Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and would like to know about ways to support that therapy? Well then, welcome to the tenth post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that can help you optimize your recovery from trauma.
For this installment, I spoke with Gregg Hansen, a drummer and drum teacher from Longmont. Gregg teaches djembe drumming classes through the Longmont Recreation Center, and he also organizes free community drum circles in various locations.
How did you get into Drumming?
Peg: How about if we start with a little bit of info about you, Gregg, if you don’t mind. How did you become a drummer and teacher?
Gregg: I’ve played guitar my whole life. Drumming came to me about 25 years ago, when I had a carpel tunnel injury. I had to quit playing the guitar for a short while. In the interim a djembe drum came my way. A djembe is two feet high, it’s like a goblet, and it’s got ropes on the side and a goat skin on the top. It’s probably the most well known African drum in the states right now. That drum interested me. So I went on the path of learning how to play it.
Benefits of Drumming
Gregg: In my learning of the instrument, I noticed all these incredible things that happened. Later I found out that a lot of the benefits I experienced are backed up by research. One of the biggest benefits is that it takes all of your concentration.
Peg: Music, in general, is such a great way to practice mindfulness. You really can’t be doing anything else while you’re playing music.
Gregg: Then, secondly, the vibration of the drum has lots of benefits. The vibration of the drum causes your body to make white killer blood cells. So it boosts your immune system just to be around the drumming. They discovered this with cancer patients.
It also stimulates circulation points in the palms of your hands. And using the whole length of your fingers during drumming is good for bone density. I had a drumming student who broke her hand, and she asked her physical therapist when she could start drumming again. He said he didn’t want her holding any sticks for a couple of months. When she said, “No, hand drumming,” he said, “oh right now! It’s so good for your bone density.”
And there are also mental benefits. Music in general also lights up both sides of your brain.
Peg: Yes, I’ve heard that. There are some significant mechanical aspects of making any kind of music, which is a typical left brain activity. And then you get into the creativity and expression of it, which is very right brain.
Gregg: There is also research indicating that drumming produces endorphins, so it makes you relax. They say it has the same effect on your body as laughter. We like to laugh and drum. We call it happy hour. It’s two for one (laughs).
I suggest to my new students to play their drums for five minutes a day. Then soon, it’ll become difficult to play it for only five minutes a day. Because it’s so soothing. You gotta have five minutes a day to do something for yourself.
I just read a really excellent article that is all about how drumming affects the nervous system. Any rhythm based event, especially when working with a metronome, people will just talk to it, or clap with it, or synch up with it. Once you get used to a regular rhythm, it organizes your brain. Then it organizes your whole nervous system.
Peg: A number of trauma therapy approaches incorporate different types of rhythm and vibration, usually with some component of alternating left-right movement, similar to what you do with drumming. That’s one reason I thought of talking to you.
One of the things we talk about in the trauma therapy world is how healthy mind-body practices are for our mental health. That’s one reason yoga gets talked about frequently for trauma. But drumming is also a mind-body practice. Your brain and body are both fully engaged in the drumming. The syncing of those two systems, like with yoga, is very therapeutic. And then drumming adds also rhythm, vibration, and sound. So maybe it is even better than yoga!
Gregg: I have people who come every week mainly for the therapy. They say, once a week I come here and I forget everything. The whole world goes away. I’m just here with friends.
Peg: I think a lot of people take drugs to turn everything off like that. This is a much healthier way to do that!
Gregg: Here are some links to good info about the physical and mental benefits of drumming:
The Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute does research on the health benefits of music in general, and drumming specifically.
Peg: Tell me about what type of drumming opportunities you offer in the community.
Community Drum Circles
Gregg: There are a couple of tiers of the drumming I do. Usually people start by trying out a community drum circle, which is something anybody can participate in. The less you know, kind of, the better in some ways. I like to describe it as chaos with a beat. (laughs)
Peg: What does a typical drum circle session look like? How long is it?
