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The Healing Power of the Drum

                                   Robert Lawrence Friedman


The hand drum has been used for thousands of years in celebrations, rituals and ceremonies. However, the merging of science with the healing qualities of the hand drum is a relatively new development.


Psychological and Physiological Applications
Some of the psychological applications in which hand drums are being used include assisting veterans to release the emotional pain of post-traumatic stress disorder, releasing the pent-up anger and negative emotions of "at-risk" adolescents, and promoting health in corporate executives through releasing their day-to-day stress, in addition to many other applications.

In the medical field, the hand drum is being used to help Alzheimer's patients improve their short-term memory and increase social interaction and to help autistic children increase their attention spans. In some cases, it is not necessarily the hand drum that provides positive changes in an individual, but a rhythmic device such as a metronome or an audiotape which plays specific rhythms. Such tools are being used to aid Parkinson's patients and stroke victims to regain the control of movement or increase their gaits.

As a drum facilitator and psychotherapist, I have personally witnessed the power of the drum to relax the tense, energize the tired, and heal the emotionally wounded. I have also observed the hand drum's extraordinary and consistent ability to create states of euphoria, induce light trance, promote play, release anger and promote feelings of community and unity.

My hope is that through examining the breadth of work that is available we can realize that the application of rhythm and its ability to heal the body, mind and soul is boundless. Yet much more research is necessary to confirm what many have experienced and studied already-that rhythm in relationship to the body and mind has many benefits-an idea that our society is just beginning to grasp.

In this century, when we seem to be moving farther and farther away from ourselves and our deeper needs, the drum, through its simplicity, effortlessness and naturalism, offers us a link back to that which we knew before technology separated us from our soul.

Through providing a channel back to our deeper nature, the drum concurrently provides those who use it with a link to others. The drum seems to have the capacity to unite all individuals who choose to experience it together. Despite race, religion, color, creed, background, or ideology, all are joined together through this ancient instrument's calling. The drum, therefore, becomes a vehicle for transporting all who utilize it, across all boundaries, to an experience of wholeness and community.

Alzheimer's Disease
As our life spans becomes longer and longer, mental problems such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia become more common. Many people with these diseases eventually require institutional care. Nursing homes are required to provide activities for residents which enhance the quality of their lives. Playing drums has been found to be the ideal activity for people with diminished physical and mental capacities.

Researchers have found that because rhythm is so intrinsic to our nature, Alzheimer's patients, even in the latter stages of the disease, can copy simple rhythms played on a drum. This form of interaction takes on great significance when all other forms of communication have been diminished. Drumming seems to focus Alzheimer's patients for a short time, and they seem momentarily coherent. These interludes, however brief, are priceless to loved ones.

Drumming and Stress Management
Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath...It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. -Natalie Goldberg

How does the drum help to relieve stress? There are numerous ways this occurs. When people drum, they are generally having fun. It is difficult to be in a playful mode and be stressed at the same time. Also, as described previously, the drum has the capacity to release negative feelings-of which stress is clearly one. When one hits the drum, he or she is placed squarely in the here and now. Some of our stress is created from past or future thoughts of fear, worry, or regret, but it is very difficult to be stressed and be in the present moment.

Drumming increases our Alpha brainwaves, those brainwaves associated with feelings of well-being and euphoria.
In a recent interview, Dr. Barry Quinn, a licensed clinical psychologist, described his results of working with drumming to increase the Alpha brainwaves of his hyper vigilant (highly stressed) patients.

"What I've found in my clinical work over the past 11 years is that as least 20% of the population does not have Alpha brainwaves. Alpha waves occur when the brain relaxes lightly into an 8 to 12 cycles per second brainwave pattern. Most individuals should be producing this brainwave pattern when they close their eyes and relax their mind. In a thirty minute ideal Transcendental Meditation the brain spends approximately 20 minutes in an Alpha state and 10 minutes in the deeper Theta (4-8 cps) mental state.

"There are benefits associated with Alpha waves, such as the ability to relax and keep the mind on idle when it is not focusing on a specific task. Alpha is associated with a general feeling of well-being and euphoria. Individuals who have very high amplitude of Alpha brainwaves have been found to be able to experience more "lucid dreams." People with lower than normal amounts of Alpha or no Alpha have much more mental stress than other people.

"There is also a category of people who don't have any Alpha waves and also have low amplitude brainwave activity across all bands. I see this in about 30-40% of the patients I treat. Neurologically, we refer to these people as hyper vigilant. The definition of hyper vigilance is someone who cannot turn off his or her mental activity for any length of time. They must always be thinking or focusing on something. They tend not to be able to let go of emotional issues but rather obsess relentlessly about them. Many with this brain pattern become alcoholics and highly addicted in a way that makes stopping drinking very difficult for them. It's very hard for them to relax and unwind. Therefore, they generally have a lot of sleep disorders as well. Anything that would increase their Alpha waves would be very beneficial to them.

"In pain patients, the amount of Alpha brainwaves a patient has is also an indicator of how well the patient is managing his or her pain. If patients are not managing their pain well, or are over-focused on it, they will lose Alpha waves. On the other hand, if a pain patient is having a good day, the Alpha will go back up.

"Until recently, I had never found anything that increased Alpha waves in people that needed most to have more of them, and I am speaking specifically of the hyper vigilant population. I tried biofeedback, but it tends only to enhance the theta waves of relaxation and didn't really affect Alpha much at all. I even had some hyper vigilant patients who were transcendental mediators, a group which typically has a higher amplitude of Alpha than the general population, but these hyper vigilent mediators had low to non-existent Alpha.

"It was suggested to me that I do some research with drums and Alpha waves. What first came to my mind were my hyper vigilant patients. Not expecting anything really, I went ahead and took four or five people and did an experiment wherein I got an Alpha wave baseline from them, which was, of course, typically low (below 10 MV) and had them drum for half an hour. The instructions I gave them were to drum a soft slow heartbeat type of rhythm. Not everyone followed the instructions. A couple did some emotional expressive drumming, and one or two might have had too much pain or felt pain from holding the drum due to fibromyalgia, but I found that 50% of the ones I tested got a normal Alpha wave pattern after thirty minutes of drumming, which means that their Alpha waves doubled. They went from 10 microvolts average to 20 microvolts just in the course of one drumming session.

"One of the participants was a friend of mine. I had done 15 neurofeedback sessions with him and gotten him into theta waves but had never been able to get any Alpha waves from him. The drumming was the first and only thing that allowed him to produce Alpha waves. I was quite impressed. I was also impressed by the fact that the Alpha waves occurred in these hypervigilant, high stressed people after only 20-30 minutes. It wasn't after five sessions. It was immediately after the first drumming session."

Robert Lawrence Friedman, MA, Remo artist, is author of "The Healing Power of the Drum", psychotherapist, president of Stress Solutions, Inc www.stress-solutions.com. He has appeared on The Today Show in New York, Fox News and most recently on the Class of '75, a Discovery Health channel series, sharing his philosophy of drumming and wellness. The Healing Power of the Drum can be purchased at www.wc-media.com, www.amazon.com and www.bn.com.