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Life Lessons From a Drum Circle?

I recently attended two drum workshops with Jim Donovan, professor of music and a founding member of Rusted Root. I was expecting to learn how to properly handle a drum, maybe play something reminiscent of a rhythm.

I didn’t expect my whole approach to, well, everything to change. The basic principles of a successful drum circle are the same ones that can improve our everyday lives.

What did I learn after spending a few hours hitting a piece of leather stretched over hollow wood?

Everyone starts at the beginning.

Most of our group of 11 were beginners who learned the hard way that it hurts to knock your thumb off the edge of the djembe. Then we had the music professor and professional performer (Jim) among us, who told us a story about how he played drums to a Rolling Stones record until he got his hands on a drum kit. A few intermediates played regularly in groups, but were relatively inexperienced.

And we all played the drums together. It didn’t matter at that moment where our drum skills were. Everyone has been there at one point in their life and never touched a drum. Still, we were all there for the basics and enjoyed making music together.

Is the takeout here? You don’t need to be intimidated by anyone’s expertise. Everyone started where you are now, whether you remember it or not. Talent is not the same as innate ability. Hard work makes you an expert.

People don’t judge me so harshly.

Or at all, for that matter. Jim asked each of us to take turns playing a solo to release ourselves and our creativity. After we’d all cycled through once, I realized I wasn’t letting myself enjoy other people’s solos because I either planned what I was going to do or regrouped after my turn. I wasn’t the only one, and Jim knew it, so we all discussed the experience and repeated the exercise. It was the only way I could enjoy my own drumming and everyone else’s.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think of you if you realized how rarely they do.”

Doesn’t that save us all a boatload of aggravation?

You influence others.

At one point in the show, Jim showed us how the sound travels through the djembe and can even make the drums vibrate around the room. He then connected sound vibrations to the energy projected by human beings. We are not these individual, isolated bodies with independent thoughts and actions. The truth is that everything we do, everything we say, even our thoughts can affect those around us. And these people affect those around them, and so on. Call it energy, call it karma, call it Newton’s law. The label doesn’t matter as much as bringing positive vibes into the world. You can just shake things up, for better or for worse.

Don’t just be there, be current.

Drumming can be repetitive, especially with the use of opening rhythms. It’s easy to just hit the drum, left-right-left-right, and let your mind wander somewhere else. To really drum together, you have to be aware of the rhythm, you have to be aware of each other and yourself.

This is not a very big step compared to doing any task completely and well. Have you ever burned dinner because you were distracted? How much reading do you understand and retain when your mind wanders?

The next time you notice that you’re not fully focused on what you’re doing, try to come back to the moment. This takes practice, folks. I’m getting better.

Sometimes we have to be a little primitive.

How often do we feel pressured to sit up straight, dress a certain way, be quiet, be careful with our manners? Our society is too stuffy. Drum. Singing. Roar. He sings. Roar. It feels good!

Smile and carry on.

That was Jim’s only request. That made it amazing – our circle was a safe place to wreck. And because the mistakes were okay, it was easier to dive into.

Something so simple opened my eyes. Think about it: there are very few places in life where mistakes have serious consequences. So feel free to try things, take risks, and screw it up. Usually no one is the worse for wear, and who knows, you might discover something wonderful.

We can play music together.

No two participants are alike. Different people, of different ages, from different areas of life came together and contributed to the common good. Our group of 11 strangers and a helper came together, didn’t know each other, and created something beautiful.

There is a word for what happened: synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What could you achieve if you pulled yourself away from the blue light of the television, found a group and created something special?

If you ever get the chance to attend one of Jim’s workshops, make sure you get there.

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