Technically, you could say that Jersey City
and the New York City borough of Manhattan are border towns
- if you don't count the wedge that the Hudson River drives
between the two. But a cold, damp February day like this
is one of those times when they feel really apart.
There are three of us in the car. Behind the wheel is
Robert Lawrence Friedman, a psychotherapist, drum circle
facilitator and Remo Artist who's made this drive from
NYC to our New Jersey destination so many times he doesn't
even think about where he's going. Sam Erickson, our photographer
is loading his optical weapons in the back. I'm riding
shotgun, checking out the gritty sidewalks that roll by,
waiting to see if, after 16 years of playing and five years
of writing for this magazine, today is a day when the drums
surprise me again….
Actually, I get my first surprise sooner than I think I
will (that' what makes it a surprise, right?). Friedman's
just put the car in park, but our destination isn't what
I pictured. Instead of a jail, I see that the particular
correctional facility we've arrived at is a house with a
porch and a driveway, just like the rest of the buildings
on this street.
Sam and I get out and help Robert pull 20 or so small hand
drums out of the trunk. The door of the blue house is flung
open for us, and the three of us step into the world of P.A.Y.B.A.C.C.,
a youth program run by Hudson County and Catholic Community
Services in New Jersey. Inside, 12 juvenile offenders - a
handful of the tougher kids from Jersey City's tough streets
- couldn't be happier to see us.
Any experienced drummer knows that the instrument is a great
method for self-expression. For people like Robert Lawrence
Friedman, known in the biz as a facilitators who run drum
circles all the time, the trick is to give non-drummers that
same ability. Friedman grew up playing the kit before switching
over to hand percussion as his art, and later on becoming
a psychotherapist and speaker by profession. He found that
these two main components of his background merged together
quite naturally, setting him on a path to join the growing
field of drum circle facilitators who believe that drums
can do a lot more than just entertain people.
"What happened was that - without even realizing it-I
was using the drum as a way to deal with my own emotions,
stress and anger issues," says Friedman of his early
days of discovery. "For me, the drum served as a therapeutic
tool, even though I wasn't conscious of it. The drum is a
great way to channel emotions that can't be spoken. Sometimes
people - especially children and adult males - can't quite
find the right words to say. With drums, you don't' necessarily
have to find the right words. You just hit them, and it's
a very healthy exercise.
One of the things we all need - one of the vital elements
of life as a human being - is to feel heard and to make connections
with others. The drum is one of the vehicles to make this
happen. When a person hits a drum, any kind of drum, they're
immediately transported into the present moment. That's good
for stress levels, because stress is usually about the future
or the past. In the present moment, it's very difficult to
Drawing off his own particular combination of talent, education
and experience, Friedman is an important resource to scores
of people every year who find that whacking a conga drum
from time to time can be a very good thing.
He's been spreading the word for 15 years, through his New
York City based company Stress Solutions (www.stress-solutions.com),
as well as his new book, The Healing Power of the Drum. As
a result, his tailor made drum circle programs, such as Drumming
Away Stress¨, Drumming For Anger and Drum Circles for
Health, are showing growing numbers of corporate executives,
patients and even prisoners the unique power of rhythm.
"What I found when I first started facilitating drum
circles was that laymen who were non-musicians were able
to gain the same benefits from drumming that I was, in terms
of relieving stress and experiencing joy and playfulness,"
Friedman explains. "One of the qualities of the hand
drum more than any other instrument, is that it's easy to
play, extremely accessible and the learning curve is very
"We could possibly do the same thing with the French
horn, for example, but a person might have to take three
to four years to learn the proper form. With a hand drum,
even as opposed to a drum set, it's very simple to take your
hand, put it down on the drum, and create a sound."
Over at P.A.Y.B.A.C.C., [the words that originally forms
the acronym P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. are no longer descriptive of the
program - nevertheless, the acronym has been retained as
the program's name], that's a concept that can translate
into solid progress for kids with some major stress in their
Established as a day program for youths who are awaiting
charges or have already been charged with a crime, enrollment
in P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. can either be part of a judge's sentence,
or a measure to relieve detention overcrowding in Jersey
City's Hudson County. The teens that enter the program are
monitored with electronic ankle bracelets, and they're expected
to be at the P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. house from 9:00 Am to 9:00 PM,
seven days a week, for three months.
"What P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. does is give these youths something
to feel besides the streets," explains program manager
Renes Cruz. "By no means are you going to change these
kids in three months, but we're going to give them some tools
so that, if they decide they're going to change, they can
make that change.
"Our groups are positive-peer, where the guys back
each other up. It's a unit. No one here is better than the
other; although you get rated on a scale of zero to five,
you get a higher rating because you're fulfilling your obligations.
