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What is a Drum Circle?

What is a drum circle?

A drum circle is an informal gathering where people play drums and percussion instruments together in a casual social environment. Many drum circles are held in public parks and welcome any participants who may want to join in. The drum circle is a place for people of all musical skill levels and backgrounds to come together in an improvised jam. Drummers typically improvise together as a group, letting the beat evolve and morph as the session goes on. Every drum circle session will be unique depending on the people attending and the circumstances of that moment. That's the beauty of the drum circle- It’s a musical celebration of the present moment. 

Here's a photo of my monthly drum circle at Fern Dell park near Griffith Park in Los Angeles. 

How do I jam?

The first step to jamming is relaxing and letting go of any expectations. We don't know what type of rhythm will take shape, so we should stay open to anything. Bringing in preconceived expectations can prevent  from connecting with others and creating something together. 

The second step to enjoying a drum circle jam is listening to what other people are playing. Just open your ears and give yourself time to let the sound in. Look around the circle and listen to different people. If you notice someone playing with strong and steady rhythm, let their rhythm come into your body, and let it move you. If you listen and stay open, an idea to play will come to you. I promise. 

What do I play?

It's difficult to know exactly what to play, but are a few simple strategies you can use. 

Play the pulse

Listen to the overall sound of the group. Listen for a steady pause that underlies everything. It’s a simple, steady beat, that doesn’t change much. Try tapping along on your drum or percussion instrument. One trick for finding the pulse is to think about how you would dance or walk along with the music. Let your head bob and your toe tap as you think about walking along to the music. Better yet, get up and dance for a moment and let the beat move you. Once you feel the beat, express that steady rhythm on an instrument. Make it your own. 

Copy someone

Look for someone who's playing a pattern that you understand. It should be very predictable for you, and not take you by surprise. It's good to start with something that seems really simple. Join in on that pattern with them, and do your best to match up with their rhythm. It helps a lot to watch their hands and focus on the moment when each hand strikes the drum. You want to do your best to line up each and every hit. Keep your volume in mind as well. Ideally you should be playing at the same volume or quieter than the person you are copying. 

Call and Response

Call and response phrasing is one of the foundations of music. One famous example of Coll and response phrasing is the Christmas song “Baby It's Cold Outside”, by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan. The two singers sing back-and-forth in a conversational style with snappy rhythms. To use this technique in the drum circle, listen for someone who's playing a predictable repeating rhythm, and notice any long notes or rests in that pattern. Fill up those rests and spaces with your own predictable pattern. The effect creates and back and forth conversation between the two rhythms, a call and a response. 

Fill In the Spectrum

Sometimes a jam just feels like it's missing something. Maybe everyone is jamming on cowbells but there is no low bass drum keeping a steady pulse. Maybe there's only low drums thudding away, and no higher metallic, wood or shaker sounds present. Think about the range of sounds from low bass drums at the bottom, to hand drums and wooden instruments in the middle range, and to cowbells, shakers and other metal instruments on top. Drum circles have space for all of those types of sound. What’s missing? Fill in the spectrum!

You can also think of the spectrum in terms of rhythm speed. The jam sounds better with a mix of great big long notes, steady moderate speed notes, and faster notes as well. If everyone is playing quick notes or moderate notes, try playing big epic hits with lots of space in between them.  Try to create a pattern within that space, within that rhythmic niche. It’s like filling a role in a cast of actors. Fill in the gaps that the other people are leaving, and try to compliment others as much as possible. 

Have Fun!

The most important thing with a drum circle is to have fun and connect with the other people there. It's meant to be a social event that brings people together and allows them to connect through music. Let the session unfold naturally and be open to changes. Try to be willing to let go of your first idea. Often times, the best idea comes second or third. Don't be afraid to talk during the jam. Tell people when you like what they are playing- “nice!” Or simply look over and smile. If the beat changes or develops in an interesting way, it's OK to say some thing like “oh yeah now we’re really heating up!”, or to just whoop and holler. It will give people the confidence to keep going. 

SoCal Drum Party

We organize and lead drum circles for all types of events around Southern California including Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire. We take the social and collaborative drum circle style and mix in a bunch of fun warm ups, games, jams and goofs that help the group get into the spirit of the drum circle. We work with all ages from toddlers to seniors and those with special needs as well. Great opportunities for a drum circle include kids birthday parties, adult birthday parties, teambuilding events, company picnics, daycares and afterschool programs, summer camps, scout meetings, Church groups, fairs and festivals, cultural events, school assemblies, holiday parties, New Year's Eve parties, Halloween parties, or any other gathering where you want to Bring people together. 

If you're interested in bringing a drum circle to your event, check out our website

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