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Suggested Guidelines for Community Group Drumming by Christopher Karow

May 5, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Karow Carlyle

Group drumming fulfills many needs in society, including the community and interpersonal cohesion that may be achieved through community drumming groups. Effective facilitation is a key element in successful community outreach through group drumming. The Georgia College and State University Community Drumming Group (CDG) in Milledgeville, GA developed guidelines for effective community drumming based in the therapeutic uses of music, cultural, and historical uses of community drumming, and psycho-sociological approaches for successful community drumming.

According to a number of studies, group drumming, including community and recreational drumming, has been shown to influence positive hormone and immune responses and activate all four lobes of the brain. Furthermore, group drumming has been shown to increase focus, and reduce isolationism, avoidance, and anxiety. Beyond group drumming, both passive and active musical engagement (musicking) helps to enhance brain function. Community drumming can impact micro- and macro-community needs from celebrations of life, community mental health needs, nurturing opportunities, to mourning and unification. In a time when community and community unification are so vital, effective community drumming facilitation can help build and connect participants across visible and invisible boundaries.

Karow Field Day

To develop a better understanding of what community group drumming is (and is not), it is important to understand that there are many different group drumming approaches. These various modes of interactive drumming include the popularly known drum circle, but that is not the only type of community group drumming. Some drum ensembles learn a repertoire of traditional or culturally specific drum rhythms, while other groups, including drum circles, play primarily freestyle in-the-moment music. 

A community drumming group may choose to integrate various seemingly disparate modes of group drumming. The following five categories, although not an exhaustive list, illustrate many of the important aspects that distinguish various modes of interactive group drumming.

Drumming in Music Therapy is the ethical and therapeutic use of drumming as a rhythm-based strategy or intervention utilized to achieve a functional goal in areas of communication, academic, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive health, social skills, gross and fine motor function, and/or to address symptoms of specific disorders or mental illness. Drumming in music therapy can only be conducted or facilitated by a board-certified music therapist to achieve specific goals and objectives providing prescribed directives, collaborative (active), and receptive (passive) techniques focused on music therapy domains. In music therapy the drum is used as a tool to meet specific needs in a structured intervention. Drumming in music therapy should always be adapted to the needs and abilities of the client or group.

Community Group Drumming is made up of structured drumming events planned and provided within a specific community or for a community event to express a common belief or interest. Community drumming works to break through cultural, racial, and religious differences, encourage respect, inclusion, and collaboration, start conversations, and develop group dynamics. These groups may include a focus on diversity, emotional connections, public or private gatherings (e.g., education or business), mourning (e.g., traumatic events), celebrations (e.g., holidays or social events), networking and volunteerism (e.g., cancer awareness, veteran care, non-profit events), or spiritual growth (e.g., religious events).

Recreational Drumming Groups function as structured and organized drumming groups promoting social interaction for fun and the sake of playing music together. Recreational drumming provides a safe and predictable framework for learning and communication. Common goals of recreational drumming include meeting others, inclusion, belonging and acceptance, as well as learning a new avocation, hobby, or skill. Recreational drumming is a sharing experience generally considered an out-of-doors activity and may promote health benefits from physical activity.

Drum Circles are perceived in a variety of ways and the perception has changed over time, according to professionals in the United States and around the world. Arthur Hull, the modern father of the drum circle movement, once explained that popular culture often perceives drum circles as free-form, not family friendly, anarchist hippie gatherings. Drum circles are often associated with shamanism, tribalism, public performance, music festivals, university gatherings, and the drug culture. Drum circles are specific activities that became popular in the United States in the 1960s and have no direct connection to indigenous, tribal, cultural, or spiritual functions. Group drumming in indigenous, tribal, cultural, shamanistic, and spiritual use have cultural functions dedicated to the indigenous peoples or groups that use specific techniques to achieve specific outcomes. Drum circles have also been described as self-organized or spontaneous events to promote social unity, and provide joy and self-expression through drumming. 

