'Drum circle' helps bring out inner peace, better health
By Lou Fancher
It doesn't take an advanced degree to understand the communal and individual benefit of hitting a drumhead with a bouncing hand or slapping it with slightly curved fingers.
Better known as "bass" and "slap" drumming, one glimpse of 87-year-old Penny Kermit's euphoric face as the Orinda resident participates in a monthly drum circle jam at Lamorinda Music led by educator and therapist Kathy Quain tells a story of empowerment.
Meeting the first Monday of each month from noon to 1 p.m., one hour of instruction and participation leaves Kermit momentarily speechless.
Recovering nicely, she said, "Unusual experience, truly awesome. My son told me it's called 'the wave.' It happens to runners and musicians who are very into what they're doing. It just happened to me; a ripple that went through my whole body. It scared me, such a silent, big thing happening to me."
But it wasn't silent in one sense, and others in the group soon chime in.
"I started coming a year ago," says B. J. Espenmiller, 73, from Moraga. "It makes me smile. I love the peaceful environment, the energy from the group. It's a feeling of contentment and a lot of fun."
Espenmiller has tried something new every year since turning 70. He said drumming is freeing because "you don't have to do it correctly."
Quain, a 45-year-old Marin County resident, was on track to become a piano soloist before attending a Barbara Reuer workshop in 1994 redirected her considerable energy to music therapy. She affirmed Espenmiller's characterization.
"In the realm of what I embrace, I give people permission to improvise," Quain said. "It takes an environment of non-judgment. There is no aural or technical condition they must play under."
It's true -- no prior musical experience is necessary to attend the friendly, low-cost drum circles Quain leads throughout the Bay Area as founder and director of Music For Therapy. That doesn't mean it's a free-for-all; at businesses, hospitals, schools, workshops and festivals, Quain practices research-based intervention that participants say feels like personal expression and science shows has biological and psychosocial benefits.
Quain recommends websites at the American Music Therapy Association (www.MusicTherapy.org) and Health Rhythms (www.Remo.com/Health) for finding a qualified music therapist or reading about the most current research.
"HealthRYTHYMS (a type of drum circle Quain leads), has the intention towards wellness," she said. "The research from neurologist Barry Bittman and other medical professionals shows that subjects that attended drum circles had improved immune systems."
Although the Lafayette gathering was originally for seniors only, Quain moved the class to the lunch hour and has opened the class to professionals and younger adults in the area.
"It's a safe way for people to play music, unlike the piano. Drumming has an easy entry point," she said. "We take energy, put it into the drum and get it right back."
Even the hearing-impaired can experience language in the form of vibrations from the drumhead, she insists.
During an early January session, the group practices starting, stopping and keeping a consistent rhythm in unison. Given permission to leave a note out, the sound becomes polyrhythmic -- still communal but instantly more individual. Later, urged to add clarity and accents or to find restful curves as they fade or boost their volume, drummers' concentration masks pleasure.
"I sometimes put a negative intention, like worries about my three Siamese cats, into the drumming," said Sandy Wolters of Martinez. "It defuses the energy and lightens the cares I bring in. I feel happier for having done it."
Quain uses the start of the new year to correlate resolutions -- things left behind or things set to achieve -- to the drummers' music. Reflecting on her musical roots and recalling her dad's fine whistling, an early fondness for Cole Porter and Gershwin, and her conservatory training, she says her resolve of 21 years ago remains undiminished.
"I still remember the "Oh wow, I could use music to help people" idea," she said. "Now, instead of performing, I use performance energy for therapy."