Rhythm Therapy in Juvenile Hall
Drum! Magazine, May/June 2001 -- By David Weiss, Photography by Sam Erikson

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 be stressed."

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 (, 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 low."

"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 lives.

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?

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