the thumb on your side and the four fingers on the opposite side. Push up with the dominant hand with a firm hand and flexible wrist. Drop as if dropping to ground, and catch the Shekere with the bottom hand. You will naturally exert a slight amount of push with the top hand, but don't push too hard.

Maintain a slight pressure between the two hands to maintain control. Play a slow, simple half note or quarter pulse first before attempting any variations. Get comfortable before moving on.

Don't be concerned with how many beads there are- you'll feel outnumbered and overwhelmed! It's still just one instrument and one player.

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When leading drum circles, how do you know when to lead and when to just let the group play?

"Over leading" is like a musician "overplaying". Sometimes there is the temptation to do, or play, something just because we can. Many people call our work, Drum Circle Facilitation, rather than Leading, because it is our role to help the group help itself

I've been blessed to play with many accomplished musical elders in a wide range of styles in my career, and one of the things I always observe in their playing is that they no longer play the notes that don't matter! Many times they are simply not able physically to play all the things they could when younger, and they used their maturity and wisdom to just play what served the music. Babatunde Olatunji, for example, in his later years would not play a note for long periods of time, but he would inspire the other musicians and the audience by his very presence and his beautiful singing. Then, BOOM!, he would make one hit, the perfect sound in the perfect place, and the whole place would be elevated to a new level!

Our jobs as drum circle facilitators is, as I mentioned, to help the group help themselves. We must have our finger on the pulse of the group, so to speak, so that we do only what is necessary for the group to groove and meet its needs and goals. What are the goals of the group? What does the group need in order to reach these goals? These are the choices we make for every group we lead.

It is important to learn different facilitation skills in order to have them available when needed. It is equally important to know when, and when not, to use them!

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What kinds of lessons can be taught using recreational hand drumming in schools?

Cooperating, communicating, listening, respect, integrity of intention and action, celebrating diversity, stress relief, community service, appreciation of other cultures, environmental awareness and living life with passion. Hey, I could go on and on!

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What method of group processing are you using after the drumcircles?

I incorporate a post-drumming group conversation about the experience into my programs whenever possible and appropriate. I firmly believe that we can reinforce and deepen the lessons learned as individuals and as groups when we talk about them together. In fact, I see these conversations as extensions of the drumming interactions; we are continuing the "jam session" by using our voices and our language, just as we jammed with the percussion instruments!

My job is to facilitate these vocal interactions, just as I facilitated the drumming sessions. I've studied some of the different ways that trained facilitators and mediators do this. There is an organization devoted to facilitation called the International Association of Facilitators Drum Circle Facilitation has much in common with the goals and methods of other types of professional facilitators.

Basically I ask the participants to individually say a few words about: -What did you observe about yourself and the group during the drumming? -Do you feel differently now than you did before the drumming? If so, describe the change. -What is one lesson you learned about yourself and about the group because of the drumming?

I have a repertoire of 15 questions from which I choose, depending upon the group and their themes and goals. I ask the participants to freely call out their responses, I then facilitate these responses into the conversation, just as I facilitated the patterns the participants played during the drumming.

This is particularly effective in my corporate work, because my clients see the direct, positive results of the program in the responses of the participants. The lessons experienced are also reinforced by the conversation. The participants also realize that their individual reactions have much in common with other peoples' reactions... this further reinforces the bonding that came out of the drumming.

Of course, my job is also to make these conversation appropriate to the group members, so I will use language and metaphors that are designed to work with different age groups and different types of programs (community, therapeutic, school, corporate, etc.). The conversations that arise out of these post-drumming sessions also help the participants to get to know each other better as individuals, as well as opening the way for future conversations together.

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Where do you go to look for Djembe player jobs?

Good question... there are a lot of possible answers to it, though.  To be completely upfront, though, you will have to work long, hard and smart to develop a career as a djembe player! 

However, some options:

  • You can teach (assuming you have spent years learning from source teachers and have their blessing to pass this on to others)
  • You can play djembe in a band that plays African music
  • You can play djembe, along with other percussion such as congas, bongos, shekere, other shakers, bells, blocks, etc. in a band that plays popular musical styles (rock, R&B, funk, etc.)
  • You can accompany African dance classes
  • You can use the djembe as your primary instruments in leading drum circles (again, after studying the art and techniques of drum circle facilitation)

The larger metro areas (New York, L.A., Chicago, etc.,) will offer more opportunities than smaller towns.  Of course, there will also be a lot more people playing djembes in this area. All of these require dedicated, focused, disciplined, intentional and respectful work.  Very importantly, get out and play!  Network with other musicians of all types, be supportive of others and it will be more likely that others will be supportive of you.

How do I measure my conga drums for new heads?

The pre-mounted heads for congas, bongos & djembes are sized by head diameter. The head diameter is measured across the middle, the widest part, of the top of the drum shell, from the outside of the shell, to the outside of the shell on the opposite side. LP Congas heads measure: Quinto- 11", Conga- 11-3/4" & Tumba- 12-1/2".

How can i fix overtones and ringing sounds my conga makes?

Many contemporary Congas (Tumbadoras) have more overtone ringing than older Congas because of a combination of a number of reasons, including the need to serve modern musical styles, head materials, and construction materials. That said, we can greatly reduce the ringing by making sure that the instrument is in tune with itself, and is tuned to it's best resonant frequencies.

Briefly, make sure that the pitch over each lug is the same as the other lugs, and experiment with tuning the instrument to different pitches, and ranges of pitches within it's basic range. Of course, larger Tumbadoras should be tuned lower than small ones starting from the low Tumba, moving to the mid-range Conga and continuing to the high-pitched Quinto.


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