There’s no doubt that group drumming improvisation is a widely used and beneficial tool for the music therapist. In fact, it’s probably the most used method with regards to the use of percussion in music therapy. Group drumming improvisation (similar in appearance to a drum circle) has a long history in music therapy and gained increased popularity after Barry Bernstein, MT-BC developed the Unity with a Beat training program and Rhythm for Life curriculum, which gave rise to a new generation of drumming-based programs and training courses (Remo’s HEALTHRhythms™ is one example of a recreational wellness program). While group drumming improvisation is a useful tool for both music therapy and recreational music making, there are unique benefits to using traditional drumming techniques and folk music in your clinical Music Therapy practice.

West African Drummer with Dancers

Story (Program)
When you learn and use a traditional folk rhythms with clients, you not only bring them the rich and time-tested music of that culture, you also bring with it the cultural context that surrounds it. Folk music is often based on historical, cultural, and social events, which means that every song comes with a story (sometimes referred to as the program). These stories and programs are available to you for use in your work. For example, during a recent session, I used a traditional Cuban conga rhythm (the guaguanco) with a folk song (Zun Zun) that describes a beautiful bird with a special gift. I taught the song to my clients as I played the rhythm on the conga drums. The clients were able to join in on shakers and other small percussion instruments. During a pause, I explained the meaning of the song (translating from Spanish) and asked my clients to consider something about themselves that they think of as one of their special gifts (I provided some examples). After another short music-making experience the clients shared their thoughts with the group, which helped promote positive self-image, peer-support and empathy, and general feelings of camaraderie. We ended the session by considering ways each person in the group  could better show his/her gift to others (transforming thoughts into positive actions).

Movement, Pantomime, and Dance
While most Americans see group drumming as a goal in and of itself, drumming is most often used to accompany singing and dancing. In fact, there’s a saying in Guinea, West Africa that states “There’s no reason to drum without dance and no reason to dance without drumming.” More than any other instrument group, drums are used to promote movement, to energize and organize it. Moving to different rhythms is at the core of several approaches to music therapy, including Orff-Schulwerk Music Therapy and Neurologic Music Therapy. Most traditional rhythms are used to accompany dance, which is a formalized and stylized form of movement. The dances and movements (even through pantomiming a story, for example) come as part of the traditional drumming package. Music therapists who learn about these dances can use them (with the story) in their work to help reach both physical and social goals and objectives. Clients and therapists can benefit not only from the physical component, but from the cognitive and emotional benefits that often come from learning a new skill.

Cultural Connections and Appreciation
Folk music has the potential to bridge cultural gaps and increase appreciation and understanding between diverse groups. When we learn and play the music from another culture, we have the opportunity to view the world (and sometimes ourselves) from a different and often illuminating perspective. Imagine the possibilities for decreasing tension between people who learn to play each other’s music. For example, a music therapist could teach Persian drumming techniques (darbuka/derbeki or riq), rhythms (baladi or maqsoum), and songs to a group of Veterans, thereby helping to increase appreciation for the rich culture of Arab nations and people. These types of cross-cultural connections are a unique feature of traditional music. Some point to the instruments themselves as paths to cultural appreciation and unity (often as a metaphor), but instruments are simply the means through which we access the music itself, which is the primary tool of the music therapist and the most powerful agent of change at our disposal. The music, in this case, must be faithfully reproduced in order to maintain its integrity and potency, which includes creating the sounds, rhythms, features and aesthetics that are indicative of the genre.

Traditional drumming-based music brings with it substantial and useful cultural components that have myriad applications for the contemporary music therapist. These various components help the MT expand his/her skill set to include elements that are not typically a part of music improvisation. Music Therapy Drumming teaches these components and helps music therapists develop their use within clinical music therapy applications.