Drums, Not Drugs

Mikenas, Edward E. Percussive Notes. April 1999.

Shamans in Mongolia, griots in Africa, medicine men of the Native American nations, and healers of other non-technological societies that proceeded us have used drums to assist in maintaining the wellness of their cultures. As a substance abuse counselor and musician working with adolescents, I’ve had many occasions to witness how drums can help people who are recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.

Addiction is a disease of the feelings. People can sit in A.A. meetings for months before they are able to start talking about how they feel. The reason for this, in my view, is that unexpressed feelings create energy blockages. Helping people remove these blockages is an important part of substance abuse treatment.

One day it occurred to me that if sound is energy in motion, feelings (expressed) are also energy in motion. If people in recovery have difficulty expressing their feelings through the medium of language, perhaps they could express themselves in another rhythmic sound medium, such as participation in a drumming group. This article describes what I have experienced in exploring the use of drums and other percussion instruments to assist people in the regenerative process of recovery.

At twenty weeks of gestation the human ear is completely developed. During the twenty-first week, it begins sending messages to the brain (Nelson, 175). Thus, while there may be a continuum of developing awareness as the fetus grows, it is conceivable that the first event of conscious awareness is the hearing of sound. We don’t see, taste, smell, or experience touch until months later because there is nothing to compare these sensations to. The second thing we do consciously is move to the sounds that we hear. As soon as we are born, we experience hot and cold, light and dark, hard and soft, wet and dry, empty and full. Thus, the third thing we do as conscious humans is feel.

Our very being, then, is shaped from the beginning by responding to sound. Berendt points out that the word “per- BY EDWARD E. MIKENAS son” in its root, personare, means “to sound through something” (171). Our early survival depends, in part, on the sounds we make and how those sounds are responded to. If the sounds we make are responded to appropriately, we have our needs met. If we are not responded to appropriately, or at all, we make sounds until our needs are met. In doing this, we practice our first manipulation of adults. If we must regularly manipulate adults in order to have our needs met, we may develop a chronic sense of dis-ease. This awareness of dis-ease is pre-verbal and sound/energy based.

Thus, our sense of self (the result of self-generated sounds that have been responded to in various ways) may be deficient as we mature. When we reach puberty, we develop new bodies, new sounds as our voices change, and new emotional needs. Now we increasingly have the need to self-express as our adulthood forms itself. We learn to communicate with those most likely to hear us: our peers, or our perpetrators. Thus, in the second most important developmental stage of our lives, we are recognized —or not—by the sound we make.

Tragically, our society tends to punish adolescents for their need to self-express. They regularly hear things like: “Don’t say that.” “I don’t want to hear it.” “I can’t hear you when you talk like that.” “Kill that noise!” An adolescent’s need to self-express can be easily stifled and his or her ability to have needs met can atrophy, along with any sense of confidence and self-esteem. If things get bad enough, adolescents may look for radical ways to change how they feel as a way to managing the experience.

Part of the problem is that adolescents are dealing with adults who literally don’t know how to listen. As children we’ve been told to listen, to “mind,” to raise our hands before speaking, stand in line with no talking. Yet with few exceptions, we aren’t taught the art of really listening. So we grow up with limited auditory skills. If we were lucky enough to participate in a rhythm band in elementary school, we had opportunities to make “noise,” have fun expressing ourselves nonverbally, and receive positive strokes from our teachers and parents. Unfortunately, the lack of continuity in education (as well as the way our society undervalues the non-verbal and non-rational) tends to put music classes—the primary experience in learning how to listen for many of us—at a low priority.

Here’s the good news: Joseph Scartelli suggests that regular, low-frequency auditory driving (drumming) affects the reticular activating system in a way that stimulates all other parts of the brain even where there is significant damage or impairment. Quite simply, drumming can affect our neurological development and accelerate the recovery process. Drumming groups can provide both the setting for a positive emotional experience and the physical mechanism of neurological and psychological growth. “The more connections that can be made within the brain, the more integrated the experience is within memory” (Campbell, 14). If the experience we want to integrate is the emotional felt-thought continuum from our infancy (which, remember is pre-verbal), then it is possible to integrate these experiences through drumming groups and drum therapy.

The advantage of participating in a drumming group is that you develop an auditory feedback loop within yourself and among group members—a channel for self-expression and positive feedback —that is pre-verbal, emotion-based, and sound-mediated. Perhaps the most important aspect of this experience is the phenomenon of entrainment. In 1665, a Dutch physicist named Christian Huygens discovered entrainment when he observed two mechanical clocks ticking in unison a day after they had been wound up and set ticking out of unison (Goldman, 219). Entrainment occurs because it is more efficient, hence “easier,” for nature to be in sync with itself. Musicians playing in a group experience this phenomenon naturally, and drumming is especially conducive to entrainment because it is pure rhythm. If we put people together who are out of sync with themselves (i.e., diseased, addicted) and help them experience the phenomenon of entrainment, it is possible for them to feel with and through others what it is like to be synchronous in a state of pre-verbal connectedness.