Ritual and Indigenous Drumming broadly categorizes tribal, meditative, shamanistic, spiritual, worship, and other ritualistic or indigenous drumming groups. This definition is quite broad and non-inclusive, but is intended to provide a limited overview of drumming in rituals and for indigenous peoples globally. In various cultures and belief systems, group drumming is used for specific purposes in specific settings. Some of these settings are public, semi-public, private, gender specific, or sacred and clandestine. Many ritual and indigenous practices may not be repeated by non-group members or without permission.

Ritualistic and indigenous drumming may focus on what some Western systems might consider hypnotic or trance-based experiences. These group drumming events are culture-specific or belief-system specific and are dedicated to specific expectations and outcomes of the group participating in the drumming event. These expectations and outcomes may be related to the following or other needs and purposes: healing drumming (physical, emotional, and environmental), drumming for birth ceremonies, drumming related to contacting or communicating with ancestor’s spirits, to give tribute or thanks for specific purposes (a successful hunt or gathering of crops, meals, weather, or environmental events), transcendental, meditative, personal reflection or insight-seeking, prayer, supernatural, mystical, and other spiritual reasons. 

Facilitators must always keep in mind that many participants do not consider themselves to be musicians or capable of music making. Many have never played a drum or percussion instrument in their lives. In fact, data show that many people from the United States do not consider themselves to be capable of making music. Some participants come to a drumming group because they need to make new friends or are seeking solace from a new, or stressful environment. Because of these important points, a major part of the facilitators’ duties is to help everyone feel welcome and valued as an individual. The easiest way to scare away or marginalize participants is for a facilitator to make the group about oneself and one’s own skill set. Facilitation in essence means making each experience feel easy, natural, and pleasurable.

The facilitator is a mentor and guide. Skills that are above the level of the newest or novice members should be avoided while the needs and expectations of experienced participants must also be met. It may seem difficult at first, but a balance can, and must, be maintained. A facilitator should not lead a community drum group as an outlet to show-case personal skills or amazing performance techniques. Facilitators encourage, engage, and involve all participants to the best of the participants’ abilities, without regard to one’s own abilities as a musician. Musicianship and performance skills are important when leading sessions, but facilitation and compassion come before all else.

Activity ideas may be original or may be adapted from other co-facilitators, literature developed for percussion-based activities, or other sources. When creating or adapting activities, always consider the population served. The activities should be both age-level and ability-level appropriate. Activities should be fun, engaging, help create an atmosphere of connectivity between all group members, and be inclusive of all skill levels. The activities are meant to serve the expectations of all participants and help the participants feel immersed in the moment, recognize that they are fully accepted and relevant to the group, and to understand that they are free to explore in the safe environment offered by the community drumming group. Participants should depart sessions with a feeling of connection, success, and comfort, recognizing that activities were never used to judge, manipulate, or analyze them.

Prior to the opening session activity, and potentially for other session activities, appropriate music should be selected and provided. The music may be used actively where the participants play along with a recorded track or samples. Alternatively, music may be used passively, where the participants listen to the music as a reference, or for environmental purposes such as pre-session music. The opening music should provide a strong rhythmic center and pulse and have a consistent time signature. Time signatures of 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and others easily divided should be used.

Music of any culture or genre may be chosen as long as the previous guidelines are met and the music does not include explicit or offensive language. Offensive language may include cussing, sexually or culturally offensive lyrics, religious or politically themed music, and music that mentions or infers substance use (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, narcotics). Facilitators should recognize that sexual, cultural, religious, or political concepts or views that they deem acceptable may be unacceptable and alienating to others. Cultural exploration and integration are a highlight of the community drumming experience; the use of musics of various cultural groups can invigorate and inspire participants. Musical selections may help lead participants to explore new cultures or musical genres, furthering their educational and personal development. 

The books Tataku, by Bill Matney (2008), Drumagination and Interactive Rhythm-Games by Dave Holland (2015a, 2015b), and Together in Rhythm by Kalani [Das] (2004) are wonderful references for activities that can be adapted for community group drumming. Tataku is the primary resource for all percussion use in music therapy. The information shared in these four books are fundamental to solid activity building. Many of the activities in the books are already directed toward certain populations.

