Different Drummers Drum Circle of Santa Fe

Why Freestyle?

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When facilitated drum circles are so popular why do I advocate the non-facilitated variety?

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 creativity.

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 value.

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.' "