Group Empowerment Drumming With At-Risk Youth

By: By Ed Eliason, Percussionist, Music Educator, Drum 

Music is a great equalizer. It ignores socio-economic backgrounds, learning disabilities, physical, mental and emotional handicaps. It enables people to feel good about themselves and the world around them. It gives them permission to have fun. 

May, 2009 

Recreational hand drumming is a rapidly growing leisure activity, enjoyed by many people in many different social settings. Traditional drum circles have been around for thousands of years, having been a central part of virtually every world culture throughout history. In more modern times, however, the general public seems to have forgotten the wisdom of the ancients, at least in terms of the healing power of recreational music making. But that is changing. Drumming is now recognized as a viable tool for achieving everything from better health to greater teamwork among management and employee groups throughout corporate America. Numerous clinical studies by experts such as neurologist Barry Bittman, M.D. have proven that the HealthRHYTHMS® protocol can strengthen the immune system, significantly reduce stress, and reduce employee burnout, among other things. When properly applied by a trained facilitator, the process known as "Group Empowerment Drumming" can achieve remarkable results in any number of target groups. 

In my relatively brief experience working with "at-risk" and "special needs" children, I have seen some amazing things happen. The process of empowerment is fun to watch, and when you put a group of kids and a bunch of drums together, you get to witness that process many times over. Since January of 2007, I've had the opportunity to work with more than 2,000 "at-risk" children, three to five days a week, at three different elementary schools and two six-week summer arts camps. Most of these kids have relatively few opportunities for success in life, so their expectations and self-esteem are generally low. But I guess they didn't get that memo, because once we started drumming together, they were on top of the world. More importantly, they were enjoying success! 

Music is a great equalizer. It ignores socio-economic backgrounds, learning disabilities, physical, mental and emotional handicaps. It enables people to feel good about themselves and the world around them. It gives them permission to have fun. Playing percussion instruments allows great freedom of expression almost instantly. Without the long learning curve associated with other musical instruments, drumming provides instant success. With minimal coaching, anyone can do it. That's empowerment! 

Two examples immediately come to mind when I reflect on the many benefits of drumming for the fun of it. At a recent community rhythm circle, I met a young man who was mentally challenged. When I spotted him and his dad watching our group play, I could tell he was itching to join in. I no sooner got the invitation out of my mouth than he sat down and started drumming. I asked him to start off a beat for the rest to follow, and he didn't hesitate. He played with us for maybe 30 minutes, and absolutely beamed with excitement the whole time. For that brief time, he was normal, just like anyone else in the circle. Afterward his dad thanked me, and then I thanked him. Moments like this are priceless, and I cherish them. 

And then there is my new friend Michael (not his real name). His class just finished its third week in my percussion program at a local elementary school. At the end of my 10-week program, some 225 fourth, fifth and sixth graders will perform in a percussion ensemble concert. Each class meets for only 40 minutes, once a week, and I was told up front that Michael's severe emotional and learning disabilities would probably prevent him from fully participating with the rest of his class. True to form, the first session was difficult. His attention span seemed almost non-existent. But his enthusiasm was a delight, so off we went! The second week seemed to go better. By our third class, Michael was not only fully engaged, but was actually showing some leadership as his class played and sang a two-measure rhythm pattern utilizing quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. He sang and played boldly, and in perfect meter. The smile on his face seemed to scream out the words "Look, I CAN DO THIS!" 

Academic success for students like Michael is not the same as it is for other kids his age. His ability to excel at just about anything is extremely limited. But in just his third percussion class, Michael found his "groove". Drumming is something he can do well. Success is within his grasp! Watching him "be good at drumming" in such a short time was nothing short of astonishing, but not totally unexpected. I've seen it happen before, and I know I will see it happen many more times with many other Michaels. 

The power of music's most basic component - RHYTHM - gives all of us a vehicle for self expression. The short learning curve makes percussion the ideal gateway to the world of music, and the joy that it brings to performers and listeners alike. These are benefits all of us can enjoy, but for our "at risk" youth they are like a magic pill. When used properly, this simple "pill" raises self-esteem and the quality of life for kids who can use a lot more of that. 

Mr. Eliason owns and operates Good2Groove Studios, a music education facility in Merritt Island, Florida. His 40-plus year performing career has encompassed virtually every form of popular and classical music, from touring rock and jazz bands to the opera and musical theatre. He is a member of the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild, and is a Trained HealthRHYTHMS® Facilitator. As a private music instructor, and an "Artist In Residence" with the Brevard Cultural Alliance, he has worked with more than 2,500 young people and senior citizens, in various settings. Mr. Eliason facilitates "Rhythm Remedies®" programs for all types of business, social & health care related groups. 

Used by Permission 

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