Gregg: It’s about an hour and a half to two hours at the most. People can come and go as they want. You can come in for 20 minutes and then leave. There are no rules there whatsoever.
We start off by having a big beat. We call it drum call. I’m usually in charge of setting a beat. I don’t always do this, but I like to start with everyone breathing together. With just a simple beat on the drum and everyone beating and breathing in unison. Then everyone just starts playing. They all make things up on their own. It really is organic. After a while it takes on a life of its own. That might go for around 20 minutes, then we might stop and do introductions and say hi to everybody. Or the beat might shift and change and we’ll go with that longer.
I try not to have an agenda of any sort. Except, that in a couple of hours we’re gonna be done. (laughs). Sometimes we’ll play games like loud/soft, fast/slow. Or I’ll make one half of the room stop, and the other half plays then they stop and the other half plays. There’s one activity called sculpting where you ask certain people to keep playing and everyone else stops, so maybe there are just 5 shakers shaking for a bit. But I only bring in that type of guidance if the situation calls for it.
Peg: So, you’re reading the crowd.
Gregg: Yes. The main thing is I make sure we all end together. Do you know how important it is to all end together?
Peg: It sounds a lot more satisfying than everyone just petering out. I’m guessing it helps to make it feel more like you’re doing a community thing.
Gregg: Exactly! Details like that really matter, and really make it more powerful.
Peg: It sounds like anyone can just show up and have no idea how to drum.
Gregg: Exactly. And they can just play a shaker or a bell or do a little hand percussion.
Peg: Do people bring their own drums to the community drum circles?
Gregg: If they have them. And I also provide drums and shakers and bells. Any drum is welcome. Flutes, didgeridoos . . . anything that you don’t plug in. It’s got to be acoustic. People are welcome to bring anything they like, although some instruments work better than others in a drum circle. But you’re welcome to experiment!
Peg: Where do you hold the community drum circles?
Gregg: Various places will pop up. Someone who has a big house will say, “Hey, let’s have a drum circle here!” And we’ll put that together. We’ve played next to the visitor center in Eldorado Canyon State Park, until it got so large that we had to stop. But we’ll be doing it again this year, now that there’s expanded parking. We’ll be there once a month for June, July and August.
Peg: What a fun place to do it!
Gregg: It’s awesome. You can’t beat that. In nature, outdoors. It’s the ultimate drum circle. We also meet sometimes in Longmont, where I teach. That is indoors, but we have huge windows. It’s very nice.
Peg: What is the community that comes to these community drum circles like. Are there regulars? Do the people tend to change from event to event?
Gregg: Yes, they do. I do have a core of people who tend to frequent things like that. But I did a drum circle where I teach in Longmont last week and about 80 people showed up. And some of the people just got a drum that day or a week earlier.
Some of the ladies who are regulars told me recently, “It’s such a kind community. Everyone is kind and welcoming.” We’re all there to make music together. So that is the feeling and vibration. Everybody laughs and has fun.
Peg: Do people pay to join a community drum circle?
Gregg: I do those for free. When we do it at Eldorado Canyon, you have to pay to get into the park, but the circle is free. Maybe there will be a donation, if people want to donate.
Djembe Drum Classes
Gregg: A lot of people get turned on to the more advanced drumming by going to the community drum circles. They’ll say, “I think I want to know what I’m doing here. How do you play that drum? How do you shake that shaker.”
The next step might be to join my djembe drum classes. Those classes are through the Longmont Recreation Center. In those classes we learn specific rhythms, hand patterns, technique. And then I form orchestras. Then each person has a specific part now, in a musical organization. So that’s not jamming. It requires more focus. This is really when people get into it so that really can’t think of anything else while they’re drumming.
Peg: In the description of those classes, it sounds like you don’t have to know anything to start.
Gregg: That’s right.
Peg: And you provide drums too?
Gregg: I provide drums for the beginners.
Peg: I’d love to hear a little more about what those lessons are like.
