The drum. Whether being used in ceremony or sacred ritual, in warfare or military exercise, or for communication or celebration, the drum has influenced nearly every culture in the world. The instrument’s 8,000 year heritage also includes drum circles which transport participants to meditative states that harken to our ancient tribal roots and facilitate bonding and sharing in true community. Tapping into the rhythm of the drum as a form of release and healing are Rick Allen and Lauren Monroe, founders of the Raven Drum Foundation. Chet Cooper, publisher of ABILITY Magazine, recently sat down with Rick, who’s best known as the drummer for Def Leppard, and his wife Lauren. Gary Unmarried’s Max Gail rounded out the group. Together they discuss the power of the drum, how it’s helping today’s wounded veterans and what it means to find inspiration as the best one-handed drummer.
Chet Cooper to Rick Allen: I didn’t think you’d mind that I invited Max Gail to join us. He and I go back many, many years, and when I saw your website, RavenDrumFoundation.org, I had to send it to him as it seemed right up his alley.
Max Gail: I shared with Chet that we were both involved with Camp Kirkpatrick.
Rick Allen: That’s great! This is what a drum circle is all about; it’s a metaphor for community.
Cooper: Rick, how did you and Lauren come to be involved with the camp?
Allen: Hmm… good question… I’m trying to remember how we got involved.
Lauren Monroe: One of the volunteers came to a drum circle we had done and thought it would be a tremendous thing to bring to the boys at Camp Kilpatrick, which has a large gang-related population. There was a lot of conflict because the boys were on opposite sides of the fence in terms of how they felt about things. We went up there and started doing some drum circles for empowerment. The circles really resonated with them and helped them bring about a sense of community.
Gail: When we were at the camp, I had kids that were in my songwriters’ workshop who were also in your drum circle. During my workshop they all wanted to write rap songs and most of it was: “I got the bitches and the ho’s.” It took a while to get them to pull out how they feel about their mom or a brother who may be dead or in prison.
Allen: Rhythm is such a big part of their culture and their own way of communicating, so we were able to go in there and design a program around them. It developed into drum council, which is an ongoing program that we provided for the camp. We had tremendous success.
Cooper: Are you still active with the camp?
Monroe: Our funding shifted, and we weren’t able to continue with the program directly, but we left one of our teachers to stay on and continue. We’re now focusing on veterans and their families.
Cooper: Are the veteran programs national or local?
Monroe: Both, actually. Locally, we’re working with the VA and the Vets’ Center here in Los Angeles. We’ve also worked with the Vet Center and VA in San Antonio. Walter Reed Medical Center has been receptive to talking to us about what we’re doing.
Cooper: Have you done any volunteer work with the veterans?
Allen: Of course. We have visited the amputee ward on a number of occasions, and we’re developing relationships with them. That’s a long-term thing.
Monroe: We’re excited; we’re going to be starting work with Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California with teenagers of active duty military who are missing a parent. I think it’s really important to include the children. We just did a session with veteran’s wives who are dealing with a lot of issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Secondary trauma [which can affect those who are closely associated to veterans with PTSD] is such a huge thing that I wasn’t even aware of until I started working closely with the population of veterans. And psychotherapists receive secondary trauma too—just by hearing the stories—and that’s a huge piece of the healing puzzle. There are many different types of circles.
Allen: Obviously we can’t stay for many ongoing sessions, so psychotherapists are included in the group and able to continue the work when we leave.
Cooper: Do the therapists literally do drum circles when you’re not there, or is that part and parcel of what you bring to the table?
Allen: I think everybody can do drum circles; it’s not exclusive at all.
Monroe: Drums are such an ancient thing. For us to say: “This is our thing and you can’t do it—”
Allen: It would be like putting a trademark on it. The beautiful thing about drumming is everybody feels supported. No matter what you’re going through, it’s a fantastic way for people to voice their emotions.
Gail: A drum circle is a leveler. You can have a CEO and some guy that was sleeping on the beach, and all of a sudden everyone is together. Isolation is what causes problems, and that just disappears when you’re doing the drum circle.
Cooper: Can you explain exactly how you facilitate the drum circles? Is there dialogue between the participants within the circle?
Allen: No, no, I’m a rock star! (laughter)
Cooper: What was I thinking?(laughter)
Monroe: We do, we do, but we don’t process. First of all, we do community circles that are bigger. Usually we get about 200 people, and that’s when we don’t advertise. Cooper: What happens if it gets too large? Monroe: Everything gets done and everybody participates. We assess how much we need to lead people and do some talking and guidance depending on who’s there. If people are comfortable, we’ll ask them to say something they want to release. We tell people that whoever volunteers information is volunteering it not only for himself but also for the person across from him and the person who can’t speak. This is not just one person having an experience. So many times I hear: “I really wanted to say loneliness, but I just couldn’t say it. Then the person across from me said it, and I cried.” We’re all connected.
