I began playing drums at the age of 9 or 10 and played in bands throughout my teens. During my
20's I played guitar and sang original songs. I did coffeehouses and later concerts and recorded two albums. After my most
successful and well-attended college concert I walked away satisfied with my local success. During my 30's, I composed electronic
instrumental music on synthesizers. Quite a different experience musically because it was all done by myself in a home recording
studio. Fans of this phase of my music waited for me to release a 90 minute cassette tape every few years. While in my 40's,
a woman approached me at church coffee hour one morning and said, "We're starting a drum circle. Would you be interested?"
Confused, I asked her, "How did you know that I was a drummer?" She replied, "I didn't. It's not a prerequisite."
And so began a long and satisfying relationship with community drum circles.
I was eventually called the "unofficial leader" of that Massachusetts drum circle. For the first year there were only eight
of us drumming once per month. After our first year we were asked to provide music for our UU Church's Kwanzaa service. Then
things got interesting. We began to see a steady flow of new members... experienced drummers and novices alike. We also began
getting requests to perform at other venues. We were invited to perform in various parades, a jazz festival, a percussion
festival, private parties, and corporate events. We played for Protestants, UUs, Pagans, Catholics, gay organizations, and
veterans groups. Each time we performed in public, our membership grew.
I began to notice many things happening in the drum circle. We were becoming more and more diverse and yet, since we didn't
spend any time discussing our differences, we only knew the commonality of creating music together. I began to see this as
building bridges between people. I also noticed that different people were drawn to our circle for different reasons, a phenomenon
I still find intriguing. Some people came because the group drumming gave them a heightened sense of spirituality. Others
found it relaxing and used it to unwind. Some found it a great way of connecting with others socially. Others saw it as a
very creative way of making great original music. People recovering from substance abuse problems found it a safe way of having
a good time with people without the use of substances. Some people described the healing properties of group drumming in
terms of boosting the immune system, balancing right and left brain hemispheres, aligning chakras, entraining brainwaves,
and resonating to the frequency of the earth. Others came because it was the most fun they had all week.
I saw people using drum circles as physical therapy. I saw shy people become less shy. I saw people who 'played it safe' begin
taking risks. I saw people who had nothing else in common becoming deeply connected with one another on a non-verbal level.
I knew then there was something very powerful going on in these drum circles.
I began seeking out and visiting other drum circles and discovered that it could be done wrong. Many drum circle leaders insisted
on doing things exclusively their way, starting each rhythm, imposing their own definition of the experience, requiring that
participants inhale and exhale upon command, publicly criticizing less-skilled drummers, positioning novices in an outer circle
facing the backs of the experienced drummers in the inner circle, creating a somber or morose mood in an attempt to synthesize
'spirituality', or charging a fee in an attempt to make a profit. I saw how frequently these circles failed from lack of interest
and participation. It was apparent to me that the best thing I could do was to provide a safe 'container', get out of the
way and allow a drum circle to evolve naturally.
When I started Different Drummers Drum Circle in Yarmouth, Maine in March, 2003, I was full of ideas about making it work.
The greatest challenge was relinquishing the leadership role that novices tended to thrust upon me in favor of what I call,
"shared leadership." My goal from the start was for participants to feel like it was their drum circle. I wanted them to feel
comfortable trying their own ideas.
As a drum circle, Different Drummers has surpassed my highest expectations. We drum accompaniment to incredible instrumentalists,
vocal, chanting and even poetry. Martin Steingesser, Poet Laureate of Portland, Maine regularly recites original pieces with
our drumming in the background. Daryne Rocket, the harpist, drives to Yarmouth from Orono every four to six weeks to join
us. Margaret Williams is one of our drummers. On evenings when she attends, she will sing a Scottish-Gaelic song while our
drummers play in the background. On any particular evening you may hear Native American flute, vocals, didgeridoo, blues harmonica,
mountain dulcimer, saxophone, electric bass... the list is long. Dancers feel perfectly comfortable getting out from behind
their drum and dancing. My point is that I couldn't make this happen alone. This is the direct result of shared leadership.
