Drum Circles & Drum Circle Etiquette

By Janet Planet

From our earliest ancestors and throughout history there is ample evidence that in every society and culture, drumming has been an important and frequently sacred communal activity. Our first experience of rhythm, the rushing of blood and heartbeat heard in our mothers' wombs, predisposes us to respond to the beat.

Drumming enhances focused meditation, balance, healing, team-building, interaction, endurance, timing, co-operation, concentration, and sharing. Drumming can increase your health: group drumming has recently been proven to heighten levels of immune cells called natural killer cells that seek out and destroy both cancer cells and cells infected by viruses. Drumming can access spirituality and power ­ but most importantly drumming is FUN! Enjoy your place in the unbroken chain of those who drum with the spirit of cooperation, consideration, and respect.

Respect Your Drums

Treat drums with respect. Drums can access and channel tremendous energy. They are not a substitute for a table or stool. Place nothing but a protective cover (called a drum hat) on the head. Do not lean your elbows on the head when not playing. Rubbing the skin in circles gently with your palm generates friction that warms the skin for playing and establishes a bond between drummer and drum.

NEVER PLAY A HAND DRUM OR SHAKERE WHILE WEARING RINGS, WATCHES OR OTHER HAND/WRIST JEWELRY. Any sort of jewelry can easily cut through a drum skin or crack a gourd with one stroke. They can also hurt the wearer.

Respect Other Drummers

Treat other drummers with respect. A drumcircle is not the place to show off your best licks regardless of the group rhythm. It is a communal activity that does not require high levels of expertise. Beginners are welcome and can contribute as much as experienced drummers. Sensitivity to others in the group is essential to both beneficial vibrations and unified sound. Never consider smoking while in a drumcircle.

Place instruments to share in the center of the circle unless another place is obviously designated. Keep instruments you do not wish to share out of it.

Always ask Permission Before:

  • Smudging or burning incense. Some people are sensitive or allergic.
  • Playing an instrument other than handdrums, percussion, flute, recorder, or digeridoo.
  • Playing any drum that is not in the center of the circle or one that is covered or turned on its side regardless of whether it is being used at the moment. Most people have a special relationship with one or more of their drums. Some are happy to share. NEVER play someone's drum or percussion without first asking permission.

Keeping Time

Bells, shakers, and hand percussion are tremendously important. In many societies apprentice drummers may not touch a drum until they have fully mastered the bells. Listen to the bell for the cadence and phrasing. If you don't know a pattern, listen, then ask. Someone will be happy to help.

  • Drumcircles are a place for hand drums and percussion: drum kits, timbales, etc., will be too loud and will dominate the circle. Instruments such as those are not recommended.
  • The group needs a strong bass line or bottom, usually requiring several drummers. Others carry the accompanying parts while usually one person at a time solos. Occasionally soloists will converse with one another. If you are new to a circle it is suggested that you watch, listen and/or dance until you become a bit accustomed to the style of the particular group. Most often the bottom drums will be placed in, or close to, the center of the circle so that everyone can watch and hear them, this helps to keep a strong groove on the beat.
  • In most ethnic-specific drumcircles there is a hierarchy of skill and experience. Generally less experienced drummers solo only when invited. Musically sound and spiritually moving solos require years of practice. Hand percussion and consistent bass and middle parts are all integral to the group sound. Try to key your strokes to others'. Watch their hands. It is more important to play fewer strokes CLEARLY than to play fast. Practice playing each part. They must fit together properly to become a whole. Be patient. Your time to solo will come. (It is a good idea to bring a small tape recorder so that you can record to practice the parts at home.)
  • Bring ALL volume down when flutes, recorders, digeridoos, or other melodic instruments play.
  • Congas have a softer voice than djembes. Bring the volume of djembes down when congas solo.

Always Listen

If you are participating in a drumcircle for the first time the best way to approach the circle is with an attitude of service and humility. Before you touch an instrument LISTEN. Listen for the basic pulse of the circle, once you feel comfortable join in softly so you can still hear the drummers around you.

  • The single most important activity in a drumcircle is to LISTEN. Listen before you begin to play; listen as you play. It is not important or even desirable to play many notes. By listening to what's going on in the circle as you play, you will have a better sense of how you can fit into the groove that is being created. Listen for that fundamental groove ...and strive to support it.
  • At any time during the circle if you find that you can only hear yourself playing then you are playing too loud.
  • Keep your head up and attentive to the circle, don't focus on watching your hands.
  • If you're unsure of what or where to play keep your eyes on the reactions of the more experienced players.
  • If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask. Every rhythm event is different, and has it's own particular variations of drumcircle etiquette. If you're not sure what's appropriate, just ask.
As Arthur Hull says, "In most drumcircle events there is a basic, often unspoken, agreement that each person in the circle is there to share their rhythmical spirit and personal energy with the community that is present. With this kind of group conscieness, even a large drum circle can be a very powerful, yet intimate experience for everybody as they create unity in their community by drumming together. The musical part of any drumcircle will take care of itself if every player is there to share their spirit and have fun."

If you treat the drum circle as a living, breathing entity and remember the Golden Rule-Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You-you will ensure your own enjoyment and that of everyone else.

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