Gregg: We use language to outline phrases. So, every part has a specific word phrase that helps the drummer get into the intended rhythm. It’s not about reading music or anything. That’s how I teach. No one has to be a musician, or have any musical knowledge.
Ideas about Using Drumming For Trauma Recovery
Peg: Let’s talk a little more specifically about the ways in which drumming might be used to help with trauma recovery.
I was really glad to hear you talk about the community and how kind and welcoming it is. I know that one aspect of healing trauma is regulating the nervous system. A lot of people who have been traumatized have nervous systems that can be frequently dysregulated. As mammals, we’re hard wired to use relationships with other mammals to regulate our nervous systems. Being in a safe feeling community setting can sometimes help a dysregulated nervous system get regulated again.
Adding drumming to that should theoretically make it even more powerfully regulating. It has the vibration you mentioned earlier, which we know is soothing. And it also has alternating left-right rhythmic movement, which helps integrate left and right brain activity.
Actually, one of the most popular trauma therapy methods used by many therapists involves little gentle vibrators that you hold in each hand, which alternate from left to right in a rhythmic way. While holding those, the client brings to mind a trauma they want to integrate. It turns out that even that much left-right alternating rhythm helps people get their brains into a state where it’s easier to process stuff.
Gregg: I also was thinking that taking you out of where you are would be a big benefit to people who are recovering from a trauma.
Peg: Yes, I think that’s part of what’s regulating about these types of community and rhythmic activities. They anchor you in a safe present moment, that is very different than the danger of the traumatic experience. It’s a way of practicing firing neural pathways for recognizing safety and connection. The more we fire those pathways, the easier we can fire them in the future, when that’s appropriate.
One interesting thing about trauma is that when we’re having a traumatic experience, all of the meaning-making and processing that we normally do as we’re taking in sensory input is not happening. That part of our brain is offline because it is too slow to help in dangerous situations. Instead, a very primitive but super fast part of our brain is doing most of the work. So people end up laying down very different types of memories, which tend to retain a lot of the energy from the original experience. So a lot of trauma therapy is about processing those memories, so that energy can be released, and the person can feel like those memories belong to the past. We know activities that anchor you into the present safe moment through sensory input can be a useful component of processing trauma memories. Drumming would be a huge experience of being anchored in the moment and feeling sensory input in a simple way. If someone’s had that experience, then maybe they can tap into it later when their nervous system gets dysregulated again.
Gregg: I mentioned earlier that we use phrases of language to learn beats in my drum classes. I thought this is something that might be really helpful for trauma therapy. You could have a meaningful phrase associated with the rhythm, so you’re drumming to a sort of mantra.
Peg: Ah, yes! You could make it be something that was relevant to your trauma or recovery. Some message of safety or recovery that would be healing to internalize, perhaps.
Gregg: Yes, it could then become more than just a phrase. It becomes muscle memory at some point. It would be easy to return to after the class.
Peg: Maybe you and I could put together a trauma-informed drum class, using some of the principles of trauma informed yoga. We could guide each person to form a healing mantra personalized their own needs and then develop a rhythm for it, and then find a way to drum those mantras together in community. So many healing things would be happening all at once!
Gregg: Then after a class like that, they could get their own drum, and do it themselves at home. Daily therapy.
Getting Involved – Upcoming Opportunities
Peg: If someone wanted to come to a community drum circle, how would they find out about that?
Gregg: They are announced on my mail list.
There’s going to be a really great one in September. My teacher, Arthur Hull, who is world renowned facilitating drum circles and teaching how to do it, will be leading a circle. He has years and years of experience going into corporations and doing drum circles of a thousand people. He wrote a couple of really good, practical books with lots of wonderful ideas anyone can do in drum circles.
We’re also going to be out at Eldorado Canyon on summer solstice.
Peg: Perfect! I’ll have to try to go both of those!
Conclusions & Contact Info
Peg: Gregg, thank you so much for the chat. I had so much fun, and I can hardly wait to try out one of your community drum circles.
For anyone who would like to reach out to Gregg for more information about community drum circles or djembe drum lessons, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!