Drum circle events of any kind are about the dynamic interaction of musical and personal relationships. When involved in any group rhythmic alchemy event, these relationships are based on a simple set of unwritten guidelines. When adhered to, these guidelines can help direct a group of players to their highest musical potential, creating a fun and exciting musical experience while enabling an individual to merge comfortably into an ongoing drumming circle without being obtrusive.
In culturally specific circles, these unwritten guidelines have been developed through centuries of ancestral evolution. They can also apply to any contemporary western version of a drum circle, from a “freeform” drum jam to a facilitated community rhythm event. These unwritten musical and personal relationship guidelines are contained within what I call “Drum Circle Etiquette.”
Below are my standard “Arthurian” suggestions for playing in most community drumming environments. By following these guidelines for both beginners and experienced players, you will make the drum circle experience more enjoyable for yourself and the people around you. You will then be a fully participating and contributing member of an “in the moment” rhythmic alchemy orchestra, sometimes called a drum circle.
1. Don’t wear rings, watches or bracelets while playing hand drums. Metal jewelry can damage the head of the drum, as well as the drum itself. Shedding the jewelry will also protect your hands.
2. Ask permission before playing someone else’s drum. For some drummers their instrument is a very personal possession.
3. If someone gets up and leaves the circle to get a drink or go to the bathroom, don’t immediately jump in and take their seat. In some drumming communities the drummers will put something on their seat, cover their drum with something or lay their drum on its side to signify that they will be back.
4. Listen as much as you play. By listening to what’s going on around you, you will have a better sense of how to fit into the groove that is being created.
5. Support the fundamental groove that you hear being created in the drum song. You don’t have to be a rhythm robot and hold down the same part all night long. There is plenty of freedom to experiment and express your rhythmical spirit within the fundamental groove.
6. Leave enough rhythmic space in the circle for other players to express themselves. Don’t fill up the creative space with your own notes. Remember that it’s a conversation.
7. Play at the volume of the group. If you can only hear yourself, you’re probably not having a constructive musical relationship with the rest of the players in the circle. Good volume dynamics create good relationship dynamics. Play soft enough to hear everyone around you. Follow and support the dynamic changes in volume and tempo that the group will go through during a drum circle event.
8. Share the solo space. If you are at the advanced level of drumming expertise where soloing is available to you, then you know the excitement and pleasure of being able to play over, around and through the drum circle groove. Soloing through a drum circle groove is very much like a bird flying through the forest. The “solo air” can’t accommodate more than a few people soloing at the same time. If there is more than one soloist available in a circle be sure to share the solo space with them. The best way for two or three drum soloists to play through the groove together is to have a drum dialogue with each other. In a facilitated drum circle event, a good facilitator will find all of the advanced drummers in the circle and showcase them individually, encouraging them to trade solos with each other.
9. Don’t smoke in the circle. Drumming is a high-energy aerobic exercise. Respect everyone’s need to breathe uncontaminated air while in such close quarters.
1. Enjoy the journey. In all the excitement, don’t forget to have fun. Although it will help you to follow the simple Drum Circle Etiquette guidelines, you don’t really have to be an experienced drummer to fully participate and have a good time.
2. Don’t worry, even if you might think that you are rhythmically challenged. Just get started and you will find rhythms inside of you that you didn’t know you had. By actively participating in the drum circle event, you will find that the excitement and rhythms that surround are all you need to fully contribute to the group song. You don’t even need to play a drum. You can bring a simple percussion instrument like a shaker, a bell or a woodblock. They are a lot easier to play than a hand drum.
3. Support the drum community experience. If you participate in a drum circle event for the first time, it’s best to play with an attitude of humility and support. Be observant of the actions and reactions of the more advanced drummers and you will learn much quicker.
4. Keep it simple. Listen for the pulse that will always be some where in the music, then play along and around it. It is like keeping the side of the pool within reach as you learn how to swim. The simple pulse will always be there for you to grab onto if you ever lose the rhythm while playing. Once you’re comfortable with the part you play, you can explore deeper rhythmic waters. Just keep the pulse in sight.
5. Just ask. Every rhythm event is different, and each has its own particular variations of drum circle etiquette. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate, just ask somebody. They will usually respond with supportive suggestions.
That’s it! There is a basic agreement in these kinds of events that each person in the circle is there to share their rhythmic spirit and personal energy with the community that is present. With this kind of group consciousness, a drum circle can be a very powerful yet intimate experience for participants to create unity in their community by drumming together. Your level of expertise is less important than how much of yourself you contribute to the experience. If every player is there to share his or her spirit and have fun, the musical part of any drum circle will take care of itself.
Arthur Hull is a Remo artist and Signature Series drum designer. As a nationally renowned community drum facilitator, Arthur is recognized as the father of the modern drum circle movement. Arthur’s book and CD, Drum Circle Spirit, Facilitating Human Potential through Rhythm, is the culmination of his years of rhythmic evangelism and group facilitation around the world.