Learn how to create your own drumming ceremony

written by David Cauldwell

Playing the djembe drum neat

Credit: Getty Images

Drums have been used for centuries across many cultures to cultivate wellbeing. Their beats are ancient; remnants of wooden cylinder and small pottery drums dating back to 700 CE have been found in Mesoamerica. Virtually every culture has utilised the drum in some form, whether in religious rituals, sporting events or feasts, to forge courage before battles, to communicate over distance or for rhythmic rowing across the ocean, to spur exploration into lands unknown.

Following a drum’s resonance can be a journey into the unseen territory of the subconscious. A pounding drum recalls a primal pulse, the natural syncopation of the Earth’s heartbeat.

The drum-making process is both healing and confrontational. Mine brought up an unprocessed childhood memory. I was taken back to primary school and a craft activity where I accidentally stapled my thumb. Rather than tell the teacher, I hid my bleeding digit and sat with the pain for the entire lesson. It was only when the teacher noticed my thumb had turned purple that action was taken and the staple removed.

My drum came to represent speaking up and having no fear of being heard, of expression without self-judgment.

Playing my drum has opened me up to parts of myself I never knew I could express. It’s like hearing and feeling the essence of my root chakra. The reverberations connect me to Earth and clear stagnant energy.

I’ve used my drum to hone into pent-up areas of my body and release tension; also to link into the deeper aspects of my self-expression, aspects hidden beneath layers of coyness or worry about how I might look or sound.

Rhythmic healing

Melissa Herman runs drum-making workshops with a difference. From her faerie forest home in The Channon in NSW’s Byron hinterland she works primarily with women. She sees the process as being strongly connected with our own births. “Making a drum is about getting to know yourself and finding your true expression in the world,” she says.

Before the workshop, Herman asks participants to source their birth story. Was it a quick or arduous birth? Was the mother drugged? Were forceps used?

“My birth was very fast,” says Herman, “so fast I was taken away because I wasn’t responsive. I was all floppy.  When I made my first drum, I couldn’t read the instructions; nothing was going in. I had to be talked through it. The process highlighted a pattern that when I enter new situations my brain switches off. I believe making a drum can tune you into your birth imprints and how these affect interactions with people and the world.”

"Making a drum is about getting to know yourself and finding your true expression in the world."

If somebody’s mother has passed, Herman asks participants to “source their inner knowing”. And, indeed, this is exactly what the drum invites you to do.

“If a woman has children, then they often explore their child’s birth. How they’ve birthed is intimately linked to how they themselves were born. I ask women that haven’t birthed to be aware of how they approach their creative projects, to look for the patterns within their relationship to creativity.”

Sometimes participants go back to the time of their birth during the workshop. “This can present a spectrum of emotions,” says Herman. “I’ll go and sit with anybody who is having a traumatic remembering. All I can do is listen and hold space and maybe ask a question here or there to prompt them to look at something they’re not seeing.

“Some people make their drum flowingly. Others can take up to 14 hours because they’ve had to get up and walk away. This could be the result of a drugged birth where they enter a mindset where they can’t think or they get lost. They regress into that drugged space.”

It seems that our birth imprints can stifle creativity and our ability to express.

In Native Indian tradition, the (circular) drum is symbolic of the universe. Herman sees the drum as a symbol of the vagina and cervix. The pattern she creates on the back of the drum is circular, like the opening of the cervix.

“When we birth, the cervix is gently opened,” she says. “For men, this cervical symbology is how they birth projects, interact with people, and how they go about life in general.”

Making the drum

Herman’s rituals start off with participants passing around a talking basket. “It’s like a vagina, a yoni — it receives and holds. After we’ve shared our intentions, I lead a drum journey. Participants lie down and go into the womb. They meet the deer that has sacrificed its life to make the drum.”

They then hammer-punch holes into the hide for the thread holes and cut out the cervix (the drum face) and a long piece of (umbilical) cord for threading. The hide is soaked in a bathtub overnight, preferably beneath the stars or moon.

“When you are born, you come out of a sac of water and into air,” says Herman. “Lifting your drum skin out of the bathtub is like repeating that process.”

Herman doesn’t like banter during her workshops. “Talking can be distractive and what you’re saying all goes into the drum. For me, the drum is about presence. I’ve rarely spoken each time I’ve made one. Instilling silence can bring up some people’s patterns of distractive talk.”

My drum took eight-and-a-half hours to make and during its creation I noticed my tendency towards procrastination. I found it hard to sit still, to focus for such a period of time on one thing. It highlighted my limited attention span and challenged me to break this pattern. And, as I neared completion, I sang my drum into existence. The melody attuned my drum so that whenever I played it, I’d come back into focus and clarity if I were circling in procrastination.

Know thy drum

Etched into the Temple of Apollo, an ancient edifice built in honour of the Greek god, is the most important sentence in any language: “Know thyself.” Know thy drum is up there, too, not as a literal interpretation but symbolically for the pathways it can open up and for the languages and mysterious noises playing it evokes. Drumming can summon the sounds of the soul.

“The next journey after it’s made is to acquaint yourself with the different voices of your drum,” says Herman. “It’s a potent tool to access the inner world and glean insight to bring back into the external.

