Counseling Today, Features

The rhythm of emotion

Mark Reiser August 10, 2006

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will appear in the May 2006 issue of Counseling Today.

You, my friend, are a true musician. Without an instrument in hand, you make music without even realizing it. For we are all, by our very nature, drummers. We clap when impressed. We tap our feet when hearing a favorite song. We bounce a pencil on a desk when nervous. We pace our breathing when stressed.

No doubt, rhythm is an integral part of everyday life. As drummer Mickey Hart noted in an interview with Maclean’s, “Rhythm … is the one common denominator we have. We’re rhythm animals.” Whether it’s the steady pounding of our heartbeat or the synchronized firing of neurons in our brain, we are driven by rhythm. In essence, the drum is nature’s universal instrument.

This universality is evident when we peer into our past. Since ancient times, indigenous cultures have used drums in religious ceremonies, healing rituals, tribal celebrations and communal expression. Too often we seem to forget the lessons that our ancestors can teach us. But this ancestral legacy — the healing power of the drum — is being rediscovered the world over. In particular, it is gradually being embraced by the therapeutic community. In fact, drum therapy is currently being used with an astounding variety of clients, from adult sexual offenders to autistic children. Drums are providing a way for clients of all kinds to express themselves, connect with others and heal from within.

My friend the drum

While I am eager to jump into the scores of ways in which people are using drum therapy — and why it is working — I am first compelled to address my own history with this topic. Admittedly, I was not drawn to the drums 10 years ago by therapeutic goals. But just the same, I have reaped profound emotional rewards from my experience on a drum kit.

As a teenager, I was enamored with some of the “masters” of rock drumming: Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Neil Peart. Gradually, I became obsessed. When listening to music, the drums became the only instrument that I heard. Naturally, this fueled my desire to pick up the sticks. A few years ago, I finally found the courage to buy a trap kit (snare drum, toms, bass drum, cymbals, etc.). Thus far, my relationship with the drums has been nothing short of magical.

The drums have provided me with my most effective outlet for stress relief. Whether I’m nervous, angry or bored, I consistently feel lighter and happier after a session on my kit. Whenever I feel exhausted from stress, a light bulb immediately comes on, and I say, “Ooh, I know why I feel like this — it’s been too long since my last jam session.” So I drum. Afterward, I have far more energy, motivation and optimism.

The benefits do not stop there, because the drums also serve as my emotional barometer. On days when I feel down, I play with a slow tempo. When I’m frustrated, my improvisational skills are diminished; my drumming sounds sloppy and forced. When I’m happy, I play louder and cleaner. But regardless of my initial mood, I frequently play until I find a steady rhythm and until I feel revived and energized. In short, drums are my therapy.

Drum therapy, you say?

I am hardly unique in realizing the profoundly therapeutic power of the drum. In fact, drums are becoming more commonplace in the world of counseling. But how are they being used and with whom? Let’s explore how a special musical instrument can be so cathartic.

We’ll start with Doug, an autistic adult with severe sensory impairments. Doug was 40 years old, virtually deaf and mute, and had severe vision impairment. To experience the benefits of therapy, Doug needed a voice — a way to interact both with himself and others. Enter the drum.

Doug’s therapist, Lawrence Keats, chose to set up a series of four drum stations, each one designed to explore different facets of cognition, emotion and both inter- and intrapersonal communication. As he described in his article, “Doug: The Rhythm in His World,” Keats named each station, with titles ranging from “Hello” to “What’s New?” Doug delighted in these exercises in percussion, often laughing and dancing with unbridled joy.

The various stations served as windows into Doug’s world. As Keats noted, “Doug’s choice of drums, combination of sonorities and the dynamic level at which he played were very often indicative of his emotional state at the time.” Hmmm … that sounds oddly familiar to how I use the drums. Parallel to my own experience, Doug created unique and dynamic patterns on days when he was in high spirits. He was disjointed and withdrawn on the drums when he was worried or anxious. That was invaluable information for the counselor, especially given that Doug could not express those emotions verbally.

Doug also gained a new social consciousness through the drums. On the fourth drum station, “Let’s Jam,” Doug once invited his friend Grace for an impromptu jam session. During that time, Keats noted that the three of them were transformed into a “spirited trio of creativity and laughter.” It became evident to Keats that Doug was able to “experience the unique feeling that one gets from entertainment with a fellow musician — even more special for Doug considering his hearing impairment.” In time, Doug’s skills on the drums grew tremendously, as did his interpersonal communication with the outside world. In short, the drums provided a way for Doug to know himself and reach out to his external world.

