We work with drums often in my classes, whether that be using them for musical reasons, trance work, journeying, healing, or group rituals and certain ceremonies. Often people will find one of the drums they work with really calls to them and works with them. Others will go out and seek their first frame drum. People often wonder how to choose a frame drum, where to look for one, and how to take care of one. This article is to help you with these questions.
Seeking Your First Drum
Generally the best drum-person relationships are the ones where the drum chose you, or a person was directed and made a drum for you. What I mean by that last half is when a person has a dream or vision and is instructed to make a drum for you, makes it, and has it ready when they finally meet you. It’s pretty obvious when one of these two things happen that the drum is meant for you.
An increasing number of people are not getting their drums this way, but are hitting up the market for their first drum, even purchasing first drums online. What about those folks? First, if you have the opportunity, go to a market and talk to some folks who make drums. Play a few. It is almost always better to be able to play a drum before you buy it, to smell it, to hold it in your hands and know if you’re a good match, to ask it personally if it would work with you and invite it to speak. Often, when you’re holding the right drum, you’ll know it. If this is not possible and you’re looking online, here are some things to consider:
- Size: How big of a frame drum do you want and how do you know? Larger drums are a bit harder to transport, and if you might be using this around a fire or in a client room, it is a bit more cumbersome to work with. However, bigger frame drums are more impressive if you’re trying to be a show off. I generally see people do well with a first drum of about 15”-18”. These are easy to carry and hold, not too heavy, not impossible to transport. If you travel often and plan to take your drum with you, you’ll want to put it under the seat in front of you rather than in the cargo hold where it might be hit by a suitcase. I have fit frame drums up to 17” under seats, but they have to be squeezed. If you’re planning to travel, I really encourage you not to go above 15” for the care and comfort of the drum. Think about what you’re going to use the drum for. That’s how you’ll know what size you want. Knowing the size you are willing to look at will narrow down your search on the net significantly.
- Cost: I will encourage you to get a drum that is good medicine for you with the next few tips, but if you’ve never played a drum before and don’t know if you’ll stick with it, you might not want to put $160-$200+ into your first drum. You can find smaller drums for less cost, or you can go with a frame drum that’s standard made. Mid-East, a standard instrument company with usually mid-grade instruments, carries a “frame drum” that is closer to a daf (a flat Sufi drum that resembles a large tambourine that often has metal rings attached to the side for their sound) with a leather cross in the back for a handle. It’s sort of like a cross between a low-grade Sami drame drum and a daf. These actually make pretty good singing drums, and they’re one of the drums my students buy most. Though they’re not the best medicine drums, they are pretty good beginner drums that respond to a beater, your hand, or your voice pretty well. I have even used these as make shift microphones when I had to address a large number of people and needed to amplify my voice.
- Culture: If you’re seeking a medicine drum, you probably have your own mythology or a particular way of approaching medicine work. Most cultures have frame drums, but how they make them can be dramatically different. It is standard for a medicine drum to have either that culture’s variant of the world tree or their version of the medicine wheel on the back of the drum. I have also seen traditionally made drums which had the feminine aspects of the cosmos made into the ropes on the back, which was pretty beautiful (these resemble spirals or spider webs, or sometimes the flower of life). Also consider your ancestry. Though there are three lineages a person inherits (in my mythos), one of the things you can count on is the blood in you, even if you weren’t raised with your blood family. If you have a particular blood line you’re close you or are drawn to, you will probably have a faster developing relationship with a drum that speaks the same language.
- Wood (frame): The plant matter in your drum will consist of the frame unless it’s a ceramic frame, and possibly rope though most drums use leather for the cord. If your drum uses a synthetic cord, this is a touch of man and modern world, and you should sit with what spirit you are looking for in a drum to make sure that’s what you want. In the case of the plant material used in a drum, sit with what you’re going to use the drum for. If it is for purification purposes, Cedar is traditional in most cultures. If you are using it for personal use and plan to have many uses with it, think about what plants are close to you (specifically what trees). If you don’t have an affinity with plants, browse around, see what drums are calling you, and then take a look at what qualities the plants bring with them. Plant spirits are incredible allies, and even if you release that spirit before you use the drum, you will still have a physical piece of the plant to call it back if you decide to. Ceramic and clay frames carry the specific earth energy from where the materials came from, and this can be a good way to connect to a certain place that is sacred for you. However, ceramic drum frames can be broken, so if you need a more durable drum you’ll want something made of wood.
