Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.
By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • February 18, 2016
Joan Paddock doesn’t particularly like teaching. Given that, her high school guidance counselor might have suggested she become something other than a college professor.
Fortunately, Paddock said, she’s been able to avoid classrooms full of students most of her academic career.
“In classroom situations, there’s a guru or sage on stage,” said the Linfield College music professor. “That’s not really my style. When I’m not standing in front of large groups, holding a baton, most of my courses have been very large — or very small and doing hands-on work.”
Music rarely gets more hands-on than slapping drum skins. So Paddock feels very comfortable in the center of the drum circles created by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Paddock began experimenting with drum circles in the introductory classes she teaches for freshmen at Linfield. She eventually realized the communal activity, especially the meditative quality of the drumbeats, offered therapeutic benefits for people living with mental illness.
“The physiological part of this is really interesting,” said Rob Schulman, president of the local NAMI chapter. “Brain research has been done with people who do drumming. It causes deep relaxation.
“You’re not using linear thought processes. It causes a meditative state. There’s a peace of mind and general well-being that’s important for everyone.”
That’s particularly true for people with mental illnesses, Schulman said. Participating in a drum circle also gives them a sense of belonging.
After a presentation by Paddock last year, NAMI held its first drum circle in January and second in early February. Both attracted about 20 people, some of them dealing with mental illness and others not.
Such a mixed group is wonderful, Schulman said.
“The benefit comes from participating in a group of people who are living with a mental illness and those who are not,” he said. “They feel included.
“Some people isolate themselves. Other people are out in the workplace, holding down jobs, but they don’t get together with other people who are living with mental illness.”
Paddock said she hit on drum circles originally merely as a way for her to avoid lecturing to incoming freshmen.
When students enter Linfield, they must take an introductory class that teaches them how to use the library, conduct research, think critically and develop other skills essential to academic success. And many professors find themselves teaching sections.
“A professor is encouraged to teach in the topic of her passion,” Paddock said. “My class is called, ‘What to Listen for in the World.’
“It’s a statement and question both. Teaching writing is not what I do, but I have learned how to be a part of the team that teaches our freshmen what they need to know.”
She said, “The first time I taught the class, I thought, ‘Holy cow! This class is an hour and a half long. How am I going to hold these students’ interest and attention?’” Eventually, she came up with the idea of involving students in a drum circle.
“That was a loose idea, because I was never in drum circles or taught them,” Paddock said. But she rounded up instruments from other bands and brought in some smaller versions to flesh out the collection.
And it worked. “Within the context of the drum circle, I could teach some of the elements of music,” she said.
Students were able to discuss the words used in music and write about what they heard. She asked all of them to keep journals about what they experienced.
“They didn’t have to know anything about music,” Paddock said. “They just had to experience it.
“They were given a chance to be inside the music. Some of them had never had the chance to touch an instrument before in their lives.”
The result was life-changing, Paddock said — for both the students and their professor.
“I wasn’t used to being in front of classroom, but being in the drum circle gave me the chance to be a facilitator,” she said. “It made me a better teacher. That’s very empowering.”
Students were equally empowered, she added.
“Students were writing things like, ‘I feel like I’ve known these people all my life.’ And this was just the second or third class.
“I learned that the drum circle was creating community. The drum circle was a changing force in their lives.”
During the five years Paddock has been leading drum circles, she’s also been researching them and learning of the work of therapists such as Barry Bittman, champion of a concept called rhythmic entertainment. “When we play together like in a group like that, our heartbeats actually align, and it produces endorphins,” she explained.
Rhythmic entrainment and the larger field of biomusicology are vast, Paddock said, but they have some very practical, down-to-earth applications.
For instance, she said, drum therapy can be used to help people suffering from dementia and bi-polar disorder. “They began to retrain their motor memory by alternating their right and left hands,” she said.
Schulman said local drum circle members hope to eventually spread out in the community and offer demonstrations in places such as memory-care facilities.
“There’s a lot of brain research that suggests people remember lyrics and melodies, even when they have forgotten their own name or their children’s names,” he said. “The brain stores those memories differently.”
The NAMI drum circle program is being funded through a $1,000 matching grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition. Through the grant, NAMI members have been able to acquire their own set of drums and a selection of other percussion instruments.
And it has caught fire with its originator, too.
“My idea has stretched out beyond NAMI, and I want to teach a class on this at Linfield where everyone learns about the power of drumming,” Paddock said. “Then they could use that everywhere they go.”
Schulman is sold as well. “I took part in drum circles, but I never thought of drumming as a therapeutic tool,” he said.
“It’s a very positive experience. It’s a way to interact. You just don’t interact that way on a daily basis unless you’re a musician.
“The beauty of drums is that anyone can do it. The drum circle gives them a sense of being included, a sense of not being different, of sharing something that’s joyful with other people. Drum circles accomplish that.”
Because there was so much interest, Schulman said, NAMI members are considering staging a monthly drum circle. “It’s very likely to happen,” he said.
Of all the benefits of drum circles, Paddock said she loves the sense of community most of all.
“Everyone is equal,” she said. “When we had that last circle, I didn’t know everyone in that circle. It’s the great equalizer.
“There was no stigma. We were celebrating each other and celebrating rhythm and doing it together.”
She said, “Mental illness has a stigma associated with it. People who are depressed may not have energy to do things.
“Near the end of our circle, I asked them to say what they felt, what one word comes to their mind. Every single one of the words was something positive.”
Schulman first became interesting in drumming as a Peace Corps member in the ‘70s.
“There’s like a subculture of drumming,” he said. “It’s really interesting. There are a number of different styles of drumming, which you know because you can hear it, but you don’t really think of it.”
While drum circles may create community, Paddock said she doesn’t want to take credit for any local drum circles or the communities that result.
“I’m not a charismatic leader,” she said. “I’m just a trumpet player who has seen a power more than anything I could have imagined with the drum circle. I’m learning along with my students.”