Drum Therapy: Excerpt from the Book The Shamanic Drum

Copyright © 2003 by Michael Drake


Drum therapy is a profound way to restore the vibrational integrity of body, mind, and spirit. Through the natural law of resonance, the sound waves produced by the drum impart their energy to the resonating systems of the body, mind, and spirit, making them vibrate in sympathy. When we drum, our living flesh, brainwaves, and spiritual energy centers begin to vibrate in response. The various frequencies of the drum interact with our own resonant frequencies, forming new harmonic alignments. According to percussionist Dru Kristel, this sympathetic resonance “leaves reverberating effects up 48 to 72 hours after a session.”

Science is now verifying the therapeutic effects of drumming. A recent medical research study indicates that drumming boosts the immune system dramatically after just one drumming session. Other studies have demonstrated the calming, focusing, and healing effects of drumming on Alzheimer's patients, autistic children, emotionally disturbed teens, substance abusers, trauma patients, and prison and homeless populations. Study results demonstrate that drumming is a valuable treatment for stress, fatigue, anxiety, hypertension, headaches, asthma, chronic pain, arthritis, and sleep and emotional disorders.

A single-headed frame or hoop drum works best for drum therapy. The larger the drum, the greater the resonance. You will need a partner to act as your “patient.” The basic steps are as follows:

1. Begin by selecting a suitable location, smudging, and relaxing.

2. Frame a simple and clear statement of your intent. Since healing is the objective of this exercise, you might phrase your intention something like, “I pray for the help and healing that ______ needs at this time.” (Fill in the blank with the name of your patient).

3. Next, have your partner lie down on his or her back on a blanket spread on the floor of a quiet, darkened room. During the drumming, the patient’s only tasks are to remain still with eyes closed and to stay aware of what they are experiencing.

4. Kneel down next to the patient and hold the drum so that the lacing or open end opposite the drumhead faces the patient. Most of the sound energy from a single-headed drum flows out through the opening opposite the head of the drum. By holding the drum over the patient in this manner, a resonating energy current will flow readily into the patient when you strike the head of the drum.

5. Starting at the feet of the patient, begin drumming at a tempo of about 180 beats per minute or three to four beats per second. A steady, metronome-like pattern with precisely regular intervals is the most effective. Find the drum’s sweet spot and make it sing and hum. Work the drum to build up the hum of the overtones. These are the best frequencies for healing.

6. As you drum, repeat the word or phrase that represents your intention over and over like a mantra. So as not to disturb the patient and to better hear the sound of the drum, silently repeat your intention to yourself. The drum will generate, access, and direct healing energy based solely on your intent.

7. Crawling along beside the patient, gradually move the drum from the feet to the top of the head. Keep the drumhead parallel to the patient and twelve to twenty-four inches above the body.

8. Listen very carefully to the sound and resonance of the drum as you move it back and forth over the body. It is not unusual for the drum to go flat or lose its resonance over a portion of the body that is in need of healing. When this happens, continue to drum that area until the drum begins to sing again. Let the drum do the healing.

9. Upon reaching the top of the head, begin drumming a heartbeat rhythm at around 180 beats (90 heartbeats) per minute.

10. As you drum, clear your mind of everything. Focused intent, to be effective, should be followed by complete surrender and detachment.

11. Focus your attention on the beat of the drum and repeat steps 7 and 8, except that you will now make your way gradually back down to the feet.

12. Upon returning to the feet, make certain that you drum this area for at least a minute or more to firmly ground the patient back into his or her body.

13. End the exercise with four strong beats.

Exercise Summary

The basic steps in the preceding exercise are:

1. Select a suitable location, smudge, and relax.
2. Formulate your intention.
3. Have the patient lie down with their eyes closed.
4. Kneel down and hold the drum so that the open end opposite the drumhead faces the patient.
5. Begin drumming at the feet and make the drum sing.
6. Silently repeat your intention like a mantra.
7. Move from the feet to the top of the head, keeping the drumhead parallel to the body.
8. Keep the drum singing.
9. Upon reaching the crown, drum the heartbeat.
10. Clear your mind of everything.
11. Make your way back down to the feet.
12. Drum at the feet a minute or more.
13. End with four strong beats.

This exercise can also be performed with up to four drummers. One drummer should kneel down and drum the crown of the patient’s head, while a second kneels to drum the soles of the patient’s feet. These two drummers remain stationary during the exercise, generating between them a powerful healing current that flows through the patient. Two additional drummers should kneel down on either side of the patient and move their drums up and down the length of the body as outlined in the previous exercise. All of the drummers should drum in sync. It is not necessary for the drummers on either side of the patient to move in sync since each drummer may find that a different portion of the patient’s body requires more attention.

Be careful that you don’t overload the patient’s nervous system because four drummers will generate an incredible amount of energy. Should a patient feel over stimulated, you should drum a soft and steady heartbeat rhythm at a tempo of about 60 beats (30 heartbeats) a minute in the area around the feet to calm and ground them. Physically touching or sitting on the Earth will also have a calming and grounding effect.

Another variation, a standing version, should also be explored. Have the patient stand with his or her feet parallel and about six inches apart. Their knees should be slightly bent, removing any strain on the lower back that would occur if the knees were locked. The arms should rest easily at both sides of the body. You should stand about two feet away, facing the patient, and perform the basic steps of the exercise as outlined above. You will have to kneel or squat down to effectively drum the patient’s feet, and then gradually stand as you bring the drum up the body. It is not unusual for the patient to rock or sway while being drummed.

A variant of the standing version can be undertaken with up to four drummers. Have the drummers stand at the four cardinal points with the patient standing in the center, facing whichever direction he or she feels most appropriate. If the patient is uncertain about which direction to face, I recommend facing the West, the home of Spirit Bear, the Great Healer. The four drummers should drum in sync as they move up and down the body. It is not necessary to move in sync, since each drummer may find that a different portion of the patient’s body requires more attention. Again, be careful that you don’t overwhelm the patient with an energy overload. Four drums will generate a powerful vortex of energy and move it up the body from the feet to the top of the head. This ascending surge of energy tends to give the patient the sensation of leaving the body through the top of the head. It is very powerful and ecstatic—a peak experience. When the drummers reverse direction, they bring the energy back down into the physical body and help ground the patient.

Finally, there is a very powerful group variant of the standing version. The group version works well with eight or more participants. I have facilitated this exercise with groups of up to forty people. First, divide everyone into two equal groups—one group of drummers and one group to be drummed. All participants in the group to be drummed should stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle, facing outward. The drummers should then form a circle around this inner circle and perform the exercise as outlined above. Upon completion of the exercise, the participants in the inner circle should exchange places with those in the outer circle, then repeat the exercise.

Allow your intuition to guide you when performing drum therapy. Experiment with different postures, tempos, and rhythms. There is no single right way to do it. Each person must ultimately go within to find his or her own way.

Michael Drake is a writer, rhythmist, and ceremonial drummer of Cherokee descent. He is a member of the United Lumbee Nation and author of The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming and I Ching: The Tao of Drumming. He has studied with master drummers from the Native American and Mongolian shamanic traditions. Michael lectures and facilitates workshops around the country. To learn more, visit Michael’s web site at: http://www.geocities.com/talkingdrumpub/index.html

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Do not reprint this article without express permission from the author.