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Hospice SLO's drum circle provides mental and physical relief for those suffering from loss 

Once a month, a handful of San Luis Obispo County's grieving residents gathers in the parlor of the historic Hospice SLO building to drum away their pain. Surrounded by a piano, a fireplace, and dark wood shelves lined with books about coping with death, they rhythmically bang blue drums of varying shapes.


At least they used to, until COVID-19 caused sessions to be off and on.

"If nothing else, follow the rhythm of your heartbeat, is what I tell them, because your heart is a drum," said Sonya Jackson, the volunteer coordinator at Hospice SLO. "You're biologically wired to drum. You just have to listen to that rhythm and then replicate it on the drum. Once they do that, other people start joining in."

Jackson began facilitating Heart Rhythms Drum Circle at the converted Victorian home in 2018 after Hospice SLO's former executive director, Kris Kington-Barker, bought a set of drums but never found the time to begin sessions. Up until then, Jackson hadn't attended a drum circle, though she had an appreciation for the skill by way of growing up with a drummer brother.

But after studying The Art and Heart of Drum Circles—an instructional book and accompanying video set by music therapist Christine Stevens—she felt ready to lead.

"There are studies out there ... about what drum circles can do to lower blood pressure, lower anxiety, reduce stress, and even help processing grief," Jackson said. "There is absolutely stamina involved. I suppose if you were a little too overzealous in how you were striking the drums, it could become strenuous. But I don't encourage that, I encourage people to tap lightly because that's all it takes with these drums."

click to enlarge COMMUNITY LEADER Sonya Jackson facilitates drum circles at Hospice SLO with blue Remo hand drums of mixed sizes. - PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL
  • Photo By Bulbul Rajagopal
  • COMMUNITY LEADER Sonya Jackson facilitates drum circles at Hospice SLO with blue Remo hand drums of mixed sizes.

According to a California Health Advocates article, group drumming has even shown an increase in natural T-cells in the body, which can help fight off cancer and viruses like AIDS.

Jackson herself felt changes to her emotional state once she began drumming.

"I would teach drum circle after having worked all day. Even on those days that we all have where it's tougher than normal, I would go in thinking I was gonna dread drum circle because it was two more hours of me having to be here when I wanted to go home.

"What I found was by engaging in drum circle, my spirits lifted, my stress lifted, my mind lifted and softened," she said. "I felt energized not exhausted after it was over. I think it was what my clients experienced as well. Everyone always leaves with smiles on their faces and a little bit breathy."

One of those clients is Teresa Fernande, a 49-year-old grief counselor who was mourning her brother's passing. She attended the drum circle in October 2021—it's first session since March 2020—and belonged to a throng of 10 attendees. It was double the drum circle's usual number, and it underscored people's need to cope with anxiety during COVID-19.

"I was a little reluctant to attend. I was thinking, 'What am I going to do for an hour and a half just hitting a drum?' But I wanted to find some relief, so I went with an open mind. I actually loved it," Fernande said. "It was very therapeutic, and very healing. Even though we didn't talk to one another, by sharing music and going with the rhythm ... it was community healing."

New to drum circles, Fernande found it helpful to fall back on her heartbeat.

"I will not use the word 'happier,' because [that's] different for everyone. But I felt contentment and relief. I feel like I was able to work through my grief," she said. "The beating of the drum went along with the beating of the heart, for me. My heart was aching, and as I was drumming, I felt the connection with the sound, with my heart. I felt connected to the rest of the people who attended."

A one-time attendee, Fernande found the big mother drum to be her favorite. She hopes to attend more sessions, but the January circle was canceled due to the omicron variant's spread. In the meantime, she recommended tapping into music to self-soothe. Fernande said she practices healing at home by listening to violin pieces by the European music duo Secret Garden.

"Some of us don't have a drum at home. There is magic when you drum among others," she said. "Sometimes, I connect myself with certain [instrumental music] ... I feel it in my bloodstream."

Jackson, on the other hand, practiced grief yoga while the drum circle was paused. She added that drum therapy couldn't work on Zoom because of the video lags and delay, but drumming at home was possible through improvisation.

"You can play on anything; you can play on pots and pans. I say start where you are and use what you can if you're limited in resources. If you've got money, go out and buy a nice Remo drum and get something that speaks to your soul when you hear it struck," Jackson said. "You can put on your favorite song and play drums to that. Let go and have fun and release, because that's what's keeping all the tension tied up in knots in your neck and back."

Joining the hospice's drum circle is free of cost, and they're gearing up to host the next session on Feb. 10. Jackson mentioned that they try to pandemic-proof the gatherings by maintaining air flow through open doors and windows and air purifiers; encouraging mask use; and wiping down the drums in between playing.

"People just open up and let go. It's hard to find a safe place to let go in a healthy way these days," Jackson said.

Take it from another client, George Jercich, who attended drum therapy after his wife of 40 years passed away.

"I have enjoyed the sessions and do feel they restore something in my normal daily rhythms that have been amiss," he said. "I wish I was a better drummer, or maybe I should make more of a point of practicing more, but so far no one has hit me behind the ear with a drum stick and kicked me out." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].


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