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Edgerton Hospital program uses percussion for stress relief, exercise, healing

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Neil Johnson
February 17, 2013

— One drumbeat started the whole thing. Before long, a growing chorus of primitive, hand-made drums chimed in. Then a rattle. Then a cowbell. Then a string of shells and beads that sounded like rain. In came the shimmer of a tambourine. While only a few of the nine people in the room knew each other, after five minutes, everyone was suddenly, completely in sync.

Trish Kalhagen, spiritual director and instructor for Edgerton Hospital’s “Drumming for Health” drum circle, pointed to members of the circle, asking them one by one to stop playing. The music tapered off to a lone cowbell. Then silence.

“What do you feel?” Kalhagen asked members of the drum circle. Most were newcomers to drum playing. They were a mix of local residents who had come to a meeting room in the hospital’s lower level Saturday morning for an introduction to the health benefits and therapeutic value of drum circles. One resident remarked that she could still hear the tinny cowbell ringing in her head. Another said he felt “creative.” One woman said she could feel the vibrations of the deep, bongo-like djembe drums humming in her chest.

“It’s like a heartbeat,” said a gray-haired woman named Mary.

No one at Saturday’s drum circle gave their last names. No need. People got to know each other through the sounds their hands made with animal skin-covered drums, wooden blocks, and rasps and bells. Between sets of a 45-minute drumming session, people joked, laughed and traded around instruments. Tensions and apprehensions seemed to melt away as the drum circle played on.

Kalhagen, an Edgerton resident who is a certified spiritual director and a Reiki master, teaches an introduction to drum circles four Saturdays a year at the hospital. Her hour-and-a-half-long course is a casual blend of music history, healthy living and holistic therapy theory, and hands-on training for beginning percussion players.

Kalhagen cites newer medical studies, including ones from Stanford University School of Medicine and Colorado State University’s Center of Biomedical Research in Music that show playing simple percussion instruments:

- Can lower stress and blood pressure.

- Enhances people’s immune systems and boosts production of cancer-killing cells in the body.

- Decreases depression and social isolation and increases attention, concentration, creativity and self-esteem.

- Eases chronic pain and lessen the symptoms of asthma, and Parkinson’s disease, stroke and certain nervous system disorders.

“It really is the new Vitamin D. As in drum,” Kalhagen said.

Often, Kalhagen said, people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia seem to have improved recognition of family or friends during drum playing. She said it’s because simple rhythmic beats are predictable, soothing and demand less complex thought. “It helps them to feel better, less anxious. It helps them to connect with loved ones somehow,” Kalhagen said.

Kalhagen said her class Saturday was meant to serve as a primer for anyone wanting to play drums for therapeutic value or anyone interested in joining a drum circle. There are few drum circles locally, but Kalhagen said she gives people in her classes a list of drum circles in the Madison area. Most of the groups allow members to join in for free or for a small donation.

One woman on Saturday compared the drum circle to the simple fun of music class in elementary school. Kalhagen told the woman she had hit the drum right on the head. “We need to just play more and to never think that’s silly,” Kalhagen said.


 
 

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