Healing Rhythms: DRUMBEAT's Musical Message Helps Youth in Australia and Beyond

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Dating back to the days of Sigmund Freud and his infamous couch, traditional therapy methods have focused on clients openly discussing their thoughts and feelings. Talk therapy fails, though, in cultures in which privacy is an important value, and therapists aiming to connect with their patients must turn to other measures.

Discovering Relationships Using Music--Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes & Thoughts (DRUMBEAT) supplies one such alternative, making use of hand drumming to help its participants open up about their feelings. A program under the umbrella of Holyoake, an Australian group devoted to the treatment and prevention of drug and alcohol use, DRUMBEAT was developed in 2003 as the brainchild of Simon Faulkner.

Faulkner, who now oversees the program as its manager, stumbled across the idea behind DRUMBEAT in a conversation with a local Aboriginal colleague "who suggested using drums to engage those people that were avoiding the services Holyoake was traditionally offering." When a trial program in a high school proved successful--"the boys enjoyed the drumming and started to open up about the issues in their lives," Faulkner remembers--Holyoake began using the drum circle as a widespread therapeutic tool.

Although it was originally conceived for Aboriginal adolescents, DRUMBEAT expanded to cater to a diverse set of populations, from schools (which make up 60% of the program's business) to the mental health sector to prisons. In each area in which DRUMBEAT has proven effective, the targeted clients suffer from social and emotional issues that often manifest themselves as behavioral problems and prevent effective treatment by traditional methods. "There's a lot of different people out there--it doesn't really matter what culture--that struggle with talking to counselors about their innermost thoughts and feelings and just engaging," Faulkner says. "Really what we were doing was providing a safe means of communicating and connecting to young people; that was the starting point, and so that was applicable to a whole range of people that felt unsafe talking to strangers."

"Everyone can play a drum and that accessibility is crucial," he adds, so youth need no prior musical skills to benefit from the program.

In addition to boosting its participants' confidence in talking about their feelings, DRUMBEAT uses games and analogies to help steer conversations. One example, Faulkner outlines, involves one young person playing a rhythm and giving it a name such as "I'm going out with my friends on Saturday night." Meanwhile, the other kids in the group play a different rhythm with a name like "Let's go and get drunk." The lone outlier must resist the temptation to alter his "going out with friends" rhythm to fit the group's "get drunk" rhythm, which "leads to a conversation about peer pressure and how you can resist peer pressure, and when is peer pressure positive, when is it negative, a whole range of sort of stuff like that," Faulkner says.

Participants also learn not just how to play set rhythms but how to improvise and create their own music. "In an average music-based program," Faulkner explains, "what you're doing usually is teaching kids parts to play...and they learn the teamwork skills and they sound really good, but they don't actually know how to adapt to changing circumstances." DRUMBEAT, conversely, begins instruction with universal rhythms but only as a prelude to an improvisational focus later in the program. This emphasis on creativity becomes important at the course's conclusion, when the participants design and deliver a performance in front of friends and family or even, in some cases, at large school assemblies or community festivals.

"There's an analogy to being able to adapt to different circumstances in life," Faulkner says, "and this gives you the skills to connect musically to other people, and they're the same skills that you need to connect socially with other people in changing environments, in changing communities."

And the benefits are substantial. In 2009, the University of Western Australia's School of Population and Health conducted a study measuring DRUMBEAT's efficacy across 19 schools; the researchers found that program participants experienced improvements in quality of peer relationships, focus and concentration, self-esteem, and sense of pride and belonging--the latter representing a crucial element in willingness to share feelings.

In the years since DRUMBEAT's inception, moreover, experimental results in the field of neurobiology have supported the program's underlying assumption that participating in a rhythmic activity facilitates therapy. These findings suggest that such interventions actually help repair damaged brain centers associated with complex trauma, which is often an unfortunate chapter in the backstories of the youth who benefit from DRUMBEAT.

"Basically, it's about those sort of prenatal and early childhood rhythms that provide security for the child--like the mother's heartbeat, the cradling and rocking of the mother, the lilt of the mother's voice," Faulkner explains. "All those sorts of rhythms have a certain tempo that's comforting, and if that's been disrupted in early childhood through trauma... this sort of drumming can actually start to realign some of that disrupted neurological function."

It's no wonder, then, that DRUMBEAT has grown into one of the most expansive youth assistance programs in Australia, with 600 facilitators servicing around 20,000 people per year. And it is spreading--a training workshop in Florida earlier this year impressed attendees, and two more, to be held in Minnesota and New Mexico, are scheduled in the fall as DRUMBEAT makes its entrance to the Western Hemisphere.

Faulkner is confident that when it arrives in the United States, DRUMBEAT will provide counselors with an effective intervention method for reaching young people and engaging the entire brain. "There are a lot of good team-building programs using drumming to get people working together, but this is probably the only program that actually incorporates a cognitive-based therapy with the actually experiential therapy of the drumming," he asserts. "There aren't many programs that actually integrate the drumming with the cognitive sort of work about self-awareness, self-reflection, and that whole sort of focus on relationships."

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