- Skin (head): Your drum may also use leather for cords, and this is another instance where you will want to consider the medicine of the components of the drum. These considerations are much the same as considering the plant material in the drum. What energy are you hoping to bring through the drum, and what relationships do you have with the different spirits that drums are made from?
- The drum maker him/her/theirself: This is almost a side note to the other point. Almost. The fact is that your drum maker puts his blood sweat and tears into what she makes, and their energy is in it. Whatever this person is thinking, saying or feeling can affect the drum. I have met drums with so much rage in them I couldn’t play them. I have also met drums with so much compassion in them that they’ve brought me to tears in moments. One of my frame drums was made in a sacred cave that’s been used for tribal medicine practices since the ice age by someone who inherited the tradition. The drum maker also did a ceremony for the drum and painted one of the symbols they use in his tradition onto the drum (which also appears in the ancient markings of the cave walls) with pigment made from minerals in the cave. It has a very different feel from my Sami, Peruvian, Pakistani, Gaelic and Mid-East company drums. The drums remember who they are, and that memory changes the experience of working with it.
- Decoration: Some drums come painted. Again, you’ll want to consider not just how the drums looks, but what the soul of the drum is like and the spirit of the drum. Don’t just pick a picture on a drum because it’s pretty and will look nice hanging up unless you intend to use the drum the same way you use any other art or furniture piece. Treat the drum like a living being, and it will show you it’s secrets. Markings on a drum are much like the tattoos on a person’s body, and they are that personal. For those of us who decorate or paint our drums, it is also important to talk to the drum and get it’s permission to do this before simply slapping pretty things on it. If you are planning to paint a drum, I suggest leather stain or leather paint, or henna depending on the look you’re going for. Some folks seal art on drums using pastewax or shea butter to protect the design.
That should cover most of your ‘how to pick a drum’ questions. Another thing that’s often asked is where to purchase one’s first drum. I mentioned Mid-East company, but there are also other music shops available. Places like Amazon and Ebay also carry drums. I’m pretty insanely picky about this, so I usually find drum makers practicing a medicine tradition or who have made instruments for a long time (though I also like to carry a few of the singing frame drums I mentioned). You can find people like this on Etsy and other handmade marketplaces, but make sure you take the time to talk to them, read things they’ve written, and see how they actually are with the drums. Of course, you can also always travel to places where indigenous cultures still exist, including tribal places in the USA to find a drum made in a good way. You can also sometimes find good instruments at pow-wows or music festivals.
Caring for the Drum
Caring for a medicine tool is not like caring for a regular instrument. This drum becomes your partner in work and in spirit, and you should treat it like a partner. There are some things you should know about this relationship, some of which applies to regular drums, others apply to medicine tools.
- Temperature: Drums are affected by heat, cold, and dampness. Heat ages your drum. Some people tune drums by putting them over fires (which tightens the skin and thus raises the pitch). Though this works, it does also shorten the lifespan of the drum in the long run. Most drums can handle gentle heat if they become too damp (which both lowers the tone and often makes the drum a bit sad), but you should not store your drum in a hot place such as over a stove, and you should not leave it in a hot car for a long time in direct sunlight (be sure to cover the head if it will be in direct sunlight during travel).
- Ritual: There are two ways most medicine people treat drums. They either do a ceremony to release the spirits of the various materials it was made of, followed by a second ritual to call the spirit of the drum into the drum or they ask the spirits of the materials for permission to play them each time they are played. You should consider which way you will treat the drum, and stick to it.
- Bonding: Regardless of which method you use, always treat your drum with respect as the living thing it is, and you will have a much better time with it. Always ask for permission to play it or take it somewhere, listen when it says it doesn’t want to or tells you no. That’s respect. Talk to the drum. Touch it. The oil from your hands is one of the best things for the drum, and that touch will allow your care to flow into the drum and affect it in a positive way.
- Feeding: The most powerful medicine drums I have come across are fed. The idea of feeding a drum is that the energy of the food goes