The sound of group drumming permeated the walls of the Radford University music therapy department for three days between Friday June 10th and Sunday the 11th. Twenty music therapists, ten professionals and ten students, spent the three days learning, exploring, sharing, and developing their drumming, rhythm, and clinical skills through the Music Therapy Drumming curriculum, taught by me and my colleague, Bill Matney, M.A, MT-BC.

We experienced breakthroughs, such as when a participant played a slap tone on a djembe for the first time and realized that it’s not just an advanced skill, reserved for only seasoned pros. And we experienced realizations, such as the need to spend time developing new skills before they become fully functional. The MTD curriculum, rooted in traditional drumming, is user-friendly, but it’s not a walk in the park! It will challenge you to grow beyond your comfort zone, which is a good thing! Many who attended had never had percussion instruction or experience, even though they often use the instruments in their clinical practice. The realization that there is more to connecting with drumming music than simply using the instruments came in various forms, when the participants were challenged to play a rhythm on a drum and sing at the same time, for example. The amazing thing is that there was substantial progress that was made in just a couple of days. People who came with no drumming experience were playing traditional rhythms, singing, and even leading the group with musical cues by Sunday. “You guys sound like drummers!,” I commented–and I meant it.

For years, drumming within music therapy has often taken the form of giving drums and percussion instruments to clients while the therapist plays a chordal instrument and leads singing or provides musical guidance, either through the music or through visual and auditory cues. This type of “add-on” or “conducting” approach connects clients and therapists with the instruments, but does little to help them form a relationship with the musical traditions that are native to the instruments. For the first time, music therapists have a resource that connects them to the rich musical heritage that has given us the most-used instrumental category in the field.

The rhythms, songs, dances, and extra-musical content (stories, rituals, etc.) that are part of traditions from a variety of drum-centric cultures are available to anyone who wishes to take the journey. That’s the good news. The ‘other’ news–is that the journey does not involve an elevator. It takes work. Connecting with the music means developing new and functional instrumental techniques, finding out about the instruments, learning and remembering specific rhythms, songs, and more. It means discovering how specific instruments work together to form functional ensembles and how those ensembles fit with and support harmony, melody, singing, and dance. It means spending time in the ‘wood shed’ (another term for the practice room) and it means being open to a new way of thinking about how we use drums and percussion in clinical music therapy, in all methods–and for their unique therapeutic potential.

For some, drums and percussion seem to have limited potential to engage the client, elicit responses, and structure an experience–but perhaps this ‘limitation’ is not within the instruments or music, but rather a reflection of a lack of training and experience in the user?  Someone without piano skills might not find the instrument particularly effective in music therapy. Similarly, someone with only the most basic guitar skills might find it difficult to access the vast repertoire the instrument offers, let alone be able to modify the music to fulfill in-the-moment needs. Is it reasonable to label these instruments as “limited” in these cases? Certainly not. We invite the reader to consider the musical training and experience of those who would assert that drumming-based music has limitations or is inherently ‘basic.’ After all, if drums were that basic and easy to play, everyone would be playing them at a professional level, and that is certainly not the case. In fact, according to a recent survey of MTs, very few play percussion instruments at the same level they do guitar and piano, which could be an indication that traditional drumming and music is perhaps more complex and ‘deep’ than many assert. Does depth and complexity indicate an enhanced therapeutic potential? It’s likely that it does, since one could argue that same point for guitar, piano, and song repertoire.

From the perspective of the experienced drummer/clinician, the instruments, techniques, and music are an invaluable resource that provide not only substantial structure and energy, but offer rich and engaging musical material that is progressively accessible to both clients and therapists. It’s understandable that someone with little experience in traditional drumming might not be able to appreciate the depth and breadth of the craft. After all–we most often form an understanding of something only after having a first-hand experience with it. This understanding is what the MTD training offers. It’s a way to learn from professional percussionists who understand the field of music therapy, to experience the music from the inside-out, to feel the rhythms in one’s body, and to begin to form a relationship with the instruments and music that is aligned with the core values and practices of clinical music therapy.

The MTD team is not under any illusions that this relationship will form easily or quickly, although the desire is there in everyone we’ve met. We realize that developing skills and knowledge takes time–and that clinical integration takes even longer. We know that the lack of traditional drumming instruction at the college level poses a challenge to both instructors and students, but it’s something that both are hoping to change. Until that day comes–and it will come–we will offer MTD trainings at graduated levels.   We will also stand by every MT who wishes to take the journey into the music that moves us at the deepest levels and lifts us up until we can see farther than we ever imagined.

Meet the MTD Training Team