Beating Stress

Drum circles help participants beat the stress

By Richard Robbins
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Corky Miller tapped lightly on the drum in front of her.

“Feel the pulse,” said the instructor, Laurie Jones, seated across the circle of chairs from Miller. “It should be an organic experience.”

Miller’s tapping became slightly more pronounced as the evening of music therapy progressed. Eventually, her whole body seemed to relax a bit. A smile stole across her face.

Days later, Miller said how much she had enjoyed herself. “I hope they have more.”

Excela Health officials say it’s almost certain the community drum circle that so pleased Miller will be repeated. Spokeswoman Robin Jennings said officials hope to hold monthly drum circles, rotating them among the three Excela Health hospitals in the region: Latrobe, Westmoreland and Frick.

The event Miller attended was staged at Excela Health Latrobe Hospital and was offered as a kind of demonstration of community drumming. It consisted of 10 women seated in a circle, all with drums, wooden blocks and assorted other percussion instruments at the ready.

Drum circles help relieve tension and lower stress, Jones said. By that score, for Miller, the night was a success.

“Two-and-a-half years ago I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle,” she explained. A series of ankle casts and surgeries followed. The result was immobility and a gnawing sense of the world closing in on her.

She was stressed out.

Miller had looked at other ways to drain herself of tension. She examined some stress-reduction tapes, but then learned of the upcoming drum circle. After participating in the hourlong showcase of beating drums and tapping sticks and blocks, she decided this was for her.

“I did feel less stress, probably through the next day,” she said.

“It was like untying some of the knots that were inside,” Miller added. “It’s like you are able to physically form what you are trying to get out.”

Jones, an assistant professor of music therapy at Seton Hill University, Greensburg, contends the drumming rhythms, attuned to each person’s inner self along with the collective participation of disparate individuals, are what does the trick.

Drum circles are as much about community as they are about music, she said. In fact, music is almost a secondary consideration. “You don’t have to be a musician,” Jones said. “It’s what you feel inside. There is no wrong or right way to play.”

Suzie Knechtel, a music therapist from Monroeville who participated in the Latrobe event, said music as therapy dates back to ancient times, though its modern revival began soon after World War II.

After gaining momentum in the 1970s and ’80s, music therapy blossomed in the 1990s as a major on a number of college campuses, including Seton Hill, Duquesne University and Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Barely three years in existence at Seton Hill, it already has 18 students — quite an accomplishment, Jones said.

Jones said when she arrived in the area in 1994 and told people what she did, she received more than a few raised eyebrows. Things are different now. Eyebrows are not so much raised as slightly arched.

Many people still misunderstand, or underestimate, the role of music in relieving stress and attacking other ills of modern life, Jones said.

Community drumming, though used as therapy for scores of physically and psychologically wounded World War II GIs, is not today a popular male activity, Jones conceded. Anything that smacks of “support group” seems to drive males away in droves, she said.

It was not unusual, Jones said, that only women gathered at the Alex G. McKenna Educational Center at Excela Health Latrobe Hospital.

The women had various things on their minds.

In addition to her ankle problems, Miller said she had “25 years of stress to get rid of,” while her sister, accountant Catherine Caccia, said she was trying to get over the stress of tax season.

Others were Carol Weisnewski, who works in rehabilitation at Excela Health Frick Hospital, Mt. Pleasant.

Wendy Matchett, who teaches preschoolers, said the drum circle was something she had not tried before.

Other group members included several of Jones’ own students from Seton Hill and two certified music therapists who were there to support Jones.

To a novice, some of the instructions may have posed a problem. What, in fact, does “feel the pulse” mean? And how does a community drum circle square with Jones’ notion that the playing is “very personal to each person”?

Caccia said she found herself tuning out the distraction of whether or not she was doing it right. Getting lost in the sound put her in the right frame of mind.

“When I was drumming, I was less stressed,” she said. “I think you are not thinking about your problems — it’s more mood and tempo.”

Matchett, who wasn’t there to reduce stress but to get a line on how she might use drumming in her preschool classroom, said, “I see why it would relieve stress. I thought it was exhilarating. You are so in tune with the music.

“It’s kind of like a runner being in a zone,” Matchett added. “You get caught up in the rhythm, especially in the longer passages.”

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