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Beating Stress -- on the Drums


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Feb. 9, 2001 -- Five years ago neurologist Barry Bittman didn't even know what a 'drum circle' was. He was attending a conference and had just given a presentation on laughter and immunity when a music therapist pulled him aside and asked him if he wanted to go to a drum circle. Bittman recalled giving her a kind of 'What are you talking about?' response -- but then followed her into a room where 600 health professionals were keeping rhythm. "I could literally feel the energy of the sound," he says. "[The vibrations] felt like an ancient ultrasound."

It took a few more years before Bittman, now CEO and medical director of the Meadville Medical Center's Mind-Body Wellness Center in Pennsylvania, actually studied the biological effects of drumming. But what he has found might make a sudden health fad out of floor drums. Simply put, group drumming seems to have a de-stressing effect on the immune system.

"This is the first building block looking at group music-making," Bittman says. "We're not saying this is a cure for cancer. We're not a bunch of quacks." In fact, Bittman made it very clear to WebMD that he is a medical doctor and that rigorous science was applied to this study

"I'm not one of these alternative medicine people who say, you take this herb, this supplement, and it's going to make a difference," he explains. What he's saying, instead, is that blood measurements on more than 50 subjects before and after group drumming showed a significant increase in chemicals related to immunity and to decreasing stress.

The full implications of the research, which was funded by a drum-making company, are unknown. But Bittman says immune-system response aside, those who drum with others report a feeling of community and closeness -- and that is beneficial in and of itself. "The beauty of this form of music making is there's an inner drummer in each of us," he says. "The learning curve is so small."

But, he says, there might be a different 'stress' response if the purpose of the drumming changed, for example, from playing for fun to practicing for a profession. "If we look at music-making in our society, most of it is done in school. Only 5% ever continue to make music, despite the fact that listening to music is America's favorite pastime. And those who do it, do it from a performance standpoint ... just like another job."

Music therapist Barry Bernstein says he isn't surprised by the research, but no less delighted. "I'm not a doctor. But when this research came out I was thrilled. I do a lot of programs -- sometimes four a day, taking down and setting up. It's quite arduous, and my body pays a toll. Sometimes I go into a program not feeling well and every time I start drumming that goes away."

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