I realized, after having someone recently ask me about basic shamanic techniques, that I really haven’t written much about the foundational nuts and bolts of what I do. I suppose it’s another case of me assuming that readers already have the basics of (neo)shamanism under their belts; it’s actually more of a challenge for me to write something on that most basic and bare-bones level because I have to think hard about things I normally take for granted. So I’m going to take a shot at explaining the basics of how I do drum journeying, and some starter points for readers as well.
I’ve enjoyed dancing at drum circles for many years now. Dancing and drumming are effective forms of trancework for me, but trying to keep an eye on other dancers can be distracting, never mind dodging the occasional drunk person with poor boundaries. So I’ve learned to drum solo for my own personal shamanic work. It took some work, since I hadn’t really been a drummer before, but with practice I learned to go into trance while dancing (or sitting) and drumming, and now the action of drumming is closely interwoven with the trance state. The rhythm of my body beating the drum helps to lull me into the initial trance, and helps carry me deeper with physical cues as I drum faster or slower, louder or softer.
Drumming is one of the most common forms of trancework in shamanic practice; most (though not all) shamanic traditions worldwide incorporate drumming. Sometimes the drum is only a tool; other times it’s a vehicle to the otherworld; and still other drums are the map to get there. While shamanic drumming does rely some on keeping at least a very basic “heartbeat” rhythm, you don’t have to be a virtuoso. Also, it’s wonderfully universal experience; while their perception of the percussion may differ somewhat from hearing peoples’, those who are deaf can also make use of drums, shamanically and otherwise.
You may already have some experience with trancing while drumming. If not, the first thing you’ll want to do is to practice altering your state of consciousness to the sound of drums. There are lots of drumming CDs out there, and you can also find some free videos by searching for “shamanic drumming” on YouTube. If you’re lucky enough to have a drum circle near you, you can even listen in person; a lot of them won’t have a problem if you don’t drum yourself, so long as you aren’t disruptive. You can, of course, drum as well, but the main thing is to practice “sinking into” the drum beats regardless of whether you yourself drum or not.
Deerskin drum and beater by Lupa, 2012.
You will also want to practice drumming itself. Play with your drum; try out different beats, and see how each part of the head sounds–the tone near the edges may be very different from that in the center. Really listen to the drum’s voice and get to know it as an individual. Don’t worry about being technically proficient; don’t even necessarily worry about keeping a perfect beat, either. Just play with it and see what happens.
Once you feel comfortable enough with both skills, try bringing them together. You can drum at the drum circle, or drum by yourself and ride the rhythm you create. And most of all, practice, practice, practice. Nothing replaces that. You may find that you dip a bit into the spirit world as you’re practicing. That’s okay. Generally you’re not going to go in deep enough at this point to get in any trouble. If you have trouble “coming back out” again, ground yourself by getting up and walking around a bit (with company if you feel a bit wobbly) and eat something protein-heavy to settle your body down again.
What sort of drum do I use?
My personal choice has always been natural hide drums. My first one was a goathide bodhran, but my current journeying drum is a horse hide frame drum that I got after completing my first year of intensive Therioshamanic work. Horse has long been a totem of travel and protection for me, so it was fitting that the horse hide drum was the one who chose to work with me. Not only do I work with the physical drum, but also the spirits of the horse and yellow cedar whose physical remains create the drum, and the deer whose leg bone is the beater. She has a deeper voice, but varied, and I’ve gotten to know her voice well enough that I can play her without even looking at her and still know exactly where to strike to get the right pitch.
The spirit of the horse hide is also the ones who carries me to the spirit world. It’s safer to have a guide to take me there, and she has been known to rescue me when things got a little (or a lot!) too risky. She can move much more quickly there than I can, and can sometimes gain entry to places that I can’t go by myself. Plus it takes effort to move around, even in the spirit realm, so having someone to take the first leg of effort allows me to reserve my strength for once I arrive. There have even been times I was so tired afterward that she was the only thing getting me back home safely.
There’s a wide variety of drums out there; each with its own voice and playing style. A djembe is going to have a different personality than a bodhran, and they’re played differently, too. If you’ve spent some time at a drum circle you may already know what type of drum you prefer. However, if you’re still unsure, go to a drum circle or shop and check out how each is played. If you don’t have access to a drum circle there are videos of some on YouTube, though it may be tough to figure out which drum has which voice. And the same if you need to order your drum online–you can search for each type of drum and generally find lots of videos of people playing them.
One other consideration: despite my love of hide drums, I have occasionally regretted not having a synthetic drum as a backup. Hide drums don’t like moisture, and if I’m at an outdoor festival where it’s raining, my horse hide drum is going to sound flatter than a dead tire. Some people dislike synthetic drums because they’re, well, synthetic. However, you can imbue a synthetic drum with spirit in much the same way as vegan skindancing.
Whether you buy or make a natural or synthetic drum, or even make one out of common household products, the important thing is that you have a good connection with it. You may find that it takes you a couple of tries to get the right drum. Just make sure that your old drum goes someplace where it’ll be appreciated. Consider making it a gift to a friend, or donating it to a music program for children.
(And, as a bit of shameless self-promotion, I make and sell hide drums as well.)
How do I warm the drum up?
If you’ll forgive the slightly risque comparison, even drums need a little foreplay. Some of this is to get an idea of what the drum needs–is it too humid? Too warm?–as well as to tone up head and your arm! More importantly, it’s a greeting to the spirit, who may be sleeping. And it’s just plain polite.
