By Madoline Markham
Photos by Lindsey Culver
Lauren Bearden’s class might be meeting inside, but it starts with rain. After that comes wind too—all as students drum out the sounds on the instrument in front of them. Next comes the call for thunder, and the drumming crescendos to a fill the room with a booming sound.
Every Wednesday afternoon Homewood Middle School special education students come to the school’s band room and each pick up a black and red drum as a part of a drum circle. They drum. They sing along. They dance. They do hand movements. They stomp. They clap. They pat on their laps. No matter if they are nonverbal, on the autism spectrum or have another disability, they use their hands to create rhythms as they sit in a semicircle.
Lauren—who was a drum major as a student at Homewood before becoming a band director— recalls story after story of how these students have grown since the drum circle started five years ago. One student who is nonverbal mostly walked around and danced to the music when the class started. He never drummed for the first year and half of the class. And then one day he sat down and responded to a rhythm exactly as Lauren had taught it. No one had prompted him. “Out of nowhere he drummed it,” Lauren recalls. “We were in tears because we didn’t know if that was someone how would ever do.”
Another student had always been quiet during drum circle until the first time Lauren asked her to come up and the lead class from the teacher’s chair. And in that moment, “Her face lit up,” Lauren says. “She hadn’t drummed in weeks, but as soon as she was sitting in my chair, it totally changed and she led the class for 10 minutes. Now every week that’s how I get her to participate.”
Even in the challenges that came this school year with COVID-19, the drum circle went on as some students took drums home and joined in via Zoom. They’ve also been wearing masks and sanitizing drums between uses. “It’s amazing to see the progression the kids have made and the fun they are having,” Lauren says.
The genesis of the drum circle came in the 2014 Rose Parade. A high school percussionist who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair participated in the parade with the Homewood Patriot Band with another student pushing his wheelchair. And that got the band directors thinking afterward about how students in the special education program could participate in band—and how music is beneficial on many levels to all students.
So Lauren and band director Chris Cooper sought out a local drum circle leader, John Scalici, and had him teach them the basics. Before long Synergy, Homewood Middle School’s drum circle, was born, thanks to a grant from the Homewood City Schools Foundation to pay for drums by Remo that are similar to a conga but with soft heads made for people with sensory issues. “It’s not about perfection,” Lauren says. “It’s just about movement and engaging in music and doing something collectively as a group.”
Just like the sounds the kids make on the drums, the drum circle has crescendoed far beyond the middle school band room too. As students aged up to Homewood High School, a drum circle by the name of Fusion started there with a second grant from the Homewood City Schools Foundation.
And both groups started performing for audiences. “At first we were nervous because a lot of students don’t do well with lights and loud noises. It can be a sensory overload,” Lauren recalls. So to warm up and get used to a crowd, the drum circle started performing in the middle school lunch room, and Lauren got on the microphone and encouraged the students eating lunch to join in and cheer. Each drum circle participant would take a turn performing a solo, whether it was drumming or clapping or using a tambourine, and then hundreds around them would cheer them on.
Next came the school talent show. Their debut song? “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. “Everyone went crazy for it,” Lauren says. “It’s become our theme song. We love anything fast that you can clap along to.” Depending on the day, you’ll hear the drum circle drumming and dancing to Aerosmith or Queen too. And for performances, Lauren teaches other students in band the movements so they know how to clap along and perform with the drum circle too. Talk about synergy there.
The crescendo didn’t stop there either. Three years ago the middle school drum circle performed at the state-wide music educators’ convention, and afterward other schools were interested in learning how to start their own drum circles. Today 10 schools around the state, including Spain Park High School and Helena Middle School nearby, have drum circles, and two years ago all those groups came together to perform at once at that same state convention with a mashup of songs Lauren sent all of them to learn.
For one of the songs she chose “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman soundtrack. “That whole movie is about inclusion,” she says. “What better song collection to use? I cry just thinking about (that moment).”
It’s no wonder that Lauren often gets requests from adults wanting to come to the drum circle, included multiple visits from former superintendent Dr. Bill Cleveland. “Sometimes people say, ‘I am having the worst day. Can I come to drum circle?’” she says. “It’s therapeutic, and it’s a release. Who doesn’t like to grab a drum and bang on it?”
For Lauren, drum circle is one of her favorite times of the week. It reminds her music is not about perfection but passion. And it has taught her that kids can do almost anything—they just need the right outlet for it.