I recently came across a discussion on social media about how people feel about facilitated drum circles and I saw that there were some differing experiences about what a facilitated circle is and what it even means to facilitate a circle.

For sure, the term has been used the longest in a commercial context by those that are talking about conducted drum circles. In these, typically one or more people will stand in the center of an actual circle of seated drummers (rarely are there dancers at these) and through gestures will tell drummers (who often have little or no experience) what to play, when to play, how loud, how fast, and when the song is over. These circles are great for helping people feel successful at participating in a musical group setting and they can scale out sometimes to hundreds of participants because listening, while always valuable, isn’t a requirement.  They aren’t regular events in most communities and they don’t generate the kind of regular participation and community commitment that we see in co-creative drum and dance circles.

But if we look at the definition of the word facilitator:

    1. a person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier.
      “a true educator acts as a facilitator of learning”

We see that every person who makes a drum and dance circle easy or easier is facilitating the circle.

So how do we make a drum and dance circle easier?

Well to answer that question, I think we have to say what makes a circle successful; what makes it satisfying, what makes it fulfilling, what makes people want to keep doing it again and again

  • It needs to groove
  • It needs to be inclusive of people of many levels of ability, musical influences, and cultural backgrounds
  • It needs to strengthen community through a shared experience
  • It needs to create opportunities for individual expression
  • It needs to feel creative and spontaneous
  • It needs to be dynamic – changing over time
  • It needs to make people want to dance
  • It needs to be loud, passionate and inspiring
  • It needs to be quiet and contemplative
  • It needs to offer participants an opportunity to connect more deeply with themselves and others, to discover courage, experience empathy, explore communication,

The drum and dance circle is a lab for how humans can find consensus, act in a way that embraces autonomy and collective action, a way for us to speak our individual truth at the same time that we are speaking a collective truth that includes all of that diversity.

Now it’s true that these kinds of circles don’t scale out to the hundreds and the degree of success is dependent on a range of factors that can’t easily be controlled and so can be more difficult for folks to monetize, but these are also the kinds of circles that people keep coming back to, over and over, for years and decades.  It is not hyperbole to say that these are the kinds of circles that change people’s lives.

So as a facilitator of these kinds of circles, I think it’s important to share what the work involves because each of us has the potential to make a successful circle easier.

First, outside of circle, it’s important that we work on ourselves. We will have more impact and more benefit to the circle when we are developing our own musical abilities. This means instrumental technique, vocabulary, rhythm theory, groove, control, tempo and timing (practice with a metronome sometimes!), and work on our own creative ideas.  It’s also important that we talk about the values that make the circle work, like listening, inclusiveness, dynamics, and consensus. This is done whenever possible, through lessons, workshops, and casual conversations – because when we’re in the circle, we can’t have these conversations.  The kind of critical thinking and language that can arise when discussing the values that make a circle work can lead to inhibition during the creative process.

When we are in circle what does a drum circle facilitator do?

  • A drum circle facilitator helps create a safe space – a judgement free space where people can feel free to be creative and expressive because inspiration doesn’t arrive when inhibition is present.
  • A drum circle facilitator helps build consensus – consensus on tempo, time signature, and groove. The facilitator is listening for changes, the introduction of new ideas, and looking out for problems like phasing where one side of the circle gets out of time with the other side of the circle. The facilitator is going to help build consensus by putting expressive musical playing to work in the service of bridging contrasting ideas or reinforcing the ideas that seem to have the most traction.
  • A drum circle facilitator creates stability through consistent timekeeping and enough repetition in the groove to give participants something to expect, and enough longevity that there is always something to connect with for those who are in a deep creative flow state. (a facilitator keeps the circle from crashing)
  • A drum circle facilitator creates opportunities for novelty – when a groove feels like it has run its course, it’s necessary to create opportunities for change, a facilitator will drag or push on the time or energy to see if consensus might arise from tempo or dynamic changes. Or we might change our groove in such a way that it inspires others to do the same. This can include time signature changes and contrasting changes in mood or energy.
  • A drum circle facilitator is watching the dancers – looking for signs of inspiration, fatigue, boredom, energy changes, intensity. The facilitator takes cues from the dancers on the right mixture of stability and novelty to keep or get them engaged.
  • A drum circle facilitator is listening to the big picture, looking for what’s missing and what’s clashing. The facilitator is experienced in knowing what ingredients usually make the groove go and listens to make sure that they’re present in the proportions that are most likely to inspire – whether it’s the kind of groove, texture, or frequency range, or a particular role, the facilitator is ready to step in and provide as many of the missing ingredients as possible. Alternately, the facilitator is looking for what’s clashing and will try to massage the groove or the dynamics to reduce friction between elements that seem to be competing with one another.
  • A drum circle facilitator is listening for influences and instruments in the interest of being inclusive. A facilitator will seek opportunities to respond to the musical influences of the participants in such a way that they feel heard, encouraged and supported. This is usually done while seeking opportunities for novelty, the facilitator will try to make sure that there is a groove and a space for quieter instruments to be heard, or specific types of vocabulary that participants resonate with. The facilitator will try to find ways to encourage the circle to connect with that vocabulary and those instruments.

There are two conclusions I hope the reader will find in this list. The first is that facilitating a circle requires development as a drummer. We have to work on our listening, dynamic control, projection, articulation, timekeeping, vocabulary, depth of groove (because everyone plays better and listens better when the groove is deeper), flexibility to be able to fulfill any role on a range of instruments and respond to a range of cultural influences.

But the second conclusion is that almost all of us have at least some of these capabilities to some degree now  – at whatever level were are as drummers.  So each of us when we bring this kind of awareness and sensitivity to the circle, we’re making it easier for people to have a satisfying experience.  We are all facilitating the circle.

Being a good facilitator is not a destination. It’s a journey, and it happens to be the same journey that we are already on as students of the drum and rhythm. Leveling up each of the skills and practices above makes us a better drummers. I would even go so far as to say that development of these skills may have the potential to make us better friends, better partners, better family members, and better community members. Some of my guides on this path certainly thought so, and nearly 30 years in, I believe it has.