I first warm my drum up by rubbing my hand over it in clockwise circles, starting at the outer edges and spiraling inward. As I do so, I quietly call to the spirit of the drum, and ask her to wake up and join me. Once she’s ready, I pick up the beater and run it over the drum in the same pattern–not hitting the drum, just moving the head of the beater over it.
I also cool down my drum in the same way; once I have finished drumming, I run the beater over the head, only counterclockwise and moving out in spirals from the center. I then do the same thing with my hand, and if need be put the spirit back to sleep.
If your drum is one that needs tuning, now’s a good time to check. You can also look for damage and other maintenance issues. I like to treat my horsehide drum with mink oil to keep the hide hydrated and conditioned, and to help waterproof it a bit.
What sorts of drumbeats do I use?
Honestly, I’m a fan of single beats. The tempo and timing may vary, but I’m happier with a drum that I just hit with one beater, rather than something like a djembe that is elaborately played with two hands. I like starting out with a “heartbeat”–a single beat rhythm that matches my own heartbeat. The heartbeat in the drum does connect to my own heart, which is useful for keeping me from completely losing the connection to my body while I journey. Once the horse spirit is ready, I start drumming along with her hoofbeats instead, for as long as I am riding her in the journey. After that, the drumbeats often follow either my heartbeat or my footsteps (or pawsteps if I’ve shifted in the journey).
Again, play with the beats. I usually recommend the heartbeat when starting out and finishing, since it’s simple and easy to find. You may find that the beat naturally changes depending on what’s going on in your journey. You may also wish to create special drumbeats, such as for the beginning or ending of a journey, when a particular spirit arrives or departs, when you need to call on a spirit helper, etc. Many of these may develop organically, but if you have a specific idea in mind, try it out and see what happens. (If it’s for calling on a specific spirit, try it BEFORE you find yourself needing help in a serious journey!)
What happens when I drum journey?
As mentioned earlier, I always start with the horse spirit of my drum arriving to carry me to the spirit world. My “starting place”, where I begin every journey, is one specific spot out in the Columbia River Gorge. So the horse will carry my spirit over the land to get to that place, and then drop me off there. From there I can choose to go down a number of paths, or even directly into the forest (though the paths are safer).
As I am drumming, I can still feel my arms holding and playing the drum; the drum acts as an anchor to keep me from getting lost. And yes, sometimes my arms do get tired; I can feel it as I go through the spirit world, too, though I find if I rub my arms spiritually, it’ll help my physical arms, too. If I’m shapeshifted into a wolf or other animal in my journey, I can still feel the drum, though it feels sort of like a double exposure photo–both layers of “Lupa” are there, but they don’t quite match.
As mentioned, the drumbeats often change to match what’s going on. Many times this isn’t conscious, except when I am deliberately using the drumbeat to call a helper, to get an emergency ride from Horse, to honor a being, etc. Occasionally I’ll need to stop drumming entirely, if I m in a place in the spirit world where I need to be quiet. I still hang onto the drum, and as mentioned the basic heartbeat that I start and close every journey with allows my physical heart to beat in lieu of the drum as needed. I still resume drumming as soon as I can, though, as it helps keep me focused on the journey.
How do I care for my drum?
I mentioned earlier that I use mink oil to condition the hide. I also keep the drum out of damp places, and if it gets wet I air-dry it as quickly as I can. Unfortunately, I’ve had situations where a cup of water got dumped on a hide drum, and the entire thing had to be redone, so be careful around water!
Spiritually, sometimes I play the drum just for the sake of playing it. It’s a good bonding activity, and keeps us both in practice. she hangs out under my Bear altar, and while i don’t give her any special offerings (she just wants good basic care) you’re welcome to make offerings to you drum above and beyond keeping it in good condition. Some people like to purify their drums before and after a journey, and if the spirit of your drum is injured during a journey, make sure you tend to it before the journey is done.
What if I need to change the drum’s head?
Limited repair may be done to a drum head. Very small (pinhole sized) holes can be filled with a good epoxy; let it dry at least 24 hours before testing the playability. Be aware that this may not stop further damage to the hide once the stress of playing starts again.
Beyond that, you’ll almost certainly have to replace the head. Even with the best of care, eventually everything wears out, even good quality hide drums. If your drum’s head wears out or is irreparably damaged consider it not just a swap of materials, but a changing of the guard.
First, consider what worked well with the drum head you had, physically and spiritually. Do you want a similar one, or do you want to try something entirely different–a new hide, or even a synthetic? Do you feel you can change the drum head yourself, or do you want someone else to do it?
If you’re changing it yourself, treat the old head with reverence. The spirit’s not gone or dead; the form is just too damaged for its present purpose. Thank the spirit for its service and help and ask it what it would like to do next. Some may like a nice retirement, while others may wish to be incorporated into other projects. If the drum head is big enough and the damage is close enough to one edge or another, you may even be able to put the undamaged part on a smaller frame.
Make sure that the spirits of your frame and the new head are introduced before you put them together. You may even wish to let them sit next to each other for a few days before prepping the head to be stretched on. You may also wish to have the old head there as well, so it can pass on its experiences to the new one.
When you put the new head on, have a conversation with it about what you do and how it can help. See if you can identify the nature of the spirit in it. Ask it if it would like any particular offerings or other special care. Once the new head is completely dry, take the drum out for a “test run”. Play it just to get to know it as you did with the old head, learning the voice and feel of it, then proceed from there.
So there you have it: my attempt at explaining Drum Journeying 101. How’d I do? Anything else you may want to know about that I didn’t mention? (And, as always, thank you for reading!)