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Russell Buddy Helm watched drumming evolve in himself and in the lives of the people who have drummed with him over the past 30 years. From his days with such rock greats as Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, and Frank Zappa, Helm knows that drumming carries far more with it than just a good beat and a good time. "People who come to my drumming workshops and regular classes are starving for rhythm in their lives. They’re crawling across the desert, dying of thirst, dying for a sense of rhythm in their lives," says Helm, author of Drumming the Spirit to Life (Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN; 2000).
Helm isn’t a medical professional and has no pretenses about it, but he knows what he has seen. From Seasons, his shop in Santa Monica, CA, Helm has a finger on the pulse of the healing power of the drum. "I’ve seen people with various types of nerve and muscle damage make dramatic improvements. I’ve seen spinal conditions work themselves out."
He theorizes gentle impact and the small natural fluid movements that occur during drumming allow for a release of spinal and muscular trauma. "I don’t believe in banging on drums." There’s also an element of stress release, relaxation, and even a light trance that comes with drumming, he says. Helm first works to set every drummer at ease. "Too many people have been told they have no natural rhythm or that drumming is complicated, so they tend to tense up. I let them know there’s nothing difficult here and that they don’t have to be afraid of making a mistake."
He always begins with a soft simple beat and acting as the leader, encourages his students to follow along and embellish within the relaxed rhythmic structure as they wish. Sitting in a comfortable position, usually using the African djembe as a starter instrument, and holding the drum at a 30-degree angle, which relieves the stress of trying to hold it between their knees, even the newest students "move to the groove" of a subtle, gentle, quiet rhythm very quickly, says Helm. "I teach them to play from their bodies, not their brains. As long as their bodies are moving, they’ll get the healing," he adds.