Use your creativity and insights to develop appropriate activities. Be a constant learner and seek out new music and rhythms to help expand your own percussion vocabulary and musical palette. Delve into cultures and cultural experiences that are new to you. This will help make you a better facilitator and percussionist.

Christopher KarowChristopher Karow is a Remo Health Rhythms trained facilitator and graduate student in the music therapy program at Georgia College & State University. Karow has studied West African, Middle Eastern and Irish percussion techniques as well as other techniques from across the globe. His work focuses on micro and macro-community building and family reintegration for veterans through percussion-based interventions. He also builds thumb pianos from found objects.


  • Akiwowo by Babatunde Olatunji
  • Celebration by Kool & The Gang
  • Get on the Good Foot by James Brown
  • Jigu the Thunder Drums (Chinese drum and dance group; see:
  • Maculelê (Afro-Brazilian song and dance rooted in African slave traditions)
  • Óró ‘Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile (Traditional Irish rallying song and the basis of other traditional songs)
  • Tir Na Nog by Celtic Woman
  • Titi Torea (Traditional Maori song and game)
  • Volcano Song by Budos Band

Rhythm Patterns

  • The “Call” rhythm pattern (West Africa)
  • Diansa (West Africa)
  • Kassa (West Africa)
  • Baladi (Egypt and Middle East)
  • Malfouf (Egypt and Middle East)
  • Saidi (Egypt and Middle East)

World Drumming Styles

  • Afro-Cuban (e.g. Salsa, Soukous, Soca, Habanera, Son)
    Australia (Indigenous tribal music traditions, e.g. Brolga Bird Clan songs)
  • Brazil (e.g. Samba, Bossa Nova, Carioca-funk)
  • India (e.g. Bhajans, Rajasthani folk, Sufi rock, Indian electronic dance music and Hip Hop)
  • Ireland (e.g. bodhrán or fife and drum music, Irish rock or indie-folk music)
  • Japan (e.g. Taiko drumming, Kabuki, J-Pop or pops)
  • Philippines (e.g. Filipino electronic dance music and folk-rap fusion, Cariñosa, and the music of the indigenous Tboli culture)
  • Middle East (e.g. Farsi, Qawwali, and the traditional ceremonial music of women frame drummers)


  • “Arthur Hull and the Drum Circle Experience” by R. Mattingly from Rhythm! Scene
  • “Building Healthy Communities Through Community Drum Circles” by C. Clare from Canadian Nurse
  • “Community Building Through Drumming by V. Camilleri from The Arts in Psychotherapy
  • Drumagination: a rhythmic play book for music teachers, music therapists and drum circle facilitators by D. Holland
  • Drumming Group Educational Perspectives: A Review of the Literature by C. Karow
  • “Drumming Through Trauma: Music therapy with post-traumatic soldiers” by Bensimon, Amir, & Wolf from The Arts in Psychotherapy
  • Ethics for Visiting Sacred Places by C. McLeod
  • Indigenous Spiritual Practices by the Ontario Human Rights Commission
  • “Interactive Drumming Using the Power of Rhythm to Unite and Inspire” by K. Das from Percussive Notes
  • Interactive Rhythm: Games, Songs & Interactions for Music Educator, Music Therapist & Drum Circle Facilitator by D. Holland
  • Music Therapy Improvisation for Groups: Essential Leadership Competencies by S.C. Gardstrom
  • “Music Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress in Adults: A theoretical review by Landis-Shack, Heinz, & Bonn-Miller from Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain
  • “Neural Dynamics of Event Segmentation in Music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks” by Sridharan, Levitin, Chafe, Berger, & Menon from Neuron
  • Personal Communications by the American Psychological Association 
  • “Recreational Drum Circles for University Students” by R. Damm from Percussive Notes
  • Remo Health Rhythms: Group Empowerment Drumming Facilitator Training Manual by Bittman, Stevens, & Bruhn
  • Rhythm Mechanics by J. Latta
  • Tataku: The use of percussion in music therapy by B.B. Matney
  • Together in Rhythm: A facilitators guide to drum circle music by Kalani
  • “What is a drum circle?” by Kalani from Percussive Notes
  • Why "Drum Circles" Are Not Music Therapy by K. Das (YouTube)
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