I Got Rhythm

Who could ask for anything more? posed lyricist Ira Gershwin.

Surprisingly, there was a lot more so I learned during the daily drumming cirlces at BuildaBridge International’s  Institute for Art in Transformation lead by Jim Borling, Professor of Music and Director of Music Therapy at Radford University, Radford, VA.

Late in the afternoon, when our energy was low and our minds crammed with new information, we twenty-five-or-so gathered in an ovalish circle with djembes, West African drums, tucked between our legs. In the past, the drumming circle had always been scheduled at the same time I was teaching a skills workshop or leading a methods lab. This year everyone could participate. I was thrilled to be in this circle, but also apprehensive.

I grew up in a home where my older brother and I had, because of our individual gifts, divided up the arts. He became an organist and choir director; I became, among other things, an artist.  I grew up listening to wonderful music, but was not a music maker. And I grew, over the years, less confident about my music making and rhythmic abilities when even clapping on the beat was a challenge while singing. It was one of those pat your head while rubbing your stomach kinda things for me. So I entered the drumming circle with a haphazard sort of happiness. Would I be a total dud at something that looked and sounded like so much fun?

It didn’t take long to figure our that drumming circles are a fabulous metaphor for becoming and being a creative leader-lead community full of individual opportunties.

 First, we learned the importance of listening to one another. Jim demonstrated a rhythmic pattern that became “the call” – the pattern that began and ended any drumming sequence so that without words we would know when to start and stop. We grew skilled at listening for those rhythmic cues.  There were long periods of drumming a particular rhythmic pattern until it began to feel second nature. The patterns were sinking into us through repetitive practice – like a spiritual discipline. And our drumming became more unified as we listened to one another.  Even when the circle was divided into thirds and each section had its own rhythmic pattern going at the same time with the others. I could stay on task yet still be able to distinguish the other patterns playing at the same time. To listen to self and others at the same time without getting confused and losing one’s beat is a wonderful skill in community.

Second, we learned the importance of looking at one another while we drummed. It was natural to look at our hands, or the leader’s hands, to begin with. But we were encouraged to look at one another’s eyes. What an amazing way to connect – all drumming in unison. Listening to the leader, looking at one another, we could drum to a thunderous crescendo or slow the four four tempo to the very heartbeat of God.  And then each person around the circle was invited to “solo” – to add his or her unique pattern on top of the underlying rhythm.  Oh, how we soloed! To attentively change pace to meet the needs of the moment, or to support an individual’s “solo,”  is a wonderful gift in community.

 We were also inclined to think we made our booming sounds by beating the drum head. Rather, Jim explained, the sound is pulled out of the drum and is influenced by where and how the drum is played.  We learned to hold our hands differently, and to drum for long stretches without hurting our hands. To pull out what each has to offer, rather than beat into another, is an honoring way of giving fuller voice to the whole community.

At the end of each late afternoon, and an hour of drumming, I had rhythm. I felt both relaxed and energized – the pleasurable paradox of being in a drum circle, my community for the moment. Who could ask for anything more?   

What’s been your favorite thrilled/apprehensive experience? Was there a metaphor in it that taught you something?  Was there a pleasurable paradox in the experience? If you could ask for anything more, what would it be?

Hope the rhythm of this conversation will encourage you to comment.

6 comments to I Got Rhythm

  • Jim Borling

    wonderful article, Lynne… yes, we all have rhythm and the metaphor of drumming is simply to connect to life itself… Blessings to you in all of your journeys… borlo

  • Maria

    You described and summarized the experience so beautifully. For me, there’s something magical that happens in the drum circle. You sure did feel this and so much more! As always, thanks for sharing.

  • walking with my children on the cairns (australia)waterfront one evening after dinner last year
    we heard drumming and i joined the group while the children looked on
    the leader was an american girl who had learnt to drum in africa
    and she pulled the diverse group of strollers together beautifully
    i loved the informality of it with drummers giving up their drums to newcomers
    to incorporate as many people as possible
    everyone was smiling and happy
    and being african by birth i was deeply involved
    some years ago a friend turned 60 and her choice of party was african food and drumming
    a great success
    we all dressed in traditional clothing and i can send a picture to anyone who wants one
    ask lynn for address

  • Helen

    Loved the article and the metaphor it gave you for journeying together.
    I grew up in a strong choral tradition and have always loved the interweaving of the harmonies and the solo lines and the way the music builds and supports each individual as part of the whole. But in recent years I have learned to experience a new kind of music making that feeds my spirit the way the drumming evidently fed yours. I moved to a church where the worship is contemporary, reverent and sustained and I love the way God speaks to us through it.
    I love to rest in the waves of sound emanating from other worshipping hearts, I love following the lead of the band and the worship leader and I love the moments when the lead singer senses the presence of God and allows space for us all to blend and rest in hm and in each others worship.
    Some people sing in the spirit, others find an individual harmony and add it to the whole and yet others sing quietly along with the main tune of the song or just rest in the presence of God. It is the most beautiful experience and always it slowly resolves itself until we are all as one again singing and playing along with the melody of the song. God is indeed the great creator and I love it when he feeds our hearts in this way, whether with music or drumming or the words that you share with us. Great post – thank you

  • Hey Lynne,

    Great article. Thanks. I’ve never done the drum circle and now I’m inspired. Favorite thrilled/apprehensive experience, huh? My first thought would be my wedding night, but I don’t think that’s what you are looking for. Second thought, having to sing a solo in a choir performance with really good singers, but that was more apprehensive/commitment to never do that again experience, so I think I’ll go with learning to foxtrot with my girlfriend (who eventually became my wife) while in seminary. I don’t dance…I did dance with her and it was fun/growing time together…although the honeymoon still tops the list.

    Thanks for keeping art/reflection in my brain.


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