Do not underestimate the power of drums; their rhythmic beats can affect you more than you think. That’s something American John J. Hagedorn, 61, can attest to.

A drumming enthusiast, Hagedorn has been under the influence of rhythm most of his life. He uses drums in his team building and corporate training programmes, believing that they can be used to maximise a person’s potential.

In particular, he regularly conducts drum circles, or groups of people playing together to create in-the-moment music using hand drums and percussion instruments. Unlike professional ensembles and performance groups, drum circles require no previous drum experience from participants.

Hagedorn believes that the drum circle is a powerful tool for teachers, corporate trainers, social workers and therapists to work better with people and get the best out of them. In a drum circle, he explained that it is possible for a skilled facilitator to transform a group of non-drummers into a performance level percussion ensemble in just an hour!

“It feels like the whole group (of people) is a drum orchestra and everyone is playing together and playing different parts. There’s no rehearsal and everything is in-the-moment music.”

For many people, Hagedorn added, “a drum circle is an inspirational gathering; it’s euphoric and makes people happy.”
Hagedorn, owner and principal learning facilitator of Better Training Solutions (BTS) in Kuala Lumpur, is a certified drum circle facilitator and certified trainer for Village Music Circles (VMC) in Santa Cruz, California, United States.

Hagedorn incorporates drum circles in his corporate team building programmes. Photos: John Hagedorn

Founded by American Arthur Hull, VMC offers rhythm events, interactive rhythmical experiences and facilitation trainings utilising community building values and leadership skills. Hagedorn is the only drum circle facilitating trainer in Malaysia and represents VMC in South-East Asia. He uses ashikos, djembes, tubanos – African-style drums that have been modernised – and other hand drums in his circles.

Drum circle facilitation has changed the way Hagedorn conducts his corporate trainings. “Now I try to get the best out of everyone instead of telling them what to do and pushing information to them,” he said, adding that once one learns how to facilitate a drum circle, one can apply the process to many different situations.

Hagedorn has also introduced drum circles in schools, churches, corporations and communities, organising sessions on a pro bono basis for churches, schools and NGOs. He has also volunteered at the Malaysian Parkinson’s Disease Association since 2009, providing regular “rhythm exercise” classes for its members. “We don’t understand why,” he muses, “but as long as these folks are engaged in rhythm, they are people WITHOUT Parkinson’s.”

Therapeutic rhythm

With over 100 people in the local Drum Circle WhatsApp group, Hagedorn shares the many benefits of group drumming with the rhythm community he has founded and continues to support.

For instance, a drum circle can be used productively with many target populations. In the US, facilitators work with prison populations, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and recovering addicts.

Locally, trained Malaysian facilitators are working with school kids, special needs children, cancer survivors, corporate groups and religious communities.

“Drumming is a recognised method to help people relieve stress. Group drumming helps to keep people healthy,” said Hagedorn.

Rhonwyn in her element, facilitating a drum circle.

He has also roped in his eldest daughter, Malaysia-born Rhonwyn, 25, to take up community drumming.Rhonwyn quipped that her father “dragged” her into a drum circle training session when she was just 11, the first time Hull came to Kuala Lumpur in 2006. She dutifully attended the three-day training, despite not knowing the significance of the session.

Today, Rhonwyn is a certified facilitator and uses drum circles for her community development work. She is also the managing director of Project WHEE!, a social enterprise on rural eco-tourism development in Sarawak, which she founded at the young age of 19.

Both father and daughter also run MYbeat, formed in 2016, which organises rhythm workshops and training programmes throughout the year. In fact, MYbeat will be conducting a Drum Circle Facilitators’ Playshop from Aug 30 to Sept 1 in Petaling Jaya (www.MYbeat.com.my).

Hagedorn and Rhonwyn are also the organisers of the bi-annual Asian Rhythm Facilitator’s Conference.

Next February, Rhonwyn will be going for a one-week training programme in Arizona to become a certified VMC trainer. After that, she will most likely be the youngest drum circle trainer in the world. “In my teen years, I felt ‘cool’ with my status as a drum circle facilitator and held on to it as my identity. Now in my 20s, the philosophy of the drum circle is ingrained in my (community development) work,” shared Rhonwyn.

In perfect rhythm: Both Hagedorn and his daughter Rhonwyn enjoy being facilitators of drum circles.

Early days
A New Jersey native, Hagedorn has been drumming practically all his life. “I have been a drummer since I was eight, first playing in a school band and later a rock and roll band in high school and college,” said Hagedorn, who has lived in seven different countries. Hagedorn has a Master of Arts in Teaching Language and Communications from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.

He first came to Malaysia in 1986 to teach English language courses at Institut Teknologi Mara (now known as UiTM) in Shah Alam. In 1994, he started his business as a corporate trainer and conducted programmes in business communication, negotiations, business writing and business presentations.

From 1997 to 2000, he was also a columnist (Better Business Communications) for the business section of The Star. From 2004 onwards, he introduced group drumming into team building programmes. Hagedorn attended his first VMC drum circle facilitation programme with Hull in 2005. Since then, he has attended 25 of Hull’s programmes worldwide.

“Team building is just one of the many different applications of drum circles,” said Hagedorn, who has conducted such sessions for a group of six up to a whopping 320.

“A big part of the philosophy behind the drum circle is community development. It is about bringing people together, putting people in touch with each other, and encouraging them to play. It’s an opportunity for them to share and grow together.”

Rhonwyn explains why drums are more friendly musical instruments rather than guitars or trumpets. “Everyone can play drums and once they realise they are part of the music, it brings out the confidence in them.”

Hagedorn added, “Everyone has rhythm inside them. Rhythm is all around us – in your breathing, walking and heartbeat. It’s up to us as drum circle facilitators to help bring it out.”

A drum circle is not a performance, added Rhonwyn. “A drum performance is for people to enjoy. A drum circle is about getting people together to participate and get involved.”