Local care facility uses percussion to assist patients and family with healing and de-stressing

Learning to cope with cancer can take many forms.

 Some journal about their feelings, others practice yoga. But for the next six weeks, residents at a local cancer support centre are exploring a new, yet ancient method: drumming.

The room at Wellspring Calgary is set up in a welcoming manner. A variety of percussion instruments — including frames drums, djembes and a bass drum — are placed before each chair.

Interview with Judy Atkinson

As soon as the dozen participants walk in, they are told to begin playing an instrument as a part of what facilitator Judy Atkinson calls a “drum call.” After introductions, two hours are spent in a continual drum circle.

The experience is designed around safety, where the protection of one’s personal background and situation is emphasized.Judy Atkinson leads a weekly recreational drum circle at the Inglewood Community Centre, which attracts about 60 people each time. She also works with corporate and healing groups.

Photo by: James Wilt

Atkinson, who has been leading drum circles with Wellspring for three years, explains that “it’s about gathering people from all walks of life together to recognize the humanity in each of us, build our sense of well-being and help each other know that life’s going to be OK.”

Anna Carnell, program manager for the centre, says that Wellspring Calgary brings in two drum instructors. She concludes, “It creates a physical response in people’s bodies that in some way support healing. For the mindfulness of it and the supportive healing therapy of it and for the fellowship and the sense of community.”

Although the concept of drum therapy has dated back thousands of years, research has only recently begun to scientifically show that playing percussion on a regular basis can have a direct effect on one’s health.

A study published in 2008 in the Arts in Psychotherapy journal suggested that drumming increased a sense of belonging, provided a way to deal with rage and boosted self-confidence for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Relaxation, emotional healing and psychological integration were also noted as results of drumming in a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Stephanie, who asked that her real name not be used due to the anonymous nature of the facility, had never participated in a drum circle before her experience at Wellspring. She has Stage 4 lung cancer, and came to the two-hour session straight from her oncologist’s office.


Photo by: James Wilt
“I’ll be thinking about this tonight and tomorrow and the rest of the week until I’m back here again because it was so profound,” Stephanie says. She describes her feeling of connection with the people around her and environment as being one of the most noticeable effects from drumming.

After about an hour-and-a-half of drumming, Atkinson offers an opportunity to participate in what she calls a “rhythm cradle.” Two people at a time lie down on the floor while the rest of the group drums a rhythm. Judy and her assistant beat on frame drums around half a metre above the two lying on the ground. After 10 minutes, everyone in the room is asked to be silent.

Stephanie laughs as she says that she could get “really new-agey” trying to describe the experience of the rhythm cradle.

“That was a cosmic experience,” she says. “It wasn’t like anything earth-bound or Calgary-bound. I found that it took me out of myself.”

The seven-week program is free for participants to attend. Most of the money used by Wellspring Calgary to pay for programs comes from donations and fundraising.

jwilt@cjournal.ca