Rhythm Is A Tool for Healing - My visit to the US Senate.
July 30, 2016
“Everywhere we see rhythm, patterns moving through time. It is there in the cycles of the seasons, in the migration of birds and animals, in the fruiting and withering of plants, and in the birth, maturation, and death of ourselves. Rhythm is at the very center of our lives. By acknowledging this fact and acting on it, our potential for preventing illness and maintaining mental, physical, and spiritual well-being is far greater.”
The United States Senate Special Committee on Aging was initially established in 1961 as a temporary committee; it became a permanent Senate committee in 1977. In 1991 they asked me to appear with Oliver Sacks (renowned psychiatrist, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) to testify on the power of rhythm and healing, so there would be funding for research for this subject. What does rhythm do to the brain and how does it work? How is used to help in Alzheimer’s and dementia, and all of these diseases? Rhythm is a tool for healing, and so that started the rhythm based therapy back then.
We've found a lot since 1991. We know that rhythm is a powerful tool in uplifting the spirit. I suggested that forming therapeutic drumming activities for the elderly should be an integral part of any music therapy program. “The object is not public performance,” I said. “Because, when we speak of this type of drumming, we are speaking of a deeper realm in which there is no better or worse, no modern or primitive, no distinctions at all, but rather an almost organic compulsion to translate the emotional fact of being alive into sound, into rhythm, into something you can dance to.”
See my full testimony below and here is a link to the original PDF.
RHYTHM AS A TOOL FOR HEALING AND HEALTH IN THE AGING PROCESS
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you on an issue of great importance to me. This is the issue of how drumming, the rhythmic manipulation of sound, can be used for healing and health. I also would like to express my support for the concept of preventive, rather than crisis medicine,and specifically the role of music therapy as a means of maintaining mental, spiritual and physical health in people of all ages.
I am a professional percussionist. For over 40 years I have lived and played with rhythm; as an entertainer, as an author, and, always, as a student. Over the last ten years, I have spent much of my time exploring rhythm and it's affect on the human body. Why is it so powerful and attractive? I have written on this subject in my books Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum which try to address these questions. And yet I know that I have barely scratched the surface, particularly regarding the healing properties of rhythm and music.
Everything that exists in time has a rhythm and a pattern. Our bodies are multi-dimensional rhythm machines with everything pulsing in synchrony, from the digesting activity of our intestines to the firing of neurons in the brain. Within the body the main beat is laid down by the cardiovascular system, the heart and the lungs. The heart beats between sixty and eighty times per minute and the lungs fill and empty at about a quarter of that speed, all of which occurs at an unconscious level. As we age, however, these rhythms can fall out of
synch. And then, suddenly, there is no more important or crucial issue than regaining that lost rhythm.
What is true for our own bodies is true almost everywhere we look. We are embedded within a rhythmical universe. Everywhere we see rhythm, patterns moving through time. It is there in the cycles of the seasons, in the migration of the birds and animals, in the fruiting and withering of plants, and in the birth, maturation and death of ourselves. Rhythm is at the very center of our lives. By acknowledging this fact and acting on it, our potential for preventing illness and maintaining mental, physical and spiritual well-being is far greater.
As a species, we love to play with rhythm. We deal with it every second of our lives, right to the end. When the rhythms stop, so do we. And this is where music becomes important. According to the late ethnomusicologist John Blacking, music is a mirror that reflects a culture's deepest social and biological rhythms. It is an externalization of the pulses that remain hidden beneath the busy-ness of daily life. Blacking believed that a large part of music's power and pleasure comes from it's ability to reconnect us with the deeper rhythms that we are not conscious of. And it is the connection with these rhythms that gives music the power to heal.
Music as humanly organized sound or vibration has played a pivotal role in the development of our species, beginning with toolmaking. The tool record- all those delicately chipped arrowheads and choppers- is a dramatic illustration of our battle to master the subtle body rhythms that any advanced civilization requires to survive. In order to create the tools that allowed us to move forward as a species, we learned to scrape, strike, rub, shake and swing in rhythm. From there, we gathered in groups to sing our songs, to tell our stories, to dance our dances, all in rhythm. We found that by gathering together in this way, it reinforced our sense of community and family. The natural extension was the use of rhythm, and specifically percussion instruments, in healing ceremonies by traditional medical practitioners.
As modern technology takes us further and further from our natural rhythms, the use of percussion for healing has greater potential than ever. Today, without thoroughly understanding it, thousands of people across the country have turned to drumming as a form of practice like prayer, meditation or the martial arts. It is a practice that is widely acknowledged to help focus attention and to help people break free of the boredom and stress of daily life. More importantly, drumming is a way of approaching and playing with the deeper mysteries of rhythm.
Typically, people gather to drum in drum "circles" with others from the surrounding community. The drum circle offers equality because there is no head or tail. It includes people of all ages. The main objective is to share rhythm and get in tune with each other and themselves. To form a group consciousness. To entrain and resonate. By entrainment, I mean that a new voice, a collective voice, emerges from the group as they drum together.
The drummers each bring their own instruments and drum together for about a half hour. Afterward there is a discussion of issues of importance to the group. The drumming helps to facilitate this discussion because as they drum the group forms a common bond. From groups of women drummers, to twelve step groups like alchoholics anonymous to gatherings of men who are part of the ever-growing men's movement, drumming is used to open up channels of communication and foster community and family. While some drum groups form around a particular issue, others have no agenda whatsoever, except to allow the members an opportunity to come together, play their instruments and share rhythm.
Older Americans are largely unfamiliar with this movement and yet these are the people who could benefit the most. The formation of drum circles among the elderly should be an integral part of any music therapy program. There is a large and enthusiastic group of drummers who could be called upon to lead workshops and make instructional videos to be distributed among the older population now isolated in nursing homes and retirement communities. It would be emphasized that the object is not public performance. Because, when we speak of this type of drumming, we are speaking of a deeper realm in which there is no better or worse, no modern or primitive, no distinctions at all, but rather an almost organic compulsion to translate the emotional fact of being alive into sound, into rhythm, into something you can dance to. Through drum circles, the aging population could tap into this realm, into these rhythms. The benefits would be wide-ranging.
First, there would be an immediate reduction in feelings of lonliness and alienation through interaction with each other and heightened contact with the outside world. While today many older people spend hours each day sitting in front of the television, drumming is an activity which would allow them direct exposure to younger people from the outside community. Whereas verbal communication can often be difficult among the generations, and in the sickly, in the drum circle non-verbal communication is the means of relating. Natural by-products of this are increased self-esteem and the resulting sense of empowerment, creativity and enhanced ability to focus the mind. Not to mention just plain fun. This leads to a reduction in stress, while involving the body in a non-jarring, safe form of exercise that invigorates, energizes and centers.
There is no question of the substantial benefits which could be derived from increased funding for the study and research of music therapy. This funding is critical to explore the most effective ways to utilize the techniques described here and by the other speakers. Billions of dollars are spent each year for crisis care, while little energy is spent trying to figure out how to avoid the crisis to begin with. A shift from crisis to preventive medicine needs to occur. The introduction of drum circles and percussion instruments into the older American population is a new medicine for a new culture. It was a good idea 10,000 years ago, and it is a good idea today.