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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: tips for drumming circles

I love doing drum circles with my students in the spring. The students are so motivated by the instruments, and having a different formation (sitting in a circle) is a great way to break out of the normal routine and keep things interesting as the end of the year approaches. I am planning to share some of my favorite drum circle activities in a future post (update: see that post, with all of my favorite lesson ideas and activities for drum circles, here), but today I wanted to talk about the logistics and organizational side of things for those who would like to try a drum circle in your own elementary music classes.

1. Set up enough chairs for each student, you, and one extra in one big circle.

Part of the point of a drum circle is that everyone is looking at everyone else and there is no one person leading. Having an extra chair next to you will serve 3 important purposes: it gives you a place to set down the things you might normally keep on your music stand or nearby desk (like your clipboard, keys, clock etc), it gives a little space between you and the students so they are facing you a bit more without taking you out of the circle, and it gives a nice spot for any troublesome students to move to if they need some extra reminders.

2. Have the drums already set up (bigger ones in front of the chairs, smaller instruments under the chairs) before the students come in.

One of the most magical moments is when the class comes in and gasps at the sight of a drum circle set up and waiting for them. Don't waste a chance for magic like that (not to mention all the headaches you will save yourself). If you have students assigned to smaller groups in your normal setup (like the color teams I use), you may want to think about finding a way to assign spots by those smaller groups. In my case, I have djembes in each of the 6 colors I have for the groups of students in my classes, so I have students go to a chair that has their team color's djembe. That way I can plan for any assigned seats I need for specific students but also give students a sense of choice.

3. You don't have to have a class set of drums to have a drum circle!

If you don't have enough drums, add small percussion to the mix. Shakers, scrapers, cowbells, and whistles are all great and still fit with the genre. Make sure you alternate instruments when you set them up around the circle, and then have students rotate through the instruments by switching chairs throughout the class period.

4. Always establish ground rules before you start

Before they even go sit down in the circle, I always have the class sit off to the side while I give them the first rule: don't touch the instruments, even by mistake, until I give you permission. After we are all seated quietly, I go over the rest of my rules:

  • Because we are in a circle, it is very important that we not only think about what we say and do but also about what we show on our faces. Your facial expressions need to communicate appreciation and respect for each other when others are playing. When you are playing yourself, your facial expressions need to communicate confidence.
  • Knowing that every person in the circle is being held to a high standard of respect, it is important for each participant to be creative and take risks. Don't just play what you already know you can do. Try something new.
  • If you play your instrument when it is not your turn, even if it is by mistake, you will be asked to put your instrument down for a few minutes. If it happens repeatedly, you will be asked to leave the circle. In order to be able to play together as a united group, we need to be able to listen to each other even more keenly than we usually do.
5. Don't talk too much

Demonstrate and have them copy back (just point to them and they'll get it). You'll have to explain some things but most cultures that incorporate drum circles regularly practice a master-apprentice style of learning anyway. The less time they have to sit and listen to you talk without playing their instruments, the better :)

I think that's it from me! I'd love to hear other tips you may have to share as well- leave a comment!


  1. The drums were my favourite instrument when I was a kid. I remember sitting in class hoping to be given them but would usually end p with a maraca or a shaker lol. Great Post from one teacher to another! Angela xx

    My recent Post "A Cinderella daddy daughter date"

    1. That's a great point- we want to make sure every student has an opportunity to play each instrument, but it can be so difficult to manage the hundreds of students we have and remember who has played what! And especially if you have quiet, well-behaved students (like I'm guessing you were), those students often end up with the less enticing instruments simply because we know they won't complain as much... Sad but true. I'm working on a system to better track some of those main instruments that I want students to all have turns on, so hopefully that situation will improve next year... Thanks for stopping by!!

  2. What a great set of tips! Drums can be so fun but total chaos if you don't set ground rules! #fermataFriday

    1. Haha, so true... I am famous for being quite noisy, and have often gotten comments like, "I don't know how you stand it", but the truth is the noise is always controlled and always purposeful (OK, almost always...). Structure and ground rules are the key!

  3. I like your idea of starting small and focusing on having students take a turn. THese are good tips for all of us!

  4. Used your tips today - everything went really well! Thanks for putting so much thought into your planning and sharing all of your ideas with us!

    1. That's so great to hear Lauren! And thank you for the comment :) Happy drumming!!