December, 2009

Christine Stevens is an author, speaker and music therapist.. She has developed music therapy programs using drumming for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Ground Zero, and Columbine High School. Most recently, Christine led the first drum circle training in a war-zone in northern Iraq.  Through Remo’s HealthRHYTHMS and her company, UpBeat Drum Circles, Christine leads training programs in how to facilitate group empowerment drumming.  She is the author of The Healing Drum Kit and The Art and Heart of Drum Circles.

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Music Therapy for Wellness and Peace-building

December, 2009 AMTA.Pro Symposium

Christine Stevens, MSW, MT-BC

AMTA.Pro Discussion Outline

I.  Wellness

  • Wellness is defined as the active pursuit of health.
  • Having a dual-degree; social work and music therapy.
  • Tips on how to bridge your music therapy practice into wellness, corporate teambuilding, and community work.
  • Creating the symphony of your career.
  • Reunion Grief at HealthRHYTHMS training
  • How to offer music therapy program for your staff or care-givers to expand your clinical role.
  • Corporate drum circle with DuPont
  • Inter-disciplinary teamwork and innovative partnerships is the future of the information age.  Cross-pollinating of disciplines.
  • Cancer support groups, Hospice and bereavement.
  • Continuum of Care Model.
  • HealthRHYTHMS protocol used for wellness outcomes.

II. Why Drumming?

1.  Accessibility – everyone can do it.  Drumming demands full participation.

2.  Exercise – physical activity which promotes health.

3.  Spiritual – the drum has a world-wide spiritual history.  Native American Lakota tribe considers the drum a ceremonial tool more than an instrument.

4.  Camaraderie and support – important for peace-buildling.

5.  Self-expression – my favorite mantra I learned from Arthur Hull was, “1 – 2 – make up your own!”  There is no right or wrong.

6.  Present Moment – drumming is unplugged and unrehearsed.  Drumming puts you in the present moment, the “now.”

III. Musical peace-building – Drum Circles in Iraq
(from: Connections, Music for People, 2009)

“Drumming helps you find your hope.”  – Iraqi woman drum circle facilitator

What is the farthest edge of where musical dialogue can reach?  How far can we travel on the sound waves of peace-building using drum circles?  Can the effectiveness of using music as an anecdote to war be documented?

Answers to these questions and more lie in a global trend that began in 2007.  For the first time in history, an international relief organization sponsored a drum circle training for conflict-resolution and peace-making in a war-zone in northern Iraq.  Melinda Witter, a dialogue specialist working in Iraq, had a dream of using drumming to create peaceful relationships across tribal and language barriers in Iraq.  She researched whether drumming would be accepted by the religious laws of different groups in Iraq.  Based upon the research of Dr. Barry Bittman, drum circles gained the necessary validity for Melinda to invite our three person training team included myself, Mark Montygierd and Constantine Alatzas to come to Iraq to fulfill her dream.  Funding for our trip came from the generous support of NAMM and the Rex Foundation, with Remo Drum Company donating one hundred drums.

The five-day training took place in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in November, 2007, bringing together thirty-eight individuals from different ethnic and religious backgrounds; including Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, Yazidis, and Assyrian Christians, requiring two translators for Kurdish and Arabic speakers.  As a metaphor for leadership training, the group learned to lead drum circles to take back to their communities, rehab centers, and youth centers.  Results demonstrated a 92% satisfaction rating by participants and a pre-post analysis of 80% more connected as a community after the five day training.  Transformation and break-throughs happened daily, but my favorite moment was watching a shy Moslem woman go to the center of the drum circle on the final day and lead the whole group.  One man shared, “Drumming helps you find your hope.”

In October, 2008 and April 2009 we returned to Iraq, this time with ethnomusicologist Dr. Craig Woodson who taught drum making activities using recycled materials.  We traveled across northern Iraq to visit four Kurdistan Save the Children Youth Activity Centers (serving ages 15 – 30) where trained drum circle leaders were teaching programs.  We also witnessed the launch of the first music therapy program in Iraq at the Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Sulyamaniyah, directed by a physical therapist who took the drum circle training the previous year.

