By CYNTHIA G. ROBERTSON
It used to be that every second Thursday of the month, people thronged to the fire station on Dallas Street at 6:30 p.m. and within 10 minutes the sound of beating drums boomed from within. For the sheer joy of making music within community, the Community Drum Circle led by Susan Hall, proprietor of RhythmWorx, gave people a fun reason to get together.
COVID-19 put an immediate stop to the beat in March, 2020. The community room in the fire station has been silent ever since. Hall would send periodic texts to people who had been in the drum circle, encouraging them to stay positive and active. “Someday we will return to gather and make music,” she always wrote in her texts.
And then on June 9, 2021, Hall sent out a text to members that they would be able to meet to beat drums and make music to their heart’s content the next Thursday in La Mesita Park.
The City of La Mesa is no longer providing an indoor space for the drum circle, Hall explained. But it will allow her to use the park space for up to 24 participants, including herself and her husband, who always helps with bringing out the bins and bins of drums, bells, boom whackers and other exotic noisy toys.
For months, Hall had monitored CDC, California and local COVID-19 protocols and guidelines. She frequently checked in with the City of La Mesa, confirming their specific policies regarding gatherings such as the drum circle.
“Out of an abundance of caution, it was important to wait until protocols and guidelines evolved to something that is logistically doable, while minimizing health risks.
“From an emotional, family-oriented place, it was important to wait, in order for our family to grieve and take care of our personal health and wellbeing, following the passing of two of our family members who died of COVID-19, nine days apart, earlier this year,” Hall said.
But now is the time for the drum circle to re-gather because many of the community members are now fully vaccinated and outdoor venues are open to multiple households gathering publicly.
On July 15, as the drum circle participants brought out their chairs to the park, an air of excitement was all around. Several people had brought their own drums and other instruments.
“Drum circles are not performances; rather, they are opportunities for community recreation and personal rejuvenation,” Hall said. “Participants are never expected to drum with rhythmic precision or perform composed rhythmic patterns. Instead, everyone contributes his or her sound to the circle and the music, creating a whole that is greater than its parts.”
Hall explained the way to make music on a drum, interconnecting with others playing. “All music is sound interspaced with silence. So listen for when I change the pattern and the beat, and you respond accordingly. This is what music is all about,” she said.
As Hall began tapping out a rhythm on her drum, the others joined in. They happily banged on drums and shook bells and tambourines. The heart-pounding boom caused everyone in the park to stop, look and listen as the musicians took cues from Hall, who alternately slowed and sped up the tempo. About 45 minutes into the hour-and-a-half pit, Hall said it was time to use boom whackers. She went to the pail in the center of the shared space and pulled up one orange and one green plastic tube.
“When you bang on them one on top of the other, they make their own kind of music,” Hall said, the tubes making a fun hollow popping sound.
“You can use them on drums and tambourines and one each other’s boom whackers, but just don’t use them on anyone’s heads or body,” she said.
At her direction, the percussionists joined in and the odd music made everyone else at the park look up to see what was happening. By the time Hall made a motion with her hand to slow then stop the commotion, everyone was laughing.
But is being in a drum circle really about creating music? Some might say it is just a lot of noise, but not according to Hall.
Long-time percussionist Dave E., who plays along in the RhythmWorx Drum Circle, is also adamant that drumming is music. “Subtract the drummers and their instruments from any orchestra, band or combo, large or small. Sounds a bit empty, doesn’t it?” he said.
An additional boon to drumming is that as someone listens to or makes music of any kind, their emotional, mental and most likely physical health improves. That is certainly true for drumming, which has been shown to have a positive impact on a person’s immune system.
One of the most outstanding features of a group such as the La Mesa Drum Circle is the alleviation of depression and anxiety while elevating social resilience. A study by the Royal College of Music in London discovered that a 10-week program of group drumming reduces depression by as much as 38% and anxiety by 20%.
Plain and simple, having fun with others playing drums and other instruments puts smiles on faces and reduces cortisol in the blood. After these overwhelmingly stress-filled months, that is the perfect medicine. Drum circle participant Angela Large can personally attest to this. Her doctor recommended the drum circle to her for healing after having ovarian cancer.
“It has been very cathartic,” Large said. “My kids came when they were little, and I’ve been participating for over nine years. I enjoy Susan and the camaraderie of making music with others.”
The interaction of people with the drums and other musical instruments they play becomes a sort of conversation. Such creative conversation is a panacea for our seemingly endless months of isolation.
Hall invites anyone to participate in the Community Drum Circle. All ages are welcome, but she requests that for children under eight years, parents should contact her prior to the event. No prior experience is necessary.
The next drum circle gathering will take place on the second Wednesday of August at La Mesita Park. To stay up-to-date with the Community Drum Circle, become a member of the meetup group at the link www.meetup.com/RW-DrumEvents.
— A journalist and photographer for more than 30 years, Cynthia G. Robertson is the author of “Where You See Forever,” a novel set in San Diego about finding a home for the heart. She also authors a blog at Shutterbug Angel, a unique devotional attesting to the everyday miracles and beauty she sees in nature around her. She is currently working on other books. See more of Cynthia’s work and order her book at www.cynthiarobertson.com.