Drumming is a metaphor for life

By Ken Keuffel Jr., Journal Arts Reporter
Sunday Arts Section, Winston-Salem Journal
December 24, 2000

A hand-played drum roll if you please . . .

A little bit of Tanzania has invaded downtown Winston-Salem. And it’s drawing people from all walks of life to weekly drumming sessions. During a recent Friday evening, about a dozen communal drummers gathered in a circle at the Golden Flower T’ai Chi School on Trade Street.

Among them were a toddler, a kindergarten teacher, a business owner, a graphic designer, a saleswoman, an addiction counselor, a mechanic and a pastor. Most of the drummers played djembes, cylindrical African drums held between the legs and swatted with the palms. (Drummers are told to remove their rings before they start playing.) Each looked to Bill Scheidt, the group’s instructor, for pointers on what seems like a simple task, but is actually a complex activity that accompanies a wide range of social rituals in African cultures.

Over a 90-minute session, Scheidt and his students drummed out everything from unison beats to layers of different rhythms. The players learned how to drum at different pitch levels and how to create crisp syncopation.

Each drummer also got a chance to improvise over an “anchor” rhythm. Many drummers used this opportunity to thump their instruments vigorously, seemingly pounding a week’s worth of tension out of their bodies. Others improvised with greater subtlety. “Drumming is a metaphor for life,” Scheidt said. “People’s personalities come out in the drumming.”

The drummers also learned how to keep going after they muddled a passage or got lost. In time, the sense of camaraderie seemed to override individual anxieties. “It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake,” said Pete Sangimino, who is also a rock musician. “It matters if people notice.”

Recently, Scheidt went to Tanzania to teach English and do other community-out-reach work. “It wasn’t the Peace Corps but it was similar to that,” said Scheidt, a former Wake Forest University student. “I had an opportunity to learn the language (Swahili) and live with the people. I was able to learn the culture.”

Scheidt had already been drumming for several years before he went to Tanzania; so during much of his time there, he drummed with some of the country’s best players. When Scheidt returned home, he began teaching what he had learned in drumming classes.

Scheidt has developed a curriculum for different levels of drummers. Every effort is made to make drumming accessible to everyone. The use of technical musical terms is kept to a minimum, and drums (which can cost anywhere from $220 to $400) are available at sessions for a modest rental fee.

“We talk a little and play a lot,” said Scheidt, who promotes his course as a way to have fun, learn drumming basics and explore traditional African and Latin American rhythms.

Scheidt also promotes drumming as a form of meditation. At the beginning of an evening session, his students stood in silence, closed their eyes and took deep breaths. After that, as the students played a steady beat, Scheidt tried to mellow them further with this own soothing statements. “Just relax your body, and let the sound move through you,” he said at one point. “Let the sound fill you up . . . It’s OK for you to just let go.”

Scheidt also encouraged the drummers to play with their eyes closed. The drumming got faster and louder – then ended suddenly during a quiet passage. When the drumming/meditation segment had ended, Scheidt asked the students to share their reactions to it.

“I left work with a migraine headache,” said Morrow Omli, 35, an addiction counselor who first encountered communal drumming on a safari to Kenya. “You’d think the pounding wouldn’t be good for a headache. But focusing on the sound is very relaxing; I find I look forward to that on Fridays.” Scheidt seemed impressed. “That’s powerful,” he said. “Let’s give here a round of applause.”

Feeney Lipscomb is the founder of the All One Tribe Foundation, an American Indian organization that promotes drumming as a way to unite parents and children. In a recent press release, Lipscomb cited research that suggests that drumming eliminates stress and improves the immune system. A drummer can fell both calmed and energized at the same time, Lipscomb said.

The drummers in Scheidt’s class cited other benefits in addition to stress relief. Marc Mason, 37, runs a chemical company in Greensboro and plays the clarinet. “I played clarinet all my life,” Mason said. “I was tight with it . . . The music didn’t have a flow. With drumming, you forget about everything. It just flows.” Because of drumming, Mason said, his clarinet playing has begun to flow as well.

Suzanne Lewis, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher, said that drumming enhances her creativity. “It’s a good way to keep that energy going,” she said.

Other drummers in Scheidt’s class spoke of drumming’s ability to bring people together. “It has that draw, that hook,” Scheidt said. “It draws people in.”