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Catching the Beat of the Drum

July 1, 2006
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Drumming's effect on individuals, groups make it a promising complementary therapy

Ed Mikenas was the director of a girls group home for the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, when he first introduced percussion instruments to a group of teens; the idea was to jam a little to relieve stress. By the end of the next three hours, the youths had decided to give a performance for their parents at the end of the week.

“That was a clue for me that kids in particular like being engaged in percussion,” says Mikenas. A substance abuse counselor with a background steeped in music, Mikenas performed with a drumming group called Conga. Around the same time he was bringing percussion instruments to teens at the group home, Conga performed for a teen audience brought together by the nonprofit Partnership for the Prevention of Sub-stance Abuse in Lynchburg.

After the performance, Mikenas asked the group of teens what they liked about it. “One said the music really pumped him up while others said the music mellowed them out,” he says. “That was another clue because the exact same music was giving paradoxical effects for different kids. Kids who were down got pumped up, and the kids who were a little too up, got mellowed out—all without a prescription.”

These observations led Mikenas, who now works with adolescents as director of day services for Lynchburg, to explore more fully drumming's effect on consciousness and the brain. Mikenas also explored the concept of “entrainment—the idea that drumming could have a positive “swarming” effect on individual and group consciousness.

Mikenas incorporated into drumming sessions drum moves that paralleled the skills people need to learn in order to stay in recovery. In initial sessions, he taught “heel, toe, slap” hand movements, with the words recited to match the movements. “If they say the words, then their words are literally telling their hands what to do, so it's a direct parallel to walking and talking one of the 12 Steps,” he says.

Mikenas adds, “Clients realize that if they don't say the words then they are not able to execute these simple moves, and the message here is this: If you don't learn the 12 Steps, meaning to integrate them into your psyche, you're just going to be full of hot air—talking the talk without walking the walk, because there is a real integration between using your voice and directing your life. The hand moves and directing your hand is the skill you learn that transfers right over to turning your life over to a higher power.”

For people in addiction treatment, the bottom line was that engagement in treatment happened faster with drumming. Drumming allows people to tap into their feelings more readily, Mikenas says. Technically speaking, he says drumming at low frequency bypasses the brain's Reticular Activating System (believed to be the center of arousal and motivation), thereby stimulating all areas of the brain at once.

“For people in recovery, it develops a baseline of feeling that they can then start relating to from day one,” Mikenas says. “Talking about how they feel at baseline can be a springboard to talking about other feelings. It kind of lights a fire that they can refer back to.”

At the end of each drumming session, Mikenas checks in with clients to see how they're feeling. Clients start to understand that drumming has a direct effect on their mood. He believes drumming helps the 12-Step process make sense rather than be seen as a mandate. Weekly sessions for about eight weeks constitute an effective experience for developing a sense of hand drumming skills, he says.

Synergy of the group

What excites advocates of drumming perhaps the most is the ability to affect a roomful of people simultaneously and synergistically. While improvement occurs at the individual level, a collective consciousness also develops during drumming. Mikenas says the collective consciousness parallels what is taking place in the mind of the recovering client.

Initially, the drumming produces chaos, much like the state of a client in early stages of recovery. At that point, Mikenas asks the group what could be changed, and the group always has the answer, usually selecting a leader or having someone start a rhythm or beat.

However, selecting a leader often produces a moment of paralysis akin to when a client is asked to do something new or different in a recovery plan. Inevitably, a group will have a number of different leaders. Mikenas checks in with the leaders after each session and asks them how it went. He often gets answers that parallel what one might hear in the treatment process: “I was worried about how the group was going to do”; “I didn't feel like anybody was listening to me”; “I'm feeling really nervous.”

“We try to get each person to participate in that way because that's what it's going to be like for them, at least for a while, to lead their lives,” says Mikenas.

Over time, the group becomes more comfortable, more varied in its response to the leader, and more integrated. “People are experiencing what it's like to fit in,” he says. By the time he is finished with a group, there is usually full, integrated jamming.

The conscious and the unconscious

Steven Angel has been drumming since he was 3. A prodigy drummer, he immersed himself in the Los Angeles rock scene of the late 1960s, touring with prominent bands of the era. Fast forward to the 1990s, when Angel wanted to get back into drumming. At that point he had a moment when “drumming and psychology and mysticism sort of came together.”

The result was a drumming methodology he developed, steeped in the Shamanic healing tradition. He first had success working in detention camps and curbing impulsive behavior. He also has worked with elementary school students on short- and long-term memory, calling the program “reading and rhythm.”