“I’ve read that when you play the drum you go from one hemisphere of the brain to the other. You switch from alpha to beta brainwaves and this enhances the immune system as well as reducing anxiety.”

I really got to know my drum last year when I was going through a divorce. I removed myself from everybody and everything and went to live in a tipi with horses for housemates. Every night for about six months I played my drum in the tipi; it got me through a tough time.

Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry notes that drumming at specific tempos has a positive impact on those who struggle to regulate their emotions.

Because I made the drum, playing different parts of it was like playing different parts of myself. Each part of my drum carried a distinct vibration due to the thickness of the skin. Sound vibrations resonate throughout every cell in the body. These varying vibrations linked to areas where I’d stored tension in relation to relationships. As I played, I saw how I suppressed my expression within relationships, and in life as a whole.

I was drawn to play particular parts of the drum each evening. Songs came out that I’d never heard before, along with strange noises. Most of it was gibberish but they were sounds that needed to be expressed, sounds that attributed to feelings for which I didn’t have language.

Alone on those tipi nights, after drumming I sat in awe of what had just come out. I felt much lighter than when I’d begun. I felt more connected within myself, more confident to stride back into the world I’d ostracised myself from, more able to express how I was feeling to others. I had a greater understanding of what happens to unexpressed emotions and how they languish as tension within the body. My tipi time instilled me with confidence to speak up across all facets of life.

Group drumming

Drumming alone is powerful, but drumming in groups can induce trance-like states and, when combined with reflective discussion, can enable transparent, safe and held space to share emotional issues. We’ve all been dealt the same emotional cards; the games we play with them just look different.

Counsellor and psychologist Simon Faulkner has been using rhythmic interventions for the past 15 years in schools, prisons and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres. He’s developed Rhythm2Recovery, which is a model of therapeutic practice that works intimately with drumming.

“Drumming has traditionally been used as a conduit for community connection through celebration and ritual,” writes Faulkner. “Collective drumming, when suitably structured, can offer a relatively safe form of connection to others and put people at ease in therapy situations that might otherwise be confronting.”

Faulkner has observed that people — especially adolescents — find it much easier to articulate feelings by banging drums rather than by expressing them verbally. This is indicative of society’s failings to nurture vulnerable expression without ridicule — particularly in a school environment. Adolescent angst is much better expressed by banging a drum than through violence.

Playing my drum has opened me up to parts of myself I never knew I could express. It's like hearing and feeling the essence of my root chakra. The reverberations connect me to Earth and clear stagnant energy.

In his book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, child psychiatrist Bruce Perry notes that drumming at specific tempos has a positive impact on those who struggle to regulate their emotions. Faulkner also notes that specific cross-hand drumming exercises improve gross motor co-ordination, which could significantly aid children with sensory perception difficulties.

And this is the point: to cultivate a positive emotional environment for individuals — and hence the collective — from an early onset. Freedom of expression flows best when emotional regulation has outlets. Creativity then thrives and society benefits. Any school with drumming on its curriculum would be helping to raise emotionally stable beings brimming with rhythmic expression.

American-based PTSD clinician Bessel van der Kolk notes that many people who enter therapy are highly active in their primal brain areas, the very areas that drumming can help stabilise.

Faulkner’s Rhythm2Recovery program incorporates games within the drumming sphere and uses analogy and metaphor to deal with issues that arise. With the energy not focused on any particular individual, confronting questioning is avoided and the invitation for self-reflection can be accepted or declined. There’s no pressure, and this is what truly unencumbered self-expression is really about: merging into the slipstream of spontaneous creative energy (even within a regulated beat) that is synchronistic, nonjudgmental and connective to one’s inner essence.

A rhythmic inheritance

Herman’s vision is to hold spaces that allow people to delve into their uniqueness and to instil the confidence to share and offer this into the community. “I want to hold drum evenings where we can all share our unique rhythms,” she says.

Down the track, Herman is keen to facilitate parent-child drum-making sessions. She’s also keen to take her drum-making workshops into schools, although she wouldn’t incorporate the birth story for children as it’s not appropriate for their age.

“Drum making has enhanced the way I raise my kids,” says Herman. “None of my rites of passage were held sacred: birth, menstruation, leaving school. I want this to be different for my children. I want to honour these important times.

“Every time I pick up the drum it’s about holding things with more integrity and sacredness. It’s opened up my trust and connection to spirit and myself. It’s given me the confidence to rise up and be seen in the world. It’s opened me to places I knew needed opening, but couldn’t get to any other way. It’s a part of my everyday life now and I want to share it with my children.”

Creating your own ceremony

The following ceremony is about tuning into the flow of life, letting what is be and entering the heart space. Primarily, it’s not about being rhythmical; it’s about tuning into your unique rhythm, the beat that carries you through life, and then bringing that into everyday awareness.

Taking time to do this every day, even if it’s just for five minutes, is like an energetic flush. Simply being near the vibration of a drum creates ripples throughout the body — we’re over 70 per cent water — and these concentric circles can reach into the inner sanctums of our wisdom and pain. More rhythm in life means more flow and more acceptance of our crazy collective dance. Moving through life to our own beat deepens our connection with everyone and everything around us.


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David Cauldwell