Orchestration Techniques for the Drum Circle

Use orchestration techniques like these with your own drum circle group.

Stop Following Me!

A common stop signal occurs when the facilitator raises both arms to shoulder or eye level and then slices through the air in a rapid lateral cutting movement. This signal was something I took for granted, as one of the general music therapy techniques I used, until I did my first circle with individuals with developmental challenges.

In order to encourage movement of the upper body, I offer participants the use of two beaters for the frame drums which are secured to stands. During my first circle with a group of developmentally challenged adults, the group’s response to my outstretched arm stop motion was a mimicking of my actions, not my intent. Space limitations being what they were, the imitating gesture encouraged all to bop their neighbours with their beaters. Chaos and laughter were the result.

I soon learned to shout “Finish!” while raising arms and beaters into the air in an exultant gesture. This is technique has the effect of stopping the drumming, since all hands rise in concert with mine. Shouting “Finish!” is a refreshing switch from the word stop. It becomes a celebration of the previous action and avoids the word “stop” —so commonly used when interacting with individuals with developmental challenges. “Finish!” implies that it is time to pause and celebrate an action or event.

Distinctive Stops

If you are able to orchestrate a distinct stop with most group participants closing on the same beat, the pleasure and power of such a stop is awesome to experience. The last beat seems to hover overhead, a reminder of unity and community, bathing everyone in a vibrational shower of accomplishment. Initially there is awe, then elation.

I often hear comments such as “Wow!” or “Did you hear what we just did?” A victory moment has been shared. Participants with limited access to speech, sight, or hearing, can sense the stop. It is as if we are all experiencing the final tone echoing within our collective consciousness.


Perhaps the most engaging and effective tool in my facilitation toolbox is the Rumble. 6-3

Rumble 6-3
A rumble is an action that initiates and controls rhythm chaos. It is a very versatile facilitator’s tool with many uses. You initiate a group rumble by holding your hands out in front of you and wiggling them quickly from the wrists. The group responds, creating musical chaos, a non-rhythmical noise, with their instruments. It sounds like the stampede of musical hoofs, a rumble of sound. Drum Circle Facilitation , Arthur Hull, p65

When a rhythm seems to be going out of control, instead of trying to correct it, I leash it and turn it into a Rumble. Orchestrating organized chaos has the effect of allowing full expression, but with guidance. Once the Rumble is recognized by all as an intended signal from the facilitator (and not a sign of a Parkinson tremor) it can be modulated. 6-4

One Hand Shaking 6-4
My good friend Heather MacTavish has developed a technique called drum~story~song. Using this method she masterfully facilitates well elderly and special needs groups into playing percussion instruments while singing popular songs from their formative years.

Heather has Parkinson’s disease, so her right hand often shakes uncontrollably. When introducing basic facilitation signals she holds up two fluttering hands and asks: “What is this?” The group members shout back “Rumble!”

Then she holds up her fluttering right hand and asks: “What is this?” She pauses while others try to figure out what one hand flapping signifies. She then shouts out: “Parkinson’s disease! Know the difference!” Drum Circle Facilitation , Arthur Hull, p65

Modulation of a Rumble can create a communal rhythm. Even in chaos there is order.

A Rumble creates musical chaos and commonality with groups of individuals who are in need of expression. Acting out (or beating) with abandon is not encouraged in the struggling lives of special individuals trying to fit in. The need to belong is at the core of all individuals.

With a group Rumble, everyone fits in. Once the participants realize that they are not alone in their expression, entrainment has room to flourish.

It is time to modulate the Rumble, solidify the sound, and smooth the edges. A sophisticated facilitator can transform a Rumble into a steady beat. This beat can become the basis for a coordinated action such as a modulation in the volume, speed, or duration of the action.

Equipment - Overview & Aesthetics
Belligerent and Disruptive Behaviour
Enforcement vs. Invitation
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Heather Speaks of the Power of Rhythm on YouTube

Heather MacTavish speaks of the power of rhythm, woven into footage of her Songs, Science & Spirit program conducted at the Windchime Memory Unit in Marin, California. Directed and photographed by Warren Saire. Click Here

Zubin and Heather's India Drum-Story-Song Presentation at the Rotary Club

Zubin Balsara and Heather MacTavish present a Drum-Story-Song to the Rotary Club of Mumbai, India. Click Here