by Shannon Carr, Communications & Social Media Specialist
Mark Farley is keeping the beat for Morgan Autism Center’s students and adults as they learn to express themselves through the universal language of music. In July, the Los Gatos resident began holding weekly community drum circles in the multi-purpose room on site.
“Making a joyous noise is one of the great experiences of being human,” Executive Director Brad Boardman says. “The barrier to participation is non-existent and our students really enjoy it.”
During the hour-long sessions, students and adult clients pull up a chair to one of the 20 available hand drums or grab a shaker of their choosing to become part of a gathering of people sharing rhythm and getting in tune with each other and themselves.
“My focus is not on the performance aspect as much as the therapeutic side of it,” Mark says.
He explained the drum circles utilize the natural power of rhythm and sound for the purpose of tapping into layers of the mind and body that other modalities cannot.
Mark cited a study by Dr. Barry Bittman, which suggests drumming is good for the immune system. Barry’s research has demonstrated how a group drumming session can create illness-killing cells, which could protect the body. His study says, “Group drum- ming tunes our biology, orchestrates our immunity, and enables healing to begin.”
Mark begins each session by welcoming participants to the circle then introducing the history of a song he selects from a repertoire of traditional African folk songs, including “Fanga Alafia,” a West African song of wel- come, and “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” (or “Jingo”).
“These are the songs I’ve chosen because I know I can do group dynamic participation, the rhythms are easier for them to understand and they will get instant gratification because they are all playing together,” he says.
Mark shapes the experience by beginning the beats needed to kick off the chosen song and maintaining them as needed, but the music is entirely improvised through a process of group interaction.
“Drumming is a very simple form of self-expression that appeals to a broad group of people,” Brad says. “Just seeing students who are typically reserved strike a drum for the first time is quite an experience.”
The participants make up the music as they go along, using their listening and play- ing to express themselves in any way they see fit.
Student Zach, for example, likes to play the Taiko drum and hold down the beat.
“No matter what the distraction attempts are by other students, he consistently is there,” Mark says.
Mark described the step-by-step process of witnessing some of the transformations taking place in students and adult clients after only a couple weeks, some of which happened even just after one one-hour session.
At the top of the hour, a student or adult client will sit by a drum and an instructional aide will rest their hand on top. Within five minutes, he often sees them hit the drum on their own accord.
“And then, by the end of the hour, they’re really engaged,” he says.
He adds: “The second event, today, they walked in the door where they left off. We’re not back to the beginning. We’re actually moved forward. They’re hitting the drum. They’ve got a relationship with it. It’s not foreign to them. And they remember the music.”
Mark explained there are a number of other benefits to participating in community drum circles.
“Clandestinely, they’re learning focus exercises,” Mark says. “But also what I’m seeing is that they’re learning the concept of rhythm and how it affects them. They’re getting stimulation, instant gratification from knowing that they created something — a sound — and they’re participating in a group dynamic that allows them to be collectively sharing and giving.”
For those with a disability, he believes the activity provides an even more important outlet.
Mark’s goal is to facilitate the drum circles to teachers and aides so they can use the activity to help understand what’s motivating the students and adult clients they serve. It would help them know, for example: How are the individuals engaged? Where are the points of losing them? What instruments are they drawn to?
“Here’s an option that’s easy, it’s non-threatening and it’s hard not to want to touch a drum,” he says. “So there’s a lot to be said about these students engaged in these drum circles.”