When you sit down in a drum circle like this, you can actually
see it happening in front of you: These guys get into something
that's not as strict as the other types of services they
get. When they sit here with the drumming, they're letting
go - it's just a stress relief for them. You see kids beating
on walls and beating each other up, but here they're hitting
that drum. It's just a great thing."
When Friedman gets ready to dive into another drum circle
at P.A.Y.B.A.C.C., he starts out with one primary objective.
"My general view is one of acceptance." Friedman
points out. "Whatever they do is okay, it's not for
me to judge them. It's not for me to tell them what's right
or wrong, because the drum is just the vehicle for making
them feel better about themselves. The drum is a vehicle
to help them get their stress and their anger out, and to
create a sense of group cohesiveness."
On this Friday morning at P.A.Y.B.A.C.C., Friedman gets
off to a good start on his mission. Cruz doesn't have to
ask anyone twice to fill up the circle of 12 chairs, plus
two more for Robert and me, that have appeared in the living
room of the house. Although one of the newer boys to the
program is giving off definite body language that he'd rather
not be there, everyone is ready to let the session kick in.
Up until this point, Friedman has been a pretty mild-mannered
guy, exuding the mellow ease that seems to be characteristic
of hand drummers everywhere. As the circle begins, however,
he channels that stability into a confidence that allows
him to quickly take control of the situation. He and the
P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. participants come from totally different worlds,
but their respectful cooperation is nonetheless granted almost
immediately. Friedman passes out a color Remo Kids' Djembe
to everyone (including me), then promptly tells everyone
to put it down on the floor.
"The goal today is really just to have some fun with
the drums," Friedman announces. "We'll learn some
skills with the drums, get some stress out and get some emotions
out, but the goal is just to be ourselves and have some fun.
Friedman asks everyone to work together in duplicating some
simple rhythms he plays. Next, each of us is asked to call
out and play our own rhythm, which is then played out together
by the circle. The beat gets complex, accompanying an increasing
comfort level with creativity and non-judgment - no one makes
fun of someone else's beat. We play it and move on.
Friedman continues on doing other exercises and games. A
blizzard of beats and rhythms converges as some of the new
drummers move to freestyle raps. It doesn't sound like anything
I've ever heard before, but it's an incredible kind of music.
Whether or not anyone has talent simply isn't an issue here.
The measure of success in this performance is if you feel
better, somehow, when it's done. By that standard, everybody
here has come out on top.
The jam ends in a huge, full-force slamming of the djembe,
when somebody calls out "Whooo! Do it one more time!"
A whole new barrage starts again, and looking around at my
new bandmates drumming, rhyming and laughing. It's impossible
to picture them in a courtroom, or in the unsavory situation
that got them there in the first place. Meanwhile, Friedman
stands off to the side, listening to the jams and smiling
like he just helped produce a #1 hit.
After the last drumbeat has sounds and the participants
have moved onto their own responsibilities around the house,
it's clear that Friedman's circles are having a long-lasting
effect on many of the youths at P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. For teens
like Derrick, 16, they've become a very important part of
his personal development through the program.
"I'll participate in the drum circle anytime,"
Derrick says afterward. "It's a fun activity. It's never
boring, because there's always something there to entertain
you. I take it as someone trying to help your way of life,
and what you want to do."
"I'm thankful for it," adds Maurice, 17, who had
just taken part in his eighth drum circle. "For someone
to take time out of their day to come see us and help us
with our little problem, I'm grateful for that. With the
drumming, you can relieve stress and be happy about it. You
feel good about what you did, playing the drums and coordinating
with one another."
Underneath, the sounds, Cruz depends on Friedman's drum
circles to get some crucial, basic messages across. "in
the drum circle you have components of following directions,
working with other people, not ridiculing the other guy because
he's not playing as great as you are," Cruz states. "The
respect factors are there. Everything that we try to project
in terms of the rules and regulations of the program is in
that circle, and that trickles down into the program: After
the guys leave the circle, they're still in high spirits,
they're still feeling cool.
"It's not the same old anger management that you see
(asking), 'Why are you angry?' We're all angry. So let's
just drum and get some of this out!"
With the car pointed back at NYC's twin towers, Robert Friedman
is still riding the pleasant high that today's experience
with the youth's of P.A.Y.B.A.C.C. gave us. "What comes
out of the drum circle for me is that I end up feeling love
for them," he says excitedly. "I always leave here
thinking about them and feeling this connection with them.
It doesn't necessarily make sense. I mean, I was with them
for an hour, I drummed with them, but there's something that
lingers with me. And my sense is that it lingers with them
too, because whenever I return, I get back the same warmth."
For my part, I have to agree that being in that circle was
a unique feeling. I've just experienced a new way that the
drums can touch people, using the strength of the moment
not just for some sensory pleasure, but also as a door to
real hope, health and happiness. Is there any other instrument
that can do that with such ease?