Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher is quoted as saying,
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
This idea is often repeated in therapeutic circles as a reminder of personal responsibility. When I say something along these lines, I’m usually thinking of Choice Theory, and one of the recurring group sessions I lead is on the concept of total behavior. This is the idea that, at any given time, we are experiencing emotions, physical sensations, thoughts and “doing” behaviors. These four categories make up our total behavior, and, while we can’t directly control emotions and physiology, we can make choices in how we think and what we do that will then lead to shifts in these other areas.
Recently, I was leading one of these group therapy sessions in my adolescent boys' group, and I noticed one student, who had recently gotten some difficult news, was despondent. He hung his head throughout the group and barely responded to direct questions. Attempts to engage him in humor were completely ineffective. We concluded the group with this guy still as upset as he was at the beginning.
Then, out came the drums.
I unpacked a couple of small cajons - wooden box drums - from their cases and announced to the group that it was time to play. A djembe, conga, and a hoop drum lay nearby as I open the case containing the steel tongue drum. As students started to select drums, the despondent student looked over and asked, “what is that?” Smiling, I answered him and played a few notes. (For those not familiar, a steel tongue drum has several notes that sound like chimes. They are tuned to a scale, and melodies can be played on the drum.) He perked up in interest and curiosity, so I handed to drum to him, and the group began to play.
The hoop drum resounded with a steady beat, and everyone followed along. Here a note, there a note, and, before long, our tongue drum player was creating both rhythm and melody with his own two hands. The expressions of others began to meld with and accentuate what this student was creating, and the beat shifted and flowed over the course of several minutes. As will happen when people drum together, we eventually reached a natural pause, and I saw a distinct difference in the student’s demeanor. Grinning, I asked, “so, um, how’s your mood?” He looked up smiling, and we discussed the fact that he had just enacted the content of the group session in which he’d been so withdrawn. By making a choice to engage in this regulatory activity, he shifted his emotional state. While talking about those concepts and ideas had no effect at all on this student’s mood, this action (doing behavior), turned the tide. In addition to reaching an understanding of the content of the group session, this student was then able to discuss his concerns and fears related to his family and his relationships with his parents. He was more able to receive treatment after drumming.
This interaction fits well with the ideas of Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and his Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Dr. Perry states that we must first be emotionally regulated in order to relate to and connect with others. Once we are regulated and relating, only then can we begin to reason our way through a problem. The scenario I’ve described provides an example of the importance of emotional regulation as a prerequisite for relating and processing information. Only after drumming was this student able to relate and process the information presented in the group session. He was then able to describe his emotional experience and engage in reasoning during a therapy session. It’s likely that drumming was a key piece that made the difference between the student feeling understood and capable versus feeling disconnected, overwhelmed, and acting out his difficult emotions.
Drumming is one of the most valuable regulatory activities available to my students.
The rhythmic, tactile bilateral stimulation involved in playing drums is known to aid in the processing of difficult emotions. The inherent creativity can also be therapeutic in its own right. Through initiating a rhythm in the presence of others, students confront their anxiety and fears of judgment. As their peers join in, a sense of acceptance and belonging grows from the shared experience.
Students listen to each other and adjust their actions to complement and support the efforts of others. When there is a pause in the rhythm, instruments are passed around and shared with appreciation, respect, and a sense of fairness. Drumming in a synchronized manner with others has been shown to activate the brain’s reward system and to increase prosocial behavior. After playing drums with others, a person is more likely to be cooperative and altruistic toward them, which helps support an emotionally safe environment. Over time, students develop a higher level of confidence, better ability to manage their emotions, and a greater sense of personal agency while also building strong social bonds.
In the woods, we often drum together prior to a more traditional group therapy session.
At other times, I may play drums with a student to assist that student in emotional regulation during an individual session. Students also elect to pick up drums just for fun when they find opportunities during the day. The interactions that take place during and around this activity are priceless in terms of therapeutic value.
“For us personally it’s a way for us to share our own thoughts about the world. It helps us show through music that all our problems are not needed, and that we can come together as people because we can come together to play music.” -Mamady Keita on the power of drumming