We moderns are the last people on the planet to uncover what older cultures have known for thousands of years: The act of drumming contains a therapeutic potential to relax the tense, energize the tired and soothe the emotionally wounded.
So says Gary Diggins, an Ontario sound therapist.
When I met him, I entered his studio with some trepidation, overwhelmed by the hundreds of instruments I did not know how to play. Drums from around the world. Didgeridoos, rain sticks and other indigenous instruments decorated the walls. I had come with the intention of exploring the sound therapy community, to find out why so many people are choosing music as a form of healing as opposed to other, more traditional approaches to mental health treatment.
Since that first drumming experience, I began attending monthly sound therapy sessions: People coming together to create sound with the intention of restoring physical and mental well being.
Diggins’ particular practice of sound therapy has been shaped by his studies with a Columbian Shaman, a Jungian therapist, an African Griot, an Australian Aborigine, and a few professors from the University of Toronto. The challenge, Diggins says, is to frame this ancient practice in a way that makes it accessible to wider cultural circles.
In Diggins’ group settings, clients connect with other drummers and create a supportive and collaborative musical community. For some, the positive impact comes from the feeling of belonging to a community. For others, it comes from the physical act of drumming and simultaneously connecting with one’s own emotional experience.
Neurologist Barry Bittman, who co-developed a program for REMO called Health Rhythms with music therapist Christine Stevens, found that group drumming and recreational music making increases the body’s production of cancer killing t-cells, decreases stress and can change the genomic stress marker. Bittman says drumming “tunes our biology, orchestrates our immunity, and enables healing to begin.”
Psychologist Shari Geller, who teaches at York University, says her own early experiences with drumming sparked her interest in the practice’s healing benefits.
After working with Bittman at his Living Beyond Cancer Retreat at his Mind-Body Wellness Center in Pennsylvania, Geller combined her work as a clinical psychologist, her training in emotion focused therapy and mindfulness with group drumming in a program called Therapeutic Rhythm and Mindfulness (TRMTM).
In studying the technique and combining it with her clinical knowledge, she discovered that healing can occur when emotions are enhanced through music making. She says it allows people to process trauma with greater ease and that through the facilitation of mindful drumming, people can express difficult emotions.
For individuals coping with depression, anxiety or trauma, there is something more intuitive and liberating about communicating through music. Some find the combination of group therapy and drumming effective as it brings more contemporary approaches to mental health together with creative and non-judgemental expression of emotions.
Alongside the plethora of research on the effects of music on the brain, studies have found that drumming offers numerous health benefits. For women dealing with eating disorders, children with autism, cancer patients, war veterans living with PTSD, individuals with anger management issues, people with addictions, and even Alzheimer’s patients, drumming offers physical and emotional benefits.
Music therapies are now available in many hospitals and in a variety of counselling settings. More informal drumming circles are becoming increasingly popular within corporate team building and stress management workshops.
In Diggins’ view, our modern and secular world needs meaningful rituals and ceremonial practices to support major transitions and to challenge individuals.
For many seeking the benefits of therapy, an hour spent creating music, an hour spent in therapeutic drumming is an hour well spent.
-Jana Vigor, Contributing Writer