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A few years ago, I attended a couple drum workshops by one of the founding members of Rusted Root, Jim Donovan. I expected to learn how to properly handle a drum, maybe play something that loosely resembled a rhythm.

What I didn’t expect was that I would learn things that would change my whole approach to life. The principles that make a successful drum circle are the same ones that can improve your day-to-day.

I never thought that banging a piece of hide stretched over hollowed wood could be a total game changer, but it was. Here’s what you learn when you’re making music with a good group.

Everyone starts at the beginning.

Of our group 10-12 people, the majority of us were beginners who were learning the hard way that it hurts to whack your thumb off of the edge of a djembe. Then we had the professor of music and professional performer (Jim) among us, who shared a story about how he air drummed to his Rolling Stones record until he could get his hands on a drum set. A few in-betweeners regularly drummed in groups, but were relatively inexperienced.

And we all drummed together. It didn’t matter where our drumming skills were at that moment. Every person there had, at some point in their lives, never touched a drum. Nevertheless, we were all there going through the basics and enjoying creating music together.

The takeaway here? There’s no need to be intimidated by anyone’s expertise. Everyone started where you are right now, whether they remember it or not. Talent does not equal innate ability. Hard work makes experts.

People aren’t really judging you so harshly.

Or at all, for that matter. Jim asked each of us to take a turn doing a solo, as an exercise in freeing ourselves and our creativity. After each of us cycled through once, I realized that I didn’t let myself enjoy others’ solos because I was either planning what I was going to do, or regrouping after taking my turn. I wasn’t the only one, and Jim knew that, so we all discussed the experience and repeated the exercise. Only then could I enjoy both my own drumming and everyone else’s.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

Wouldn’t this save us all a boatload of aggravation?

You affect others.

At one point during the session, Jim showed us how sound traveled through a djembe and could even vibrate the drums across the room. He then related the sound vibrations to the energy we project as human beings. We’re not these individual, isolated bodies with self-contained thoughts and actions. Truth is, everything we do, everything we say, even our thoughts can affect those around us. And those people affect those around them, and so on. Call it energy, call it Karma, call it Newton’s Law. The label doesn’t matter so much as making sure you’re putting positive vibes out into the world. You just may shake things up, for better or for worse.

Don’t just be there, be present.

Drumming can be repetitive, especially using beginner rhythms. It’s easy to just bang on a drum, left-right-left-right and have your mind wander to someplace else. To truly drum together, you have to be aware of the rhythm, aware of each other and aware of yourself.

This isn’t much of a stretch from what it takes to do any task completely and well. Ever burned dinner because you were distracted? How much reading do you comprehend and retain if your mind is wandering?

The next time you notice you’re not fully focused on what you’re doing, try to snap yourself back to the moment. This one takes practice, folks.

Sometimes, we need to act a little primal.

How often do we feel pressure to sit up straight, to dress a certain way, to keep quiet, to mind our manners? Our society is too gosh darn stuffy. Drum. Chant. Howl. Sing. Yell. It feels good!

Smile, and keep going.

That was Jim’s only request. Which made it wonderful – our circle was a safe place to screw up. And since mistakes were okay, it was easier to dive right in.

Something that simple was an eye-opener for me. Think about it – there are very few places in life where mistakes are attached to dire consequences. So feel free to try things, take risks and screw up. Usually, nobody is worse for wear, and who knows – maybe you’ll discover something magnificent.

Together, we can make music.

No two participants were alike. Different people, of different ages, from different walks of life, all came together and contributed to a common good. Our group of 11 strangers plus a facilitator came together, not knowing one another, and created a thing of beauty.

There’s a word for what happened: synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What could you accomplish if you pulled yourself away from the blue glow of the television, found a group of people, and created something special?

If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of Jim’s workshops, do all you can to get there. Say what you want about the New York Philharmonic – those guys are conducting highly trained musicians. Jim can get people like you and me to do this…

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