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Drumming at Stroke Camp: through the eyes of a music therapist

By: Susan Bock, MM, MT-BC
Category: Therapeutic
Population Served: Others


Even though it has been more than a week since the last camp of the year at Lewistown, the memory of the drum circle still lingers as I write this, and I find myself basking in the magic that was created that last morning of camp. The drum circle is the final activity of stroke camp and the highlight of my weekend with the campers. Sometimes campers start without me; other times I call them with a djembe until everyone has chosen an instrument and all are playing. The drum circle of which I write will remain as one of the most special drum circles I have experienced - one in which a stroke survivor created her own combo of instruments and was supported by her maraca-playing husband, who later felt comfortable enough to lead the circle for a short while!

An array of instruments awaits the campers as they pick and choose which one to play for the final drum circle. All weekend they have been introduced to various drums and rhythm instruments. The welcome time begins the weekend and is the first introduction, and campers can choose any instrument they want off of the table to bring to the circle. I tease them with "Mama don't allow" and get them playing before they realize they are playing a solo! Often I hear "Oh, I don't play" I'll just watch." But soon they have found something they like and begin playing with the others in the circle. Each instrument chosen is introduced by its name and how it is played so all can get acquainted with the various sounds and names of the instruments. Often, a camper will fall "in love" with an instrument! It could be a frog rasp, the agogo bells, or the thunder drum, and I dare not forget to bring that camper's favorite instrument the next year!

During our camping weekend we sing after each meal and use instruments to support the songs, such as the kokiriko or guiro for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" with the triangle for the bluebird, or hand-held chimes and finger cymbals played when cued after the phrase "All the sounds of the earth are like music." And of course we have egg shakers - special ones made with the Retreat and Refresh logo on them, and one for each camper to take home. One camper even uses it to help her keep rhythm as she walks in therapy! But I digress...

While this camp was one of our smaller camps, the campers bonded easily with each other throughout the weekend. And while one might think that a smaller drum circle would have less energy, that was definitely not true of this camp! This particular drum circle began with the campers - a steady rhythm that reflected the creativity, strength, and perseverance of the campers. And it was Becky and Damian who began the rhythm of energy and creativity!

Becky carefully and creatively chose her instruments - a miniature djembe that she could hold with her legs, and a mallet paired with castanets on a stick that she held in her good hand. Her husband, Damien, had already chosen a Festival Djembe and placed it on the floor near Becky's chair. As she sat down and settled herself, she saw the possibility - she began a rhythm with her drum and his drum, and the castanets added instant energy! Others slowly gathered in the circle and began playing with her. Damian, seeing that he had lost his drum to his wife, then picked large maracas and stood behind her, complementing her rhythm beautifully, using the wooden handles to create his own sound. Soon I noticed that no one had taken the Tubano, so I set that in front of her and immediately she incorporated it into her rhythm - her own unique combo of drums!

The smile on her face and the contentment on the face of her husband continued as the drum circle rhythm evolved, encompassing everyone around the circle and needing little assistance from me. The rhythm of this smaller camp seemed to reflect the energy and connection of all of the stroke campers throughout this year and the previous years. And when Damien was enticed to come into the center and lead the drum circle, it solidified why I do what I do. Shy at first, he was swept in by the sound and soon lost himself in the midst of the rhythm of people who knew and understood his love for his wife and his role as caregiver and protector. Later he would tell me that he was a ballroom dance instructor. No wonder he was such a natural to lead!

The power of stroke camp is the power of stroke survivors and caregivers to persevere and again find their rhythm in life when it has been taken from them. At camp, music and rhythm give stroke survivors a chance to regain their sense of self among those who care and understand. Retreat and Refresh Stroke Camp is the "can do" camp of hayrack rides, campfires with smores, rock wall climbing, crafts, educational sessions, pampering, support in survivor and caregiver discussion groups, and just relaxing together with people who understand. Music at stroke camp is the universal "glue" that binds us all together and helps to regain the normalcy of life for those affected by stroke.

I am truly blessed by each and every person who comes to camp - survivors, caregivers, and volunteers. They have all enriched my life immeasurably by letting their light shine and making music with me!

Susan Bock, MM, MT-BC
Retreat and Refresh Stroke Camps
HealthRHYTHMS Trained Facilitator

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