Like individuals with autism, Alzheimer’s patients are another population that experiences severe communicative impairments. Conny Tomaino of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function uses drums extensively in therapy. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “I found a new way to interact with those who do not engage with others and are not aware of their environment.” Eric Hall, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said, “Drum therapy gets them to participate in life once again. … There is some type of power in the rhythm that promotes cognitive function.” This “power” that Hall references is a topic of research. Drums truly do affect the brain in a profound way (I’ll address this research next month). But for now, let’s continue dipping into the world of therapeutic possibilities with the drum.

Can drums help a person overcome trauma? That’s precisely what Helen Zador of Canada discovered. Zador had a history of being abused, including being the victim of a brutal gang rape when she was in her 20s. As she noted to interviewer B.D. Johnson, “At first just looking at the drums aroused a fear. … They’re phallic in shape … the sound is primal, deep in your body.” When she first attempted to play the drums, the experience brought back vivid physical memories of the trauma, and tears filled her eyes. But over time, she was gradually able to confront her fear, and the drums gave her a means of overcoming the pain. Zador now works as a massage therapist and, fittingly, her worktable is surrounded by a variety of percussion instruments.

Counseling with the drum

Lou Farley, a licensed professional counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association, also surrounds himself with percussion instruments. Farley has been playing the drums for more than 10 years. He has received both formal training and private lessons in percussion and currently works with native healers in the Laramie, Wyo., area. Farley often uses percussion to supplement talk therapy in his private practice, both in individual and group sessions. In fact, Farley asserts that drums can be a valuable component in all four main stages of therapy (assessment, treatment planning, treatment and evaluation of treatment).

Farley provided an example of how he might utilize drums in working with a highly resistant adolescent. Let’s say the young boy indicated a fondness for percussion. Farley would drop a drum in front of him and ask him to play for five minutes. The way the child plays the drums can reveal a huge piece of his inner world. If the child plays with constricted hands and a regular, safe pattern, this might suggest he is scared and nervous and that he finds comfort in order. He may not feel comfortable taking the lead. Farley would then reflect these personal qualities back to the client, and the two of them could process how these qualities affect his social relationships.

One possible intervention is having the client play “sloppy drums” for five minutes. Farley and the child would then process how this feels, with Farley further encouraging the client to take a risk and loosen up. Next, Farley might play drums along with him, providing a small sense of order, while illustrating to the client that a lack of perfect order doesn’t mean his world will fall apart; letting go is OK. Six months later, Farley might again see how the client plays the drums, using this as a litmus test for the efficacy of treatment.

Percussive healing: From intrapersonal to interpersonal

The efficacy of drums as a counseling tool is not restricted to individuals. In fact, couples and groups can also reap the benefits. This is precisely what Robert Friedman, author of The Healing Power of the Drum, is finding in his own practice. Friedman helps couples find new avenues of discussion via the drum. According to an interview with Michelle Cook, Friedman seeks to enable his clients to become more “synchronized with their personal rhythms.”

How about the utility of percussion for group therapy? Percussion can be a means of group communication, just as tribal cultures have used it for millennia. In fact, you may be surprised at some of the specific populations benefiting from this form of group counseling. For example, Dalena Watson found that drum therapy groups could allow sexual offenders to process and regulate intense emotions. Similarly, Vaughn Kaser has discovered that such groups can help pedophiles gain kinesthetic awareness and control. Drum therapy has also enhanced the social skills of student groups and has facilitated improvements in communication, behavior and cooperation among angry adolescents.

But one of the most innovative applications of group drum therapy has occurred at a pair of clinical mental health centers in Kansas City, where severely mentally ill patients were trained to become performing musicians. An anthropologist, a social worker and two professional musicians initiated a drum therapy program for a diverse group of patients who were struggling with severe disorders such as manic depression, schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. According to Jeffrey Longhofer and Jerry Floersch, the facilitators chose to teach the group the African “Dagbama” tradition, which is polyrhythmic and quite different from anything in Western culture. Patients were told right away that they would have the chance to become legitimate musicians. Imagine the empowerment that went along with that assurance!

The group practiced together and, over time, they became more proficient. Each person had a unique part in the production, yet each was allowed to contribute to a meaningful whole. Inclusion is a crucial healing factor for individuals whose illnesses so often are an exclusionary factor. In time, their self-esteem skyrocketed and their interpersonal skills flourished. They gained both a sense of accomplishment and identity within a group.

The story does not stop there. Throughout the musical training, the facilitators had planned to allow these patients to take their performances into the community. And perform they did. In essence, these concerts gave the patients not only a meaningful way to contribute to society but a context within which they could reintegrate themselves into the society they might someday rejoin. Indeed, this experience offered an incredible source of empowerment for this population, while perhaps unexpectedly providing a viable path to a new vocation.

Mark Reiser will receive his master’s degree in counselor education from the University of Wyoming in May. He also teaches for the Department of Physics and Astronomy on the side, and will be enrolling in the doctoral program in counselor education next year. Contact him at