Drumming With At-Risk Teens

by Jim Greiner

– Network Magazine January, 1995

Drumming has been an integral part of helping young people learn essential life skills worldwide for thousands of years. Since time immemorial people have created Rites of Passage designed to bring children into adulthood. Drumming, in its many forms, has been a crucial part of these Rites.

Rites of Passage are powerfully cathartic experiences that are a vital part of the social and emotional development of young people. This types of experience is necessary to break the strong patterns and habits (rhythms) of childhood while reinforcing the new patterns and habits (rhythms) of adulthood.

Drumming, by its very nature, is enormously effective at propelling the individual through the portals between life stages. The repetitive rhythms of focused, purposeful drumming, help to break the hold of the old life rhythms and patterns and reinforce the new rhythms, patterns and lessons of adulthood that are essential to the functioning of the society.

“At-risk” teens are those who are literally at risk of making choices that lead to behavior patterns (rhythms) that are destructive to themselves, to their relationships with others and to their communities. These include substance abuse, violence, poor academic performance, lack of relationship and communication skills and a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness about their future.

Drumming in a focused, group setting is a vehicle for presenting positive life skills, as well as a working metaphor for developing positive life rhythms. Drumming in a focused, supportive groups is also a powerful catalyst for breaking out of destructive patterns and replacing them with positive patterns that serve the participants.

These positive patterns include listening, communicating clearly and effectively our intentions, cooperating with others, being of service to a community, releasing tension, positive ways of channeling physical power and developing a “can-do” attitude along with a sense of celebrating life.

The nature of group drumming is that the participants play intertwining, interdependent patterns that fit together to create the complete rhythm. This is the nature of any thriving group; the group members each contribute their individual skills, talents and personalities to shared goals. The power of the group rhythm sweeps the participants along in a relentless, undeniable flow that profoundly reinforces these positive life skills.

I use drumming as a vehicle for presenting and reinforcing these positive life skills. I also use myth and storytelling as part of my programs to engage young people at universal archetypical levels. I’ve found in my work with at-risk youth, that they will respond to a call to heroic archetypes when presented in a clear, powerfully inclusive way.

For example, I will use heroic characters from the root cultures of those young people present (European, African, Central American, Asian and others) as examples of the models that their ancestors used to teach the values and goals of their communities to prepare their youth for the rite of passage into adulthood.

The natural leaders of the groups I work with will respond to a call to use their power to serve the less powerful members of their communities as their ancestral heroes would. The less dominant members will respond to the challenge of rising to their own heroic levels. I also use these traditional heroic archetypes to reinforce that we all share the same fundamental values and goals, no matter where our ancestors came from, and that we all strive to reach similar heroic levels.

Time and time again, I’ve seen young people respond to these heroic levels, to break out of patterns that they know are limiting them and to rise to levels of compassion, service and true power that bring them to new ways of living life. The combination of focused drumming, reinforced positive life skills and a challenge to become heroes resonates with young people, whether “at-risk”, or not. They are searching for meaning, for belonging, for their power, and for a sense of accomplishment.

Drumming is one of the ways in which they can experience these feelings in very real, immediate and enduring ways.