We Got the Beat: Part 1

February 7, 2012

In my travels, I have used quite a few percussion based exercises.  Some, I have learned from others and kept the same or adapted for different groups or populations, some I have come up with on my own, and some are probably a mixture of both (see this post).  Either way, I love drumming groups.

When I was in school, I was lucky enough to have a plethora of different music electives to chose from, and most of the ones I chose had to do with rhythm.  Over the course of my education, I took a Percussion in Music Therapy class, an Afro-Cuban percussion class, and a Brazilian percussion class (which was my favorite).  In my internship, we used drumming every week in at least one way, and since then, I have taken percussion courses at conferences and used percussion in many ways in my work.  There’s something so primal about drumming, and it allows me to focus completely on the musical task, without worrying about pitch or chords.  This post is the first in a series about drumming interventions I use in music therapy groups and how they can be adapted for different populations.

Let me first start by introducing my percussion group instruments (which is coincidentally how I begin almost every session of that type).

Buffalo Drums (2) – I have a 12″ and a 14″ – the larger makes the most deep and resonant sound).  I explain to the clients that there are ropes in back which you hold with your “weak” hand, and beat the drum using a soft mallet (pictured) with the other. I have two of these drums with patterns which I would have thought would be distracting, but in fact the pattern gives the clients something to focus on when they’re beating it.

Paddle Drums (2) – I have a 12″ and a 10.”  These drums are good for those who are cognitively compromised.  I scratch off the lettering because it tends to distract some clients.

Frame drums (2) – I have a 12″ and a 10.”  These drums are good for people who might not be able to grasp a drum with one hand.  Depending on the size, the drums can sit easily on someone’s lap, but still make a decent sound.  They can also be played with one’s hand, instead of a mallet.

Sound Shapes (3) – I have the set pictured, which includes a 14″, a 13″ and a 12.”  The reason I purchased these drums is that I have many clients who believe that frame drums, finger drums and buffalo drums are bowls.  They use the mallets to stir whatever’s in the bowl, and I thought that having completely flat drums would help.  They do, except that there is a little drumming man in the center of one side of the drums which can also be confusing.  I try to use the little man to my advantage, because it can give the clients something to focus on.  If someone has a good sense of humor, I tell that client to “hit the little man.” and there’s usually a fresh remark that comes after that.  If someone isn’t able to grasp the drum, I just put it face down on their lap so the little man doesn’t show.

Finger Drums (2) – I have a two very short ones, but they are different heights, and I chose the “sunburst” pattern because it was less distracting to me.  These drums are good for people with poor gross motor skills, but not necessarily for people with advanced dementia (bowl/stirring issues).

Marimbas (3) – I have three wooden marimbas, all of them are tuned to the same major pentatonic scale, which makes it very easy for  non-musicians to make beautiful music, even simultaneously.  The melodic nature of the marimba adds something pleasant to the other sounds.

Tongue Drum (Slit drum) – Mine has four tongues. I only have one of these, and it adds a different sound to the mix.  It pairs well with the marimba for dyads or sculpting exercises.

Djembes (3) – I have three djembes – two Remo djembes (a 10″ and a 12″) and one authentic one (14″) from Ghana.  There’s not a lot to be said about the djembe, but I use an adaptation for wheelchair bound clients where I place the drum on the floor and have them play it with a long mallet.

Auxiliary Percussion – (Egg shakers, maracas, caxixis, cabasas, claves, guiros, etc.)  I don’t use bells or tambourines in drumming groups because the sounds can be very overwhelming, especially when someone  with a lack of awareness plays continuously.  I do not use the big yellow or black Tiger maracas because they are very loud, but instead, the small plastic ones, or the black Rhythm Tech ones (mine recently went missing – booo).

 I only use claves if someone who is frail is playing them, because the sound can be very piercing if the wrong person plays them.  I don’t necessarily mind about piercing or abrasive sounds, but with all of the different sensitivities and neurological disorders in my groups, other clients get very agitated about those kinds of sounds.

AND, last but not least…

Mallets– I use different kinds of mallets for each drum, and I give specific mallets to clients depending on their strength, abilities, and my knowledge of their behaviors.  Mallets are incredibly important in creating pleasant and effective sounds during sessions and are extremely underrated.

Hard Rubber Mallets

Hard Rubber mallets– I only use these for my wooden instruments, and occasionally with drums, but only if the person playing has very little strength.

Yarn Mallets

Yarn Mallets – I use these most for paddle drums and sound shapes, but sometimes for buffalo drums, or djembes set on the floor as an adaptation for those with little arm strength.

Rubber Ball mallet

Rubber Ball Mallets – I use these for frame drums, buffalo drums and sound shapes.  These mallets can be a bit loud when used with a buffalo drum, but for elders, they are ideal.

Soft Felt Mallet

Soft Felt Mallets –  I use these for buffalo drums, but mostly in the psych unit, where people generally have more strength.  They make very little sound when used lightly.  I try to avoid using hard plastic mallets or wooden ones, because the sound they make is less rich and inviting, and more pingy and harsh.


Thanks for bearing with me for my instrument introduction.  Thank goodness it doesn’t take as long to demonstrate these things in a group as it did to write that post!


3 Responses to “We Got the Beat: Part 1”

  1. Anonymous said

    I love, love, LOVE this drumming series!!! So relevant as I’m making my own list of supplies with which to start my contract business! I’ve just settled into my new home in the country (and coincidentally middle of nowhere), and I’m working on securing the non-music therapy job that will fund my drum collection! Everyone keeps saying “just get music therapy work” and I just sigh and say, “I gotta get drums!” Non-MTs just don’t understand.

    It’s also very nice to have your blog to read to remind me about the work I’m preparing to do, as I prepare to approach facilities and offer services I haven’t practiced in a few months, and as I prepare for the CBMT exam. Thank you, this blog is such a good read and a great resource.


    • Thanks Alysha,

      I’m writing this blog for my own therapeutic reasons, but I’m also looking to share my experiences and knowledge with anyone who’s interested, so I’m glad you’re benefiting!

      Keep in touch!

  2. What a lovely introduction to all your instruments! Great points about how to select drums and mallets for particular participants.

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