Keeping the beat

Families gather to drum at the Friday night drum circle in Pritchard Park. File photo
Families gather to drum at the Friday night drum circle in Pritchard Park. File photo

Drumming as a healing modality

On a Friday night in early spring, a low rumbling can be heard throughout downtown Asheville. The contagious rhythm grows louder as people are drawn into the vortex of reverberating beats in Pritchard Park. The Friday night drum circle has emerged from winter hibernation, becoming once again the heartbeat of Asheville. For some, the weekly event is simply another one of Asheville’s quirks. For others, the drumming provides a source of therapy and healing.

Larry McDowell, one of the co-founders of the Friday night drum circle, describes the event as a “thunder drum circle,” where people use drumming as a release. “Our natural rhythm is fast during the day, so people need to release stress,” he says. In addition to the Friday night drum circle, McDowell has taught drumming for therapeutic purposes in schools, nursing homes and substance abuse centers. Steven Townsend, who facilitates a drum circle in Black Mountain, also recognizes drumming as a way people can release stress or emotional trauma.

The Friday night drum circle started in 2001, says McDowell, when a group who had been drumming in the the Movement and Learning Center above the French Broad Food Co-op spontaneously decided to take their music outside. They ended up at what is now Pritchard Park. Moving the drum circle there “totally revitalized the area, which used to be a place where homeless people hung around and drank beer. It was good for all the businesses, restaurants and nightlife there,” says McDowell. “In the West African tradition the drum was always used to call people together. That’s exactly what it does when you put it in an urban setting.”

McDowell volunteers to teach drumming at Pisgah View and at the Monday night drum circle in Asheville above the French Broad Food Co-op. His business, Roots of Rhythm, takes drumming into a variety of settings, including schools, medical facilities and festivals. He facilitates drum circles at substance abuse recovery centers where, he says, drumming gives patients a sense of purpose and something constructive to do with their time. He also facilitates circles at nursing homes. He says the bilateral motion of drumming, which involves both hemispheres of the brain, helps people to build new brain pathways. This is especially beneficial for stroke patients, he adds.

The most healing tone of the drum, according to McDowell, is the bass tone. “The low frequency is the healing part,” he says. “The waves are longer and slower and take longer to spread out.” He adds that rhythms are most healing when they slow to fewer than 100 beats a minute. “What happens is that heart rate and breathing slow down, and blood pressure comes down too,” he says. The process that occurs when people’s physiology changes with the rhythm, says McDowell, is called the natural law of entrainment. “If two rhythms are nearly the same and they’re in close proximity, they fall into synchronicity,” he says.

Townsend says that drumming can have the biggest effect on children because “they don’t analyze what they’re doing. They’re closer to their primitive self.” McDowell has observed this working privately with children on the autism spectrum. “These are kids who generally don’t engage with other people, but they can totally engage with the drum,” he says. “The last sense that leaves the body is our sense of hearing, our sense of rhythm. Our bodies are rhythm. So for autistic kids it’s a way to connect with the rest of the world.”

Perhaps more than anything else, drumming fosters community and connection, says McDowell. “The drum circle is a perfect metaphor for community,” he says. “When everyone is working together, directing their thoughts in a certain way at the same time and sharing the synergy of the drum circle, it’s powerful, and that’s what people are drawn to.”

Townsend says the drums also build communication skills. “You have to work together to be in the same rhythm. You have to listen to each other. If you’re not listening, you’re not going to achieve that great sound,” he says. He recalls a drum circle in which an older woman with a small drum played a very simple rhythm, hitting her drum just once every four beats. “She found the spot where she could hit her drum and fit in, and she had a big smile on her face. That had a big impact on me. You don’t have to be the best drummer or have all these skills. You just have to listen and want to be a part of it, and let it work its magic.”

McDowell recalls a case in which a woman he taught to drum told him that she credited drumming with her recovery from cancer. He adds that cases like hers are why he continues to teach drumming. “I’ve seen the light go on in people’s eyes” when they learn to drum, says McDowell. “It feels so good to guide somebody to it. I don’t do it for them. They put themselves in a place to receive it, but I help them turn that light on.”

Steven Townsend facilitates a drum circle each Saturday, 4-6 p.m., at the Carver Community Center in Black Mountain. Larry McDowell facilitates a drum circle each Monday,  7-8:30 p.m., in the Movement and Learning Center above the French Broad Food Co-op. 

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