We usually do things for about an hour-and-a-half whether there are 200 people or 10. Sometimes there’s more discussion than other times, but we find that this model is really beautiful, because it just validates that we’re all connected.
Gail: It does. You’re allowing the openness to be there, but it’s more organic.
Monroe: Often we work with populations that are dealing with very traumatic events. We don’t want to trigger any processing to the point where we can’t contain it, especially in the big community circles where you don’t know who’s coming. The drumming is there, and that lifts and heals with its own beautiful force.
Allen: We put a circle inside a circle inside a circle inside a circle.
Monroe: We don’t want them to get too big.
Allen: If it gets too big, it gets impersonal.
Monroe: And we invite people into the center; we do things in the center of the circle.
Allen: Like a gathering drum.
Monroe: There’s dancing going on. I grew up in Queens, in an Italian Catholic family, and I had mystical experiences and things I couldn’t explain from a very early age. When I started to experience them, automatically I thought: “Hippie-dippie crap. Granola.” That wasn’t OK with me. I need to be respected as an intelligent human being, so it started me on the path of looking at the science behind it.
If you had told me then, as I was going through my science period, that I was going to be drumming and dancing around in circles with a long dress on, I would have said, “There’s no way.” But I think it’s interesting what’s happening now: we’re raising awareness that it’s OK to dance and sing and be joyous and be together, and that it’s not a hippie thing. I think it’s very unfortunate that there’s still this stigma attached to the days where people were experimenting and discovering themselves in different ways. This is nondenominational and not a specific cultural thing. It’s about celebrating our common ways of being.
Cooper: Have you taken the drum circles to the Middle East—Iraq?
Monroe: No, no. Although we recently discussed going to the military, I don’t think it’s something that we’re going to be doing very soon.
Cooper: You would if there was an opportunity?
Allen: There’s enough going on on our own shores.
Monroe: We’re focusing on the people who are coming home wounded. Because we’re both musicians, we have other projects that are healing but more mainstream. So, we may work with the vets through these vehicles first, before introducing the drum circle.
Allen: It would be like you going home to your parents and saying: “Mum, Dad, I’m gonna become a cowboy.” First you may be listening to a couple of country songs, and then you might buy the chaps and the waistcoat, and then you sneak the hat on, and finally you go get the horse.
Monroe: And then you’re a cowboy, and no one even notices.
Allen: You’ve got to get people used to the idea of what you do, and just kind of sneak it in.
Gail: You’re right. I’ve had a program called LAP. We “run laps” which means everyone sits down in a circle and shares what’s in their lap. On the surface it appears to be a few minutes of introduction but really, it’s a way to talk about what we’re doing here. The fact that your dad just went into the hospital today for surgery might be more important than the fact that you’re a Director of Studies. It’s looking at our own needs and aspirations and how we all fit together.
Monroe: It’s about finding the common thread that makes us human beings. I notice when you work with people who are going through crisis, you have to sit in the seat of your soul and pay attention.
Cooper: Since Max mentioned laps and Lauren mentioned “sit in the seat,” I have to bring up another type of lap circle, where you literally get in a circle standing close to each other and you all sit down at the same time, forming a continuous lap. It actually supports itself in the circle.
Allen: Metaphorically, the ripple effect is beautiful, the visual is fantastic.
Monroe: Max, how did you get involved in drum circles?
Gail: I had been playing piano bars and pickup rock bands to get through college and graduate school. Then I hit a time where I started writing songs, or rather they started writing me. Somebody shared some of my songs with Buffy Sainte-Marie (a Native American Academy Award winning songwriter), and through Buffy I met all these guys in the American-Indian movement that I’d been watching when I was playing Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Certainly the drum and the circle are not exclusive to Native Americans, but they’re certainly a part of their life.
That period of my life ended. I got married, had a kid, and found out my wife had cancer. There’s a connection with other people who have been through that experience. Maybe that wasn’t my choice, but at the same time it was a blessing.
Allen: The way we conduct the circle, we do a couple of different rounds with one of them being releasing things that don’t serve you anymore, and then you fill the void with things that do.
Monroe: The wonderful thing is the group realization that everybody’s going through similar emotions. No matter how isolated you feel, you get together and all of a sudden you feel supported by a more dominant frequency.
Allen: It doesn’t necessarily have to be drumming. It could be movement, dance, chant, prayer. But the beautiful thing is, the mind starts to quiet, and then you see people go into their hearts and then anything’s possible. That’s the aim of the circle.
Cooper: Rick, how do you and Lauren create sustainability in those moments once the participants are gone from the circle?
