Drum circle leader John Robinson starts playing one of the most recognizable beats in music, a sport anthem played at arenas and stadiums across the country – “We Will Rock You” by the band Queen. Immediately the other musicians, 15 in all, pick up the beat using a variety of drums and other percussion instruments including sticks, rattles and tambourines.
When Robinson changes the beat mid-song, some follow him, others stay true to the original beat and a few drummers, including Bryce Hughett, who is using a traditional buffalo drum with a mallet, begin to improvise. Rhythmically, each person compliments the group and when the drum jam is finished, smiles abound, some applaud and high fives are exchanged.
The drummers are residents of the Holly Creek Retirement Community in Centennial and the drum circle is the brainchild of Holly Creek’s Life Enrichment Director Cindy Livingston.
“The drum circle is just one example of how we integrate the arts and outdoors into residents’ lives to fulfill their physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs,” said Livingston. “Most of these drummers are taking up the instrument for the first time in their lives.”
“What’s great about drumming is that most people can do it, even if you’ve never played an instrument before in your life,” added Livingston. “Plus it brings residents from across the community together, whether they live independently, require assisted living, skilled nursing or memory support.”
In addition to the drum circle, residents have formed a poetry-reading group and recently planted the community’s garden, designed to stimulate the senses. They also have their own version of “cocktails and canvas,” where budding or seasoned artists can create their latest work in a social setting with a beverage of their choice.
A widower transformed
One of the drum rookies is 96-year-old Bryce Hughett. A Holly Creek resident since 2006, Hughett lost some of his drive and passion after his wife’s passing from Alzheimer’s complications in 2013, according to daughter Nancy Boyer.
“After mom died, dad just stayed to himself in his apartment but that all changed when Cindy Livingston asked him to sit in with the poetry group,” said Boyer.
Soon after, Hughett was listening to and commenting on the poetry group readings, which meet every Monday through Friday.
The poetry group was the beginning of Hughett’s transformation, but it did not stop there. He soon became a drum circle regular.
“Here was a man, a retired physician who lived his whole life focused on academia, without much social interaction and grieving over the loss of his wife suddenly sharing his own personal experiences with the poetry group and jamming in a drum circle – it’s nothing short of miraculous!” added Boyer.
Boyer and other family members have seen a distinct transformation in Hughett from a person who was not a “joiner” into someone passionate about being involved in groups that allow verbal and musical expression.
Breaking senior stereotypes
According to Livingston, who refers to her office as “the creation station,” the transformation of Hughett and the activities he and other residents experience help break stereotypes that often define seniors.
“There’s a perception in society that all we can do when we get older is reminisce about the past,” said Livingston. “Trying new and novel things keeps us, and our brains engaged. Drum circles are not just for hippies or the young. It gets the heart pumping, helps stimulate the left and right sides of the brain, helps create new friendships and allows the individual drummer to have their own unique experience and exercise their creativity.”
The impact is very individualized. During the hour-long drum circle session, some of the drummers transcend into an almost meditative state while others, including Hughett, become animated. Between jams, circle leader John Robinson, who also breaks stereotypes, talks about the types of drums being used and the cultures they come from.
Robinson is a former El Paso County Deputy Sheriff, who became involved in teaching and facilitating drum circles after a distinguished career in law enforcement.
While holding a buffalo drum and mallet, he explains to the drummers that the beat most people associate with Native Americans was actually created by Hollywood and that Native American drummers use a looser and more flowing style than the 4/4 time that accents the first beat.
Toward the end of the jam session, Robinson pulls out a didgeridoo, the wind instrument used by indigenous Australians. He gives a demonstration of its different sounds and passes it to his fellow musicians to hold. When it comes to Hughett, he smiles and balances on his hands to feel its considerable weight. After everyone sees the instrument up close, Robinson starts a new drum pattern. Once the drummers find their groove, Robinson switches to the didgeridoo and the drum circle plays a song that just might sound familiar to Aboriginal elders.
There is a palpable energy in the room after the Holly Creek elders finish their playing. Smiles and hugs are exchanged and Hughett, pointing at the didgeridoo exclaims, “Maybe I’ll play that at the next drum circle!”
Written by Chuck Montera, Sigler Communications