In the traditional facilitated drum circle of the 1990's, everyone
played the beats assigned by the Drum Circle Facilitator (henceforth called the DCF). This limited the group to the beats
the DCF favored (unless he/she signaled the group that it's time to improvise.) Some DCFs used very simple beats, some favored
complex beats, some exclusively used beats of particular cultures (especially African) so that everyone's drumming experience
was dependent on the skills, preferences, choices and personality of the DCF. There was no trust in the creativity, experimentation,
spontaneity or growth of the drum circle participants. Fortunately, there has been a shift in the role of facilitator. Today's
facilitator is taught to allow more musical freedom to the group and only 'fix' the groove when it begins to fall apart or
prolong it when it seems to be running out of steam.
In a freestyle drum circle, anyone may begin a beat...even a novice. Everyone else in the group either mirrors that beat or
plays a beat that complements it. The evening's drumming may begin with a wild and fast testosterone tango... while the next
piece may be mellow and meditative. Drum pieces that follow may have a Native American flavor...or Latin, African, jazzy,
techno... You get the idea. Everyone contributes. If you didnt like the last beat, you may like the next. Didnt hear any you
cared for? Then you start the next one! Some of the best grooves I've drummed to were started by novices who were experimenting.
They started playing something awkwardly and then the more experienced drummers picked up on it and made it groove... and
then the piece took on a life of its own.
I think it is an injustice when DCFs write us off under the heading of "thunder drummers". I have drummed in rooms with literally
hundreds of drummers playing under the capable facilitation of Arthur Hull, the recognized father of the facilitated drum
circle. I have also been present when our freestyle drummers have weaved a percussive backdrop as delicate as lace behind
an improvised and un-amplified Native American flute. "Thunder drummers"? The term implies that, without a trained and approved
facilitator, we can achieve no more than volume, speed and chaos.
I have spoken with Arthur Hull at length on the subject of facilitated vs freestyle circles. We got along much better face-to-face
than we do ideologically.
I have found that letting anyone begin a beat also neutralizes the war between the sexes that plagues so many drum circles.
You usually get a wide enough musical range in one evening to please most everyone.
It is very expensive to learn drum circle facilitation from Arthur Hull. Most people making that kind of investment hope to
make it back so they charge money to drum in hopes of making a living from it. As soon as you put an admission price on anything
you make it exclusive. You filter out those who can't afford the price. My goal with the drum circle is to create community.
I want my drum circle to reflect the diversity of the larger community. I'm fortunate to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist
church which believes in what I'm doing. I'm not charged for the space we use so I don't have to pass that cost along and
risk shutting doors to people.
I read somewhere that not only are most U.S. drum circles freestyle, but more are held in UU churches than any other venue.
Why isn't that common knowledge? We advertise less. We write no books and very few articles. We show up and drum.
In a freestyle circle, people can play at their own comfort/skill level. Novices often play so softly that even adjacent drummers
can't hear them. I have drummed with people who never progressed past keeping the simplest beats. I have drummed with people
who, after years of participation, still lacked a sense of tempo. But when you play softly who cares? I have also drummed
with people who suddenly risked being heard. I have seen once timid drummers begin to play wonderful and intuitive embellishments
or brief lead rhythms. I have seen hundreds of people with drums become drummers. Still, freestyle circles are not about technical
proficiency. When a group song is really wonderful and engaging EVERYONE is a part of it... even the drummers who kept a simple
beat... even the quiet off-tempo drummers... even the first-timer.
We end pieces in laughter or we end them in silence
but we end them knowing that each of us played a part in its creation.
When there is no designated leader actively directing the circle, then there can be a shared leadership. It is ok to take
the floor and share a poem or a passage or news of a percussion event or a good drum sale. One incredible soul I used to drum
with was in his late 70s. He loved Native American culture and played a simple medicine drum that he had built. At some point
in the evening, he would visibly calm himself and say something like... "In some Native American traditions, a story is told
about an eagle and a coyote..." He would hold everyone spellbound with his telling of a story. When the story was over, he
would begin to play his drum... simply... almost hauntingly. One by one, the group would pick up their drums and another piece
of drum music was born. That is shared leadership at its absolute finest.
One of the best aspects of my drum circle is its creativity. People sometimes incorporate handclaps into drum rhythms.
Vocalizing or chanting or a recital of poetry might spring spontaneously in the midst of a group rhythm. We might find ourselves
weaving percussive backdrops to the sound of a harp, flute, saxophone, mandolin or digeridoo. The list of tuned instruments
has become too long to list. My point is that I was not directly responsible for this most wonderfully creative side of our
circle. These were not my ideas. I just let go of the need for control and trust in the group. Whether an idea works or it
doesn't, we've all learned something. Providing a safe and supportive atmosphere and relinquishing the need for control invites
A novice drummer recently made an insightful observation about freestyle vs. facilitated drum circles. She tried both for
the first time in the same week. What she noticed was that in facilitated drum circles the focus is on the DCF whereas in
freestyle circles the focus is on the group song.
Another observation of hers was that freestyle circles allow a piece to end... either by ending on one note, fading the music
to silence, or letting the piece collapse into laughter. She noticed that DCFs tend to keep a piece of drum music going...
sometimes long after many drummers have lost interest in it. She found our 5 - 10 minute pieces easier on her hands and less
monotonous than the DCFs considerably longer pieces.
Shared leadership doesn't work unless some rules are agreed upon. In our freestyle drum circle drummers are expected to LISTEN
to one another. They are expected to play supportively when someone else is playing lead. And, if they played lead on the
last song, they are expected to play supportively for the next few. The person who sets up the initial beat also sets the
tone and tempo. People are responsible for their own volume level in the mix. By agreeing upon rules we prevent chaos.
In freestyle circles we learn to trust ourselves and one another... to let go with joy... to take risks... to make time for
ourselves... to allow others to be heard... to allow others to grow... and to laugh at our mistakes: All lessons of great
In freestyle drum circles we are all teachers... all students... all helpers... all contributors.
We are a true Community.
Arthur Hull describing an early experience with a women's freestyle circle:
"...but the song and energy coming out of their drumming circle was totally different than what I had ever experienced. There
was a sense of conscious cooperation rather than unconscious competition. There was power with out loud volume. The women
were using their notes to make space for each others creativity, rather than trying to fill up the space with notes which,
at that time, was the standard operating procedure for the male drummers. The result of all these elements combined was something
little heard in the thunder drummer circles back then or today; subtle grace and beauty.
Then I heard something that I also never before experienced in a drum circle; the women's drumming group slowly faded
their rhythm groove into silence. In the end, the silence was as loud as the drumming had been, and the rhythms were still
moving inside it. As I sat in tears and in awe of what I just experienced, one of the women drummers looked at me sitting
out side the circle and said to me, 'you can join us if you promise to listen.' "