This can be very powerful stuff, as the following example illustrates: The drumming group I work with did a presentation at a local elementary school where the audience included a second grade boy who had been through a serious trauma only a few weeks before. His father had died and his mother, in a fit of grief, had committed suicide. Several days went by before the boy was discovered in the house with his mother. He had completely withdrawn inside himself emotionally, and after that had never been observed to express any emotion other than his inwardness. When our performance was over, the rest of the class went to the library and he stayed with his teacher and cried, convulsively, for the first time since his losses had occurred. After this same performance, the assistant principal remarked that he was seeing children whose “worlds made sense to them for the first time,” that he was amazed and pleased at the absence of negative, acting-out behavior, and that in subsequent rhythm sessions, the students shared the instruments we had handed out without being given any instruction.

Here’s another example of how the drumming experience can connect people across cultures. The local mental health agency asked me to do some drumming workshops with a group of their male clients after I had presented several workshops for their staff. I planned the event to be outdoors at the park in the center of the city and arrived early to get ready. There were already two people under the pavilion who apparently didn’t realize the space was reserved. As I proceeded to set up, one of them, a saxophone player, began to practice. I started to lay down a groove, he caught it, and that’s the way it went for the next half hour. Soon I realized the other person present was a “deinstitutionalized” adult who apparently had nowhere else to go. He was smiling and moving with the groove. Eventually the mental health group showed up and we began to play. At first the group was
tentative, but pretty soon they were jamming with the saxophonist and myself. Two women who happened to be passing by were drawn to the music and began moving to the groove as well. When we finished, one of the women asked if we were a “band” and where we were going to be playing next. You can imagine the dose of self-esteem the group members experienced when they realized that other people perceived them as competent and appreciated their performance.

Finally, in addition to providing an authentic experience of healthy connectedness and physiological synchronicity, drumming can help people learn to manage their emotions in a recreational and therapeutic way without the use of alcohol or other drugs. Two examples follow:

In the residential care facility I managed, I introduced the concept of drumming/ entrainment by showing my young female clients a picture of some prehistoric rock art found in Rhodesia determined to be around 25,000 years old. Without any effort, we spent the rest of the morning (over three hours) talking about the picture’s relevance to women’s issues and its significance as a work of art depicting music, theater, dance, and visual representation. Then I introduced some percussion instruments and talked
about how they were connected to stages of cultural evolution, how humans have always made music with whatever they had at hand, whatever the earth and their particular way of relating to it provided. Soon the girls were jamming. By the end of the week, they had made a video of themselves, had asked their mothers to join them on their next jam session, and were requesting more opportunities to play. I was frequently asked to bring the instruments back and noticed that after a few good sessions, the emotional atmosphere of the faculty stayed relaxed for several weeks.

In a prevention workshop I did for the Partnership of the Prevention of Substance Abuse, the students said the music “made them happy,” “brought them up,” “mellowed them,” “made them relax,” and “was music they could understand.” These students were all talking about the same music having different effects, without the help of alcohol or other drugs, all positive effects working on an individual, perceptual basis—using drums, not drugs.

Drumming as a generative form of experiential learning has the potential to move people from the fear of self-expression to a more creative state where they can serve as true human resources for themselves and their communities. By providing a medium for both individual self-realization and creative group dynamics, drumming can also help heal the isolation, frustration, and low self-esteem that fuel drug abuse. We can play out our feelings of fear, anger, loss, and abuse without saying a word, without having to be called on to expose our “issues.” This is an excellent supplement to traditional talk therapy processes used in recovery.

Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. The World is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness, trans.
Helmut Bredigkeit. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1991.

Goldman, Jonathan S. “Sonic Entrainment.” Music Physician for Times to Come. Ed. Don Campbell. Wheaton, IL:
Quest Books, 1991.

Nelson, John F. Healing the Split: Integrating Spirit into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill. Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1994.

Scartelli, Joseph. Unpublished manuscript.

Edward Mikenas directs Lynchburg Day Services and the Drums; not Drugs program. He has a masters degree in music and is certified as a substance abuse counselor. He is a member of Club Conga, a percussive arts ensemble, and is active as a studio musician and producer. He teaches at several colleges and provides training and workshops that combine drumming, wellness and leadership.

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