Drum Circles Under the Big Sky
By Lacey Middlestead
Wrapping around the room, a large circle of people sits hushed and waiting. Their hands hover over tall drums hugged between their legs. From one corner of the circle, a simple rhythm echoes out from hands thumping on a drum head. In intuitive succession, everyone’s hands shift to thump out the exact same rhythm, and the room erupts into a pulsating rhythm of unity.
For Matthew Marsolek, drum circle facilitator and member of the Drum Brothers percussion ensemble in Arlee, Montana, this is the kind of moment he lives for.
“When everyone finds the pulse, feels the pulse, and is in the moment—it nearly brings me to tears because of how powerful it is,” said Marsolek.
Since the dawn of human civilization, group drumming has been a part of nearly every global culture as a means of expression, communication, and celebration. Today, community drum circles are a continuation of this ancient tradition and a movement growing in popularity across the United States. And from Missoula and Butte to Hamilton and Kalispell, people are joining the drumbeat right here in Montana.
Marsolek first encountered the power of rhythm as a child.
He recalled that there was a baby grand piano in his house growing up. One day he went and laid his head down on top of the piano while simultaneously playing a single note on the keys.
“I felt that note in my body,” explained Marsolek. “That sound made me feel that powerful feeling of music.”
He’s been chasing that feeling ever since.
While working at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, an educational center in Helena, in the late 1980s, Marsolek was “inspired” by rhythmic music created during evening circles. Also working at the ranch was Marsolek’s friend, Michael Harrison, who first introduced him to the polyrhythms of West African music. He was immediately “addicted.”
“It’s comprised of layers of music on top of one another that are beautifully interlaced,” explained Marsolek of West African rhythms. “It’s a metaphor for all the diversity we find in community.”
Marsolek followed his newfound passion for rhythm and drumming by later forming a drum-building company and musical ensemble—The Drum Brothers—along with his two brothers and father.
Over the past two decades, Marsolek has continued growing his passion through teaching classes and workshops throughout Montana and the United States. He has led circles at churches, schools, senior centers, detention centers, and even on plots of land with nothing but hay bales to sit on.
For Michael McDaniel, a Butte resident who teaches a drum-guided meditation class, drumming has long been part of his heritage.
McDaniel grew up in North Carolina and recalled watching his grandfather play the drums in a church ensemble. Following in his footsteps, McDaniel took up drumming as a child and went on to play in a number of bands over the years before starting to teach. Through his own research on Ancestry.com, he also discovered distant relatives who were part of African djembe drumming cultures.
“I feel like I really connected,” said McDaniel of learning his ancestors drummed. “It helps me in what I do.”
By simple definition, drum circles are informal groups of people playing percussion instruments. Traditionally used drums include frame drums, djembes, dununs, and ashiko drums. But a drum circle is more than just a circle of instruments. It is a shared experience of the participants. It is a means through which healing, stress reduction, self-realization, self-expression, and a sense of connectedness can take place.
Today, facilitated drum circles are used by a variety of groups and organizations for things like team-building exercises, diversity appreciation, stress reduction, music therapy, socializing events for conferences, cooperative learning settings in classrooms, and much more. Each circle, however, is as unique as its participants.
While the circles that Marsolek and McDaniels lead are distinct, they both draw on the core element of connection.
Two to three times a year, Marsolek holds bereavement camps for kids and teens who are suffering the effects of losing someone. Good Grief Camp in Kalispell and Camp Francis near Great Falls are two of these camps. The camps address the needs of grieving children by decreasing their sense of isolation and normalizing their experience and feelings.
“There’s a common thread of deep loss,” said Marsolek of the campers. “But they come to feel acceptance in the community formed at the camp.”
Seniors, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, also benefit from taking part in drum circles. Marsolek regularly facilitates circles at places like the Missoula Senior Center and Memory Café at the Missoula Public Library.
“I was almost moved to tears,” said Marsolek in recalling a recent circle with seniors. “Some people could barely touch the drums because of arthritis, but they all ended up playing the same pattern by the end.”
Drum circles are also increasingly being used as an engaging team-building activity for corporations and organizations. Marsolek was once asked to lead a drum circle for some 200 employees from Providence Health Care in Spokane. The idea was to give the gift of rhythm and fellowship to the employees. All variety of staff participated, from janitors all the way up to the CEO.
“There’s an equality that happens since no one knows how to drum in the beginning,” said Marsolek. “There’s an egalitarian nature of the circle. Everyone is equal in the circle. Everyone feels equally vulnerable.”
In addition to circles, Marsolek and the Drum Brothers also facilitate drum building workshops. During one especially memorable workshop in 2001, Marsolek was brought to a four-room schoolhouse in Bynum, Montana near Choteau to build drums with the students. Before assembling, local ranchers branded the shell of the drums with their family brands, leaving a true Montana mark on the drum circle tradition.
For McDaniel, drumming became the cure he didn’t realize he was looking for.
McDaniel shared that he has long struggled with depression and anxiety. He took up drumming as a kid, and through playing music in different bands over the years, started realizing that music was the one thing that always made him feel better.
“I knew I had a release…I knew I had a cure,” said McDaniel.
Wanting to help others work through their negative emotions and make room for positive change in their lives, he started teaching a drum guided meditation class at The Yoga Center in Butte.
He first called the class “Drumming through Depression,” but it later evolved into “Drumming with Intention.” The class concept was an innovative creation of McDaniel’s and has had powerful results for participants.
Using mostly goblet-shaped djembe drums, McDaniel’s class combines breathing, drumming, visualizations, and positive affirmations to “clean out the negative stuff you’ve been carrying around and don’t know how to get rid of,” he said.
McDaniel opens the class with a simple rhythm while simultaneously encouraging deep breathing to usher in feelings of peace. Once everyone is synchronized, he moves to the West African Kuku rhythm, which was traditionally performed by women to celebrate their return from fishing. He uses the rhythm to encourage students to gather positive changes to their lives. The West African rhythm called Fanga comes next as drummers welcome the new changes.
As an army veteran who served as a radioman, McDaniel shared that he also incorporates Morse code phrases into the class.
Largely attended by women, McDaniel describes his class as “drumming from the inside out.” Participants work through and empty themselves of whatever issues they walked through the door with so they can better make room for solutions.
“It [drumming] won’t give you all the answers,” explained McDaniel. “But questions will come up and then you will be on your quest.”
Marsolek and McDaniel are just two drum circle facilitators among many in Montana who are, beat by beat, rhythm by rhythm, introducing and spreading the transformative and connective power found in community drum circles.
After two decades of being involved with drum circles, Marsolek says that it is still his “passion.”
“The more you study this, the more you find that you can’t think of anything else,” said Marsolek. “It’s so interesting that the acceptance and interest in drumming continues to grow. It’s so gratifying.”
Even if he wasn’t teaching his drum-guided meditation class, McDaniel admits that he’d still be drumming.
“Drumming helps me get back to default mode,” said McDaniel. “It enables me to gather my strength and start again.”