Thanks to our participants, we have evolved into this wonderfully creative and deeply connected community that continues to
Different Drummers gets asked to perform also. We have a performance troupe called "Different Drummers Joyful Hearts Club
Band" in which a dozen of us attempts to recreate our most memorable drum circle moments onstage. We have performed for Women
In God's annual conference, the Pagan Pride Festival, Yarmouth Clam Festival, coffeehouses, guest churches of many faiths,
etc. Last month, we were so well-received by the capacity audience at the Whole Life Tent at the Common Ground Fair that they
have asked us to perform in their amphitheater next year!
One of the most important things I've learned about community drum circles is to keep them welcoming to novices. Having two
to eight first-timers at each drum circle is a good indicator of our circle's health and growth. Novices must be made to feel
welcome, free to ask questions, and free to experiment without judgment. Of the 300+ people on our email list, I estimate
that 250 have actually drummed with us. There are still list members who feel they lack the talent or training to drum. They
think it's about the music. They imagine that we judge one another solely in terms of experience and technique. Only our participants
understand that there is much more going on.
Speaking of community and bridge-building, we have had members and guests from Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, Peru, Guatemala,
China, Russia, Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, France, England, Germany, and Iran. We have singles, couples and families who drum
with us... Children, teens and senior citizens. What's missing is the myriad of things that normally separate us. Differences
in socio-economics, sexual orientation, age, race and nationality are irrelevant when a group of people are engaged in creating
a piece of music together. When we all laugh at the end of a piece there is a deep connectedness between us. It is my hope
that we might carry that connectedness... that sense of commonality... into our larger communities and into the world.
When I look at everything I've done in my life musically, I realize that Different Drummers Drum Circle is, by far, the most
...And, ultimately, it's not even about the music.
On one of the many Yahoo drum circle groups I belong to someone
posted an opinion about how drum
circle novices should take lessons
and not consider themselves "drummers". Here was my response:
"...I think that
this issue depends on the intention of the circle. If the purpose of the circle is to play great traditional African (or Middle
Eastern or Latin, etc) music, then by all means the drummers should be trained so that they have a clue as to what they are
On the other hand, if it's a freestyle community drum circle like mine the intention is different. We drum to
create an atmosphere of spirituality or healing or sociality or creativity or fun... whatever the participant comes to get.
Most of our newbies drum quietly and don't disrupt the circle. They soon develop the ability to hear the improvised music
and interact effectively with it. They learn by doing, by watching. They ask questions. They develop their sense of tempo.
They learn to hold down the beat while a more experienced drummer plays lead. They learn to embellish effectively. They learn
when to step into the foreground and when to recede into the background. They intuitively learn what's best for the music.
All that's required of me is patience... and the relinquishing of control.
As recorded music first became accessible...
people stopped singing in their homes and while they worked. People who sang for its own sake... for their own enjoyment...
heard voices like Caruso's and became embarrassed at the sound of their own voices. How sad. That kind of thinking has
become ingrained in our culture. Our society makes it very clear to our children who should be playing music or sports...
who should be drawing or dancing... We're here to achieve not to enjoy.
Our drum circle gets asked to perform a lot.
When I ask for volunteers I include novices. The way I see it, we're not Planet Drum or Inanna. We're a community drum circle.
When an audience sees us onstage, I want them to see that this very cool and diverse music is coming from a diverse group
of people of all skill levels. I want people to understand that we are a drumming community and not a band and, as such, are
open to everyone. We pick up an average of 6 new participants each time we perform.
Creating a community where it is safe to express oneself without words... Where one can grow in
so many ways, connect with others, learn, make mistakes and laugh...That's our intent."
"There is spirituality in Joy."
~Rev. Carol Karlson