From this successful work, there emerges a model for bringing drumming and drum making to other areas of conflict around the world for peace-making, community building, and conflict-resolution.

Weaving Worlds

One morning at breakfast, I sat with a musician at the training who worked in Kirkuk, one of the worst places of ongoing violence.  He was teaching me the Iraqi scales and ornamentation through call and response singing with me, since we could not speak to each other.  Suddenly, it struck me that this tradition of solo melodic improvisations, known as a taxim, could be incorporated into the drum circle.

To weave our worlds, we did an experiment in the drum circle that day; which turned out to be the collaboration of a new blended art form.  We began each drum circle with a taxim sung or played on flute (ney), violin, or guitar (oud).  Next, one individual would start a rhythm on daf (Kurdish and Persian frame drum with jingles) or doumbek (Arabic goblet drum) before kicking off into the American drum circle format with a drum circle leader.   Success!  Many participants shared that the drumming seemed upbeat and joyful, but that they wanted to honor the depths of the history of Iraq and the sadness and grief that needed to balance the rhythm of the drumming.  Our blended art form seemed to create a truer musical representation of the Iraqi situation, and present a musical myth of the possibility and hope for the future.

And so, together we found a way for Western drum circles to meet ancient Arab world melodies, honoring Arab and Kurdish rhythms within the improvisational structure of the Arthurian drum circle.

The Broken Drum of Halabjah

Perhaps the most significant story came from our experience in Halabjah, where more than 5000 Kurds were killed in a single chemical warfare genocide attack during the Sadam Hussein regime.  While we were all drumming, a young man broke the drum head of an improvised bass drum, which was actually an upside down plastic garbage can.  In many cultures, a broken drum signifies the Earth crying.  We asked the group what the drum represented and what else was broken.  They answered, “our hearts, our land…”  Dr. Woodson reached into the drum to demonstrate how to repair it with packing tape beginning on the inside before reinforcing it on the outside.  Inspired by this metaphor, a young man jumped up and talked about how music repairs your heart from the inside.   Here in the ancient musical culture of Iraq, in the cradle of civilization where music floats into dessert sands and mountains from many homes and villages, musical healing lives on.

Model Building

Here are the steps of the model we used for the drum circles, developed in Iraq by our interdisciplinary, inter-cultural team.  We have successfully replicated this model with the Lost Boys of the Sudan and with International Student Housing advisors.

1.  Prior to the drum circle, set chairs in a circle and place a rug in center.  Set intentions for the goals of the program.

2.  Begin without any instruments.  Start with breathing and stretching.  Assign a few musicians to accompany this as a pit band.

3.  Transition easily from stretching to body percussion, eventually adding shakers and light percussion instruments.

4.  Pass out drums. Review how to play drum sounds; dum and tak, bass and tone.

5.  facilitated Drum Circle

6.  Cultural drum circle – in our case we incorporated the taxim with the drum circle.

7.  Cultural sharing – ask for a song, dance or rhythm.

8.  Dialogue for peace-building – ask a question or allow a break for discussion

9.  Musical healing – often a softer, harmonious, unified groove.

10.  Closing – one word share from each participant.

Qualities of peace-making;

Drumming is cultural homeopathy for post-war Iraq; both northern and southern areas.  Reflecting on why this works, I offer these seven intrinsic qualities of the drum circle as metaphors for peace-making.

  1. participation
  2. creativity
  3. cultural sharing
  4. cultural collaboration
  5. self-expressive
  6. empowered leadership
  7. hope activating

Watch the video reel of Iraq at

© Copyright 2009 by the American Music Therapy Association, Inc.. All Rights Reserved. Content herein is for personal use only. No part may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording by any information storage or retrieval system, without express written permission from the American Music Therapy Association.

Neither the American Music Therapy Association nor its Board of Directors is responsible for the conclusions reached or the opinions expressed in any of the AMTA.Pro symposiums.