Have you ever played in a drum circle?

Have you ever played in a drum circle? I did for the first time on Sunday morning when I arrived to teach at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska. The festival hosts an opening day breakfast get-together for faculty and guest artists before classes and performances start. There’s a lot of Alaskan hospitality there and it’s a good chance to “catch up” with friends I only see once a year as well as an opportunity to meet new musicians.

This year, someone announced that the event would end with everyone participating in a “drum circle.” My ears perked up at this because I had heard of them but had never actually played in one before. I’d heard stories about how much people liked them and I was eager to experience it for myself. And, being in Alaska at the moment, I was also thinking about the Native drum tradition and stories I’d heard about all-night drumming sessions with dozens of drummers playing for hours on end.

We were invited to got to the front of the room and select a drum or percussion instrument. There were hand drums, drums with mallets, and a large assortment of small percussion instruments. I chose an “egg” to shake.

We them formed a large circle and the leader began with a heartbeat-like rhythm. We all played the “heartbeat” in unison and then branched out into any rhythms we wanted to play. Even though I ‘ve played with countless drummers and percussionists over the years, It was a completely different experience to play this one egg in the midst of the drum circle. All the complementary rhythms merged together to for a whole of which my little shaker was just a small part.

After a while I noticed that I experienced the rhythm differently than I usually do at the piano. Specifically, I noticed that slight changed in my shaker rhythm made huge differences in how the overall rhythm felt. When I played steady 8th notes, it felt one way. But if I only played 1-2-3-4 or on each “upbeat,” the music felt completely different. I tried other things too, like resting for 2 and a half beats and then shaking the egg for the last 3 eighth notes of each measure. Again, a huge difference in the overall flow of the music.

Of course the overall sound was loud enough that not everyone could hear my egg as well as I could. It was kind of like my own private experience in the midst of what the larger group was feeling. But it clued me in on what percussionists are probably acutely aware of. Each separate element of a composite rhythm, like in African music or what a drummer plays on a drumset, can make a huge difference on the overall effect of the beat.

Besides being a fun communal experience at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, the drum circle also gave me a renewed sense of how each rhythmic element on the piano comes together and affects the sounds as a whole.

If you ever have a chance to participate in a drum circle of this nature, see if you can become a musical beginner again and experience rhythm freshly again, as if for the very first time. The invitation’s there, waiting for us at each moment!

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