Hand Drumming

Q. Because drum kits (as in the rock tradition) are so often seen and used in worship, many people assume that they are the only way to include drumming and percussion in worship. But aren’t hand percussion instruments as used in the African tradition—djembe, other smaller hand drums, and even tambourines—more useful?

A. While drum kits have their merit, I agree that hand percussion can offer a warmer, more personable alternative for rhythm in worship. Hand percussion is more responsive to the touch of the musician because it is skin touching skin as opposed to wood touching plastic. Sound can be more easily manipulated with the hands, once the right technique is learned. Also, if a church is afraid of its worship sounding too much like “rock” or secular music, hand drums are a good way of providing energy-filled rhythm without the sound that is associated with mainstream music.

Q. How do you use drums with the reading of Scripture?

A. Drumming with the reading of Scripture provides a fresh sound-scape that enables listeners to connect with the text in a new way. I have found, especially in youth ministry, that Scripture reading can become tedious because it’s hard to keep track of the different voices or tones of the reading. Percussion is a fairly simple method of giving audible cues during the reading of Scripture. Changing the voicing of the drum can indicate a change in character or mood. I generally use higher tones and faster rhythm to indicate happiness and more bass tones to indicate sorrow or even power. The possibilities for exhibiting emotion audibly are endless, and they may vary from culture to culture or even congregation to congregation. Because there is no fixed or established convention, there is freedom to experiment and make a particular technique your own. To hear an example, listen online to Isaiah 60 accompanied by Sankofa, a drumming group at Calvin College (www.reformedworship.org; click on Classic Content; RW 73; “Arise, Shine!”).

Q. Do some texts work better with drums than others?

A. The only texts that might be difficult to drum to would be texts that are difficult to read in any kind of setting. There is a lot of potential for expression within the psalms, narratives, and New Testament teachings. Where there is more than one person talking, you can change the sound of the drum by where you hit it to give the impression of more than one speaker. When I come to lists of things, I give rhythmic pauses so that each of the items in the list can be heard and understood. The rhythm can change when the mood changes, from happy to sad or from commanding to listening. You’ll want to read the text carefully beforehand and make interpretive decisions about how to accompany it. Ask yourself questions to understand it better and look for themes.

Q. What should a drummer who is accompanying other musicians and singers do or not do?

A. The important thing to remember is that accompanying means supporting someone else in what he or she is doing. Drummers need to be aware of their volume level as well as how much of the sound-scape they are occupying. A constant rumble from the drums is usually not as effective as pulling back sometimes and coming in at other times. Less is more. Musicians or singers should be in a place where they can make eye contact with the drummer to communicate nonverbally.

Q. How do you make multiple percussion instruments sound good together? Having two or more just sounds like a bunch of noise to me!

A. From the drumming tradition I come from, there are three-plus parts: a bass drum, a rhythm drum, and a master drum. The bass drum provides a point of reference for the other percussionists—it plays the absolute basic version of the rhythm. This rhythm can be as simple as hitting the 1st and the 3rd beat in a 4/4 rhythm. The rhythm drum keeps the “meat” or the main portion of the rhythm going. The master drummer provides variations, while staying within the rhythm. It takes an intuitive drummer to provide those “interesting” rhythmic moments. Thinking in terms of basic, rhythmic, and interesting can help you transfer that idea to other percussion instruments. For instance, claves or a bell can keep the basic rhythm while a tambourine keeps the rhythm; a drum or even clapping can provide the variations to the rhythm. If you have multiple drums, keep in mind that more than one person can play the same part.

Q. Who can be involved? Is this option for worship inclusive of different age groups?

A. One of the most exciting things about using drums or percussion in worship services is that anyone who’s interested can participate. Drums are unique in that getting started is easy! I have seen drummers as young as 4 years old keeping the beat, and there is no age limit. In traditional societies, drumming has been a male-dominated profession, but that is changing. Drumming can also allow people from different cultures to connect on a rhythmic level. Because drumming is an attractive instrument to many people, it can be used as part of an outreach ministry and so provide a way of worshiping for people who have not grown up in the church. Drumming can also be used to include people with disabilities. I have seen drum groups made entirely of deaf students, who can feel and thus follow the rhythm. I have seen people with other disabilities take great joy in being able to contribute in their own way. In short, drumming can be intergenerational, multicultural, gender-inclusive, and accommodating to people with disabilities.

Q. How do we start using hand drums and/or percussion instruments in our church?

A. I suggest you start by bringing it up with church officials and getting feedback from the congregation. Once they are on board, start by getting a couple of instruments like a djembe or a cajon and maybe some shakers. Ease people into it by using them along with congregational singing. You may want to invite a group who does this sort of thing in worship to come and demonstrate how it’s done. Try some of these things in a youth group or Sunday school setting to get a feel for how it will be received and to fine-tune your approach. After you have established drumming as a viable worship option, try reading Scripture accompanied with drumming. Be creative—you can also use rhythm with prayer, during the offertory, benediction, gathering, and so on. In addition to using drums in your worship, consider offering drumming classes or performances at community events to reach out to the surrounding community.



Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org).


For Further Reading

  • “The Pulse of Worship” by Andrew Donaldson (RW 69, p. 35)
  • How to Play Djembe: West African Rhythms for Beginners by Alan Dworsky and Betsy Sansby (see review in RW 64, p. 46)
  • For several stories on using drumming in worship, see www.calvin.edu/worship.

Asher Mains (ashermains@gmail.com) is from Grenada, where he is a member of the Anse Berean Bible Church. He wrote the article from Ghana, where he spent the fall semester on a study abroad program. He is the founder and leader of Sankofa, an African drumming group at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 79 © March 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.