Uses for the Drum in Shamanism
In shamanism, the drum is used for two basic purposes: to shift your state of consciousness or to move energy.
When the shaman wants to journey they need to shift to a different state to be able to journey. The drum helps do that. The shaman needs to make a similar shift if they want to be able to see the client with spiritual eyes. The shaman also uses the drum to call in the spirits.
When you call in the spirits you are literally calling helping/healing spirits to enter the room, but with the spirits come their energy. The shaman can also send unhealthy energy away using the drum. So in this way, the shaman can use the drum to direct energy.
When looking for a drum many people ask other people, in workshops or their teachers, and of course you can make a drum. But what are you looking for in a drum for shamanic work?
Many of the drums used in shamanic work have a lower sound close to bass. But shamanism is about results, so its worth trying out different sounding drums to see if one seems to work better or you than another. In fact some people use rattles, or Tibetan bowls, or toning sounds to journey.
However, if your looking for the sound on you find on a typical Journey Drumming CD, then you are looking for a lower sounding drum. Shamanic drums also usually have a resonating sound. Unlike a drum that makes a quick tap, there is usually an echoing sound that continues after each beat.
Also keep your hearing in mind, and make sure you drum (or rattle) away from your ears and your neighbors ears. This is usually more of an issue with rattles, because its natural to hold the drum at chest height.
You can use any drum to journey, but some drums are harder to handle than others. In shamanic work, you often wish to move around with the drum, either to perform healing or because moving helps you shift your energy. Heavy drums, or ones that must always be set on the floor make it hard to move around.
That is why many shamanic practitioners buy drums that are round with a handle directly behind the drum head. I own a light double headed drum with a handle at the top, but the handling took some getting used to. Drums where the frame is made out of a hard wood are heavier, than ones made with light woods. Synthetic drums with heavy frames are also heavier than ones with more minimal frames. A heavier drum will make your arms tire more quickly.
Traditional or natural drums are made from animal hides. A good drum maker will obtain the hides in a way that honors the animal. A synthetic drum is one that is made of man-made materials. There are advantages to each.
A skilled drum maker can create drums that produce wonderful sounds, just as an artist can create a beautiful painting. But rawhide drums are sensitive to temperature and humidity. The drum maker has to tune the drum to what should be a typical environment. If they make it too tight and the person takes it to a dry climate the drum will tighten in that environment and may break.
On the other hand, most of these types of drums will become dull or stop working in very humid environments. If you know the drum will only be used in a humid environment it can be tightened for that (it will break if ever allowed to dry out too much.) The drum can also be dried out in the sun or near a fire, but you must take care to avoid straining the drum by over-drying it. Moisture from ground can counteract drying, so don’t place your drum on damp grass. The double headed drum I mentioned is fairly good in all but the most humid conditions, so I don’t want to give you the impression these drums will never work. The drum maker can give you advice on the environment and care for the drum.
A synthetic drum will not have problems in humidity, and in some cases can be made very light. There are different sounding drums depending on the drum head. This can be a very good practical option, if you are in an environment that changes a lot or will be using the drum both in-doors and out-of-doors.
Beating your drum:
Different drum stick or beater construction can make different sounds. You might find you like a particular drum better if you make/buy a softer or a firmer beater. Drums that are beat with your hand are fine, but some are difficult to handle or require more support (the floor or your lap for instance.)
Note: The drum beater is what makes the sound, not your arm. You are simply moving the beater back and forth. You want a firm stroke of the beater, but not a hard one. You are guiding the beater and allowing your arm to move back as it responds to the drum. The sound is made by the movement of the drum head. If your beating the drum hard your not allowing it to make the music and your going to get tired quickly. If you are moving from the wrist instead of moving your full fore-arm you will also get tired that way.
Popular Drum Options
Natural Skin Drums
Shaman Links has drum makers listed on the Shamanic Shopping section of the Other Resource links page. Cedar Mountain Drums is a popular choice.
Synthetic, Remo Buffalo Drums
For a synthetic drum, the most popular by far is the Remo Buffalo drum. Remo is a well known drum making company who has been making drums for over 50 years. The Buffalo drum is round, 3.5″ deep, with the drum head on one side, and the handles made of rope opposite the head. The drum is not sensitive to humidity and can even be used in the rain.
The drum diameters include: 8″, 10″, 14″, 16″, and 22″. As the drum gets larger the sound deepens. The 22″ drum sounds lovely but can be hard to handle, and take with you on a plane because it is so big. Remo classifies the original buffalo drums as low-pitched rather than bass. Remo recently added a black version of this drum called Bahia Bass, which has a lovely bass sound. It only comes in the 16″ size.
They also make totally white ArtBEAT ones for painting, up to size 14″.
Here are some links to these drums on Amazon:
You can also find Remo drums on eBay and stores that sell shamanic supplies. If you would prefer to buy at a local store, go to Remo and locate a drum dealer in your area: http://www.remo.com/portal/find_dealer.html Call and find out if they are willing to order a drum and let you try it out before buying it. Often, general music stores can order the drum for you.
Painting Your Drum
Apply a primer first, and use the standard best practices for acrylic painting. After you are done and the painting is fully dried, spray a clear protective coat over your painting. The clear coat will need to be reapplied periodically because it will wear off due to beating the drum. Spraying the clear coating is meant to protect the image. I know of many people who have painted their Remo Buffalo drums with acrylic paint, and although paint wear can be a problem over time, it works well.
I have not heard of anyone painting the Bahia Bass version of the Buffalo Drum, so I do not know if the painting will work well with this drum. This is partly due to the fact that this is a relatively recent version of the buffalo drum, and also potentially because people like the look of the black drum surface. Update: I have seen people paint these drums and it seems to be working well.
Natural drums can also be painted, but require more information on the technique for successful painting. Unlike the Remo drum, they have a porous surface. I have heard that Acrylics will work, with skin drums. Your drum maker may be able to give you more information.
The Spirit of Your Drum
In shamanic belief everything is alive and has a spirit. This is also very true of the shaman’s drum. One of the things a good drum maker does, is infuse a drum with a good spirit. Synthetic drums also have spirits as well.
It is also possible to on a journey to meet or find the spirit of your new drum. Your power animal or teacher can help you with this. You can create a ceremony to bring the spirit of your drum home, and infuse it into the drum. Painting can be part of that process. Or bringing the spirit home may be a simple as rattling over the drum.
Next up: The Shamanic Drumming Circle