A deep bass rhythm resonated through oaken pews lining the nave in Northampton’s St. John’s Episcopal Church Tuesday, underlying a higher pitched percussion line that shook the church’s stained glass windows as it rose from a group of three drummers improvising on bongos near the sanctuary entrance below.
She paused for a second, listening as the others, Sue Laufer of Hatfield and Gene Fulmer of Northampton, maintained the beat. Then, with a roll of her fingers, a slap of her palm and three hard notes, she guided the rhythm to a smooth ending.
“Yeah. All right!” Clegg said, her voice seemingly loud in the ensuing silence. The other two let out a collective sigh, smiling.
The health benefits of drumming in a group are measurable, Clegg said, citing research by the drum manufacturing company Remo Inc.’s HealthRHYTHMS program, a global initiative for which she teaches here. Data, she said, correlates drumming with a stronger immune system and lower stress levels, among other things. One study, initiated by the manufacturer and conducted by neurologist Barry Bittman, medical director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pa., found that drumming “significantly increased the disease fighting activity of circulating white blood cells,” according to Remo’s website.
While that research is backed by a drum manufacturer, those who drum in groups attest to the physical benefits.
Clegg, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in environmental education, said drummers’ brainwaves align when they play in a group, a physics law called “entrainment,” creating a strong sense of community.
“When two rhythms are close to one another, they’re going to end up being the same,” Clegg said. As modern society increasingly interacts online instead of offline, intentional community is important for a person’s overall well-being, she said.
Laufer, who recently moved to the area, compares group drumming to singing in a choir. Even though she didn’t know anyone when she first began attending Clegg’s session, she said she felt an immediate bond with those around her when the drumming started.
“Some music in school is so intellectual it misses the point,” she said. “And people get discouraged, and think, ‘I don’t have a talent for that.’” In other cultures, such as Latin America, music is collaborative and communal.
Over the years, Clegg, who works professionally as a drummer, has led a variety of drum classes in the Pioneer Valley, put on community building events, and recorded drum lines for local musicians. She founded Offbeat Womyn’s Drumming Ensemble, an all-female musical group that performs regularly at public events throughout the region. Currently, she is learning to play the gyil, a traditional African percussion instrument that looks like a xylophone.
“That looked like a classical approach to drumming — private lessons with a Hartford Symphony percussionist, along with the usual school band,” Clegg recalled. Early on, music, to her, was “written on a page.”
In high school, however, she began to understand that sheet music was “the translation of what someone created. It’s not the music.” She began branching out into improvisational techniques more prevalent in African and Latin American drumming styles.
In grief, “I stopped talking, for the most part, not completely, but certainly not anything that was really important for me to say,” she said. Drumming gave her a language with which to communicate her pain, and, eventually, helped her “to grieve appropriately. It’s a safe form of expression, especially for major emotions that otherwise might come out in more harmful ways,” she said.
Led by the beat
“We’re not trying to engage our brains,” she said, encouraging Laufer and Fulmer to drum by instinct, while starting a slow beat. “The head, for the most part, is not helpful. We’re such an (intellectual) culture that it makes it very challenging.”
Drumming without thinking, Clegg said, can help people minimize stress, especially in crucial times. A few decades after her mother passed away, Clegg said, she helped provide hospice care for her dying father. At the time, she was just beginning gyil lessons.
“At the last day, it was obvious that it was the last day,” Clegg said. She played for her dad on the gyil to ease his fear.
“He was immediately relaxed,” she said. “And he died 20 minutes later.”
Andy Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to connect
Ellen Clegg offers classes on Tuesdays at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Elm Street in Northampton from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. They are $14 per person or $65 for six weeks, and include drums. For more information, visit Clegg’s website at www.ellenclegg.com. To contact Clegg, email her at