Allen: Whether you’re drumming or brushing your teeth, it’s really a mindful way of being. It could be how you enjoy your tea or your coffee. It’s about being in the moment as opposed to being either ahead of yourself or thinking about what you should have done.
Monroe: We provide tools. We give people an experience that, like you say, might not have sustainability, so people need to walk away with a tool—
Allen: A toothbrush, a brand-new toothbrush! (laughter)
Monroe: —one thing they know they can do when they’re having a moment of anxiety or they’re feeling disconnected.
Cooper: Do you two find that people assimilate easily into a drum circle, or is it more difficult for some than others?
Monroe: It’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people.
Gail: I think the circle has been kind of eliminated from a lot of modern cultures. In most situations when you propose people get in a circle, there will be this sort of eye-rolling, “What is this, Kum-Bay-Ya?” But I think there’s a real value in people seeing circles happen, and not in a way that it becomes a gimmick that’s owned by a television outlet or something like that. In a way, being in circles is kind of a skill set, too.
Allen: Yeah, it is.
Gail: The idea is that it should always be open source in a way that people can collectively create and improve the experience.
Monroe: I feel the way we received the guidance to create this is from something higher than ourselves and we should teach other people to do it. Because people in crisis can be very fragile, we have a tremendous amount of responsibility when we’re working with them. We do have guidelines that we hope people will respect. But ultimately, they can take it, and hopefully use it in an ethical way.
Cooper: Let’s take a step back and talk about how you two met. I heard you’re a drummer? (laughter)
Allen: Yeah, since I was about 10 years old. Around about the age of 15 I joined a group called Def Leppard.
Cooper: And they were all deaf?
Allen: Absolutely! (laughter) If they weren’t then, they are now! We got a recording contract in 1979 and then experienced fantastic success around the globe, especially here in the States. When I was 21, I was in a horrific car accident. I rolled the car, and the seat belt came undone and took my arm. I went through some of the most profound experiences during that particular time. I would probably get locked up for talking about any of them, simply because of the profound nature of what I went through. It was about eight years ago when I met Lauren.
Cooper: Two thousand? You look good for your age.
Allen: (laughter) I was having problems with my shoulder and a friend of mine said, “I’d love for you to meet this girl, she does fantastic work.” And that was really the first time.
Cooper: And who was that woman?
Monroe: (laughter) When my friend told me about Rick, I asked who he was. My friend said, “The drummer from Def Leppard.” I wasn’t really a fan, but I knew his story. So I told him, “Definitely, I’ll be there.” Rick was going to come to the office, and then my friend said, “You really need to go to the show. I want him to be comfortable, because he’s not used to the therapy that you do.” I sat in probably the 15th row and watched the whole show. The cymbal was covering his face the whole time, but I wept throughout the whole concert. I felt the man, I felt the power of this human being and everything he was bringing to the show. I’m very clear with patients, but I had that very strong—
Gail: You recognized it.
Monroe: I did. I recognized who Rick was. I knew the meeting that we had was very important. We had our session, and that was it. I knew there was a divine meaning, but I never thought we would be married. I didn’t really have that foresight.
Cooper: But it was only one session? After that?
Monroe: After that we didn’t communicate for some months. Then he came back around to see me again, and we started becoming friends. It kind of grew from there. I wasn’t his therapist anymore; I started referring him to someone else. (laughs)
Cooper: He was just going for the free service.
Monroe: (laughter) He thought, “If I marry her—”
Allen: She had been teaching at the Boulder College of Massage. The kinds of things she was working on were interesting, and all of a sudden she gave me a language for a lot of the experiences that I’d gone through. There was science behind a lot of it.
Cooper to Monroe: What’s your background?
Monroe: My background is in massage therapy and the healing arts and music. I’ve worked with a lot of indigenous treatments as well as Western medicine, and I combine the two into bringing about empowerment for people. Now I do more off the massage table, working in groups and with the drums and the knowledge of energy medicine.
Cooper: Do you do healing?
Monroe: A lot of people haven’t had the experience of the healing in music, or they have but they don’t know it. They’ve been unaware of all the energetic things that go on in the moment. So you bring people a language and an experience, and it brings them to another place of perceiving their life. I think that’s a good thing.
Allen: We’re blessed we have a foundation and people that support it so that we can continue the work.
Cooper: On the surface, you’ve done really well in your career, but you’re saying internally, you still carry some issues of loss or trauma? Is it the memory of the actual accident?
Allen: It’s actually a cellular memory; it’s not necessarily something tangible. A lot of the therapeutic modalities that I’m sure Lauren will talk about tend to unlock a lot of those memories.
Monroe: To put it simply, when you have an injury to your body, you have a physical injury and you have pain. But most often, especially if they’re serious injuries, there’s an emotional response that happens in your body as well. As human beings, our mind does its best to analyze and reason and put things together. The body has intelligence and a memory, and the trauma remains.
Allen: It sticks. Oftentimes it comes up later in life as you have different experiences. Somatic or mind-body work, spiritual work, physical work, psychological work…all these pieces can help. Some people go with one modality, others need to research and put the puzzle together. And of course, it’s all about the evolution of a person, how we need to go in our own particular way. The body has a memory, and somatic therapy is a way to access that.
Cooper: What do you bring to the bedside of a veteran who just lost a limb in Afghanistan or Iraq? What do you share with them other than the fact that you’ve experienced a similar loss?
Allen: The most important thing is just to be there. Really, the words can get in the way. And there’s knowingness: many people have said, “I don’t know what I would have done had I gone through what you went through.” My response is, “Neither did I.” It wasn’t on my to-do list for that day. “Go to grocery store. Lose arm.” It just wasn’t part of the plan.
Obviously, on the face of it, it would seem as though my accident was this horrific thing, and it was at the time. But then, as certain integration took place—and is still taking place to this day—it’s become a huge blessing. Especially in a lot of the settings that I’m in at the moment, working with the vets, we’re able to talk about trauma and what that looks like and how it manifests in different people with different life experiences. It’s actually become a huge blessing for me to be able to relate and share my experience.
Monroe: What I notice at these meetings is that there’s really an unspoken bond. Rick brings a sense of humor, and I think that’s a big relief.
Cooper: What else are you doing for vets?
Monroe: This year we’re going to be collaborating with Salute Our Heroes, a not-for-profit. They’re going to bring some of the students down to visit Rick. They’ll sit in the front room, and he talks to them backstage. They share about moving forward. Rick, having one hand, has learned how to adapt in different ways. I’ve seen him share with them how to open up a teabag; there’s no manual for a lot of those kinds of things.
Cooper: So you have teabag parties?
Allen: (laughter) One thing that does come to mind is celebrating uniqueness. When I first lost my arm, I was constantly thinking about what I could do. I still wanted to play a drum kit that looked like a drum kit set up for somebody with two arms. As soon as I got out of that mindset and realized I could actually do things that a two-armed drummer couldn’t do, the horizon opened up tremendously. All of a sudden I was coming at the instrument as a completely unique instrument, coming at it from the perspective of having a completely unique body. Suddenly, the special nature of what I was doing and who I was came to the surface. And I think when I talk about celebrating uniqueness, you see a lot of lights go on. It’s really very special.
Cooper: You’re telling me you can do something different than a two-armed drummer?
Allen: Yeah, I can’t play the same way that a two-armed drummer plays. So I play in a way that doesn’t actually sound like a two-armed drummer. It’s obviously subjective, but I think in certain ways it sounds better. (laughter)
Cooper: Do you keep everything in front of you?
Allen: Everything is in close proximity, so I can keep my arm forward, and there’s not too much in the way of rotation.
Cooper: Did you find yourself doing more footwork in your drumming?
Allen: The only way that I can really do what I do is through a series of foot pedals. Cooper: That was a way to offset the limb that was not being used? Allen: For those who have lost a limb, what normally happens is they’ll channel that information to different areas. It’s interesting, because I started to be able to do a lot more with my right hand, so there was a compensation that happened. That information didn’t only go to my right hand, but some of the information goes to my left leg and then part of the information goes to my right leg. I think it’s a natural survival mechanism that allows me to still provide for my family. It’s not even a learning curve; it just naturally happens. But the learning curve only kicks in if the will to go on is present.
Cooper: Do you think it’s an intrinsic value in an individual, in their personality, or do you think it’s in everyone? When Max and I were in Hawaii a few years back, he met a friend named Mark Goffeney. Mark was born without arms and he does everything. Mark’s a professional guitar player and a really great performer.
Allen: With me, there was a stock of inspiration, whether that was negative, positive, whatever that looked like. There was some sort of catalyst, some sort of start point. And that’s exactly what I mean. It’s just a different perception. But sometimes it’s difficult to get to that place, and it takes the human spirit to really embrace that.
Cooper: Were you a doer with “I’ll achieve no matter what” attitude?
Allen: Depends on what the subject matter was. For the drums, I wanted to be the best one-handed drummer.
Cooper: Prior to that?
Allen: I think I’d lost the will to be the best two-armed drummer. But given the circumstances, all of a sudden there’s new inspiration.
Cooper: I’ve heard you’re touring with Def Leppard?
Allen: Apparently so. (laughter) Until I’m on the plane, it’s like I can’t even go there… Really, the tour is a wonderful thing. It’s a massive blessing.