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Drumming for well-being: Lost in the beat and feeling good

  • Ellen Clegg, right, leads a weekly drumming circle in Northampton at St. John's Episcopal Church. With her here, at a recent session, is Gene Fulmer of Northampton. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo PHOTOS

  • Clegg says drumming without thinking can help people minimize stress. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Ellen Clegg plays a drum at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Sue Laufer of Hatfield, participating here in Clegg’s group, says drumming makes her feel refreshed. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Ellen Clegg, right, and Gene Fulmer, left, play drums at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Gene Fulmer plays a drum at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Ellen Clegg, right, and Gene Fulmer, left, complete a round of drumming during a drum circle at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, July 02, 2018

A deep bass rhythm resonated through oaken pews lining the nave in Northampton’s St. John’s Episcopal Church Tuesday, underlying a higher pitched percussion line that shook the church’s stained glass windows as it rose from a group of three drummers improvising on bongos near the sanctuary entrance below.

Leading the group was Ellen Clegg, 45, of Northampton, founder of Wellness Empowerment Drumming, a workshop-based drumming program designed to bring groups of people together.

She paused for a second, listening as the others, Sue Laufer of Hatfield and Gene Fulmer of Northampton, maintained the beat. Then, with a roll of her fingers, a slap of her palm and three hard notes, she guided the rhythm to a smooth ending.

“Yeah. All right!” Clegg said, her voice seemingly loud in the ensuing silence. The other two let out a collective sigh, smiling.

“Oh my god, I had an out of body experience,” said Laufer, 63, sitting in a pew across from Clegg. “My hair was on end. It gave me chills.”

Feeling replenished

The health benefits of drumming in a group are measurable, Clegg says later, citing research by the drum manufacturing company Remo Inc.’s HealthRHYTHMS program, a global initiative for which she teaches here. Data, she says, correlates drumming with a stronger immune system and lower stress levels, among other things. One study, initiated by the manufacturer and conducted by neurologist Barry Bittman, medical director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, found that drumming “significantly increased the disease fighting activity of circulating white blood cells,” according to Remo’s website.

While that research is backed by a drum manufacturer, those who drum in groups attest to the physical benefits.

“It’s therapeutic. At the end you feel replenished, and refreshed. It’s a mind-body experience,” said Laufer, who has been participating in drum groups for years.

Clegg, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in environmental education, says drummers’ brainwaves align when they play in a group, a physics law called “entrainment,” creating a strong sense of community.

“When two rhythms are close to one another they’re going to end up being the same,” Clegg said. As modern society increasingly interacts online instead of offline, intentional community is important for a person’s overall well-being, she said.

Laufer, who recently moved to the area, compares group drumming to singing in a choir. Even though she didn’t know anyone when she first began attending Clegg’s session, she says she felt an immediate bond with those around her when the drumming started.

Besides encouraging connections with others, drumming can be good exercise, Clegg says, and it is accessible to people of all walks of life.

Western society’s focus on musical technique over the act of making music, though inhibits people from getting involved, she says.

“Some music in school is so intellectual it misses the point,” she said. “And people get discouraged, and think, ‘I don’t have a talent for that.’ ” In other cultures, such as Latin America, music is collaborative and communal.

Life-long drummer

Over the years, Clegg, who works professionally as a drummer, has led a variety of drum classes in the Pioneer Valley, put on community building events, and recorded drum lines for local musicians. She founded Offbeat Womyn’s Drumming Ensemble, an all female musical group, which performs regularly at public events throughout the region. Currently, she is learning to play the Gyil, a traditional African percussion instrument that looks like a xylophone.

Clegg, who earns a living from her drum workshops, has been drumming for her entire life. Her mother, a concert pianist, allowed Clegg to choose an instrument to learn, and she picked drums.

“That looked like a classical approach to drumming — private lessons with a Hartford Symphony percussionist, along with the usual school band,” Clegg recalled. Early on, music, to her, was “written on a page.”

In high school, however, she began to understand that sheet music was “the translation of what someone created. It’s not the music,” and began branching out into improvisational techniques more prevalent in African and Latin American drumming styles.

When her mother died when she was 12, Clegg turned to improvisational drumming as a coping mechanism.

In grief, “I stopped talking, for the most part, not completely, but certainly not anything that was really important for me to say,” she said. Drumming gave her a language with which to communicate her pain, and, eventually, helped her “to grieve appropriately. It’s a safe form of expression, especially for major emotions that otherwise might come out in more harmful ways,” she said.

Led by the beat

Now Clegg encourages participants in her sessions, titled “Beat Stress, Building Community,” to let themselves fall into a meditative state and avoid thinking about the beat.

Inside the church Tuesday, Clegg guided the group into a second round of drumming.

“We’re not trying to engage our brains,” she said, encouraging Laufer and Fulmer to drum by instinct, while starting a slow beat. “The head, for the most part, is not helpful. We’re such an (intellectual) culture that it makes it very challenging.”

Drumming without thinking, Clegg says, can help people minimize stress, especially in crucial times. A few decades after her mother passed away, Clegg says, she helped provide hospice care for her dying father. At the time, she was just beginning Gyil lessons.

“At the last day, it was obvious that it was the last day,” Clegg said. She played for her dad on the Gyil to ease his fear.

“He was immediately relaxed,” she said. “And he died 20 minutes later.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

Ellen Clegg offers classes on Tuesdays at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Elm St., Northampton from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. They are $14 per person or $65 for six weeks and include drums. For more information, visit Clegg’s website at www.ellenclegg.com. To contact Clegg, email her at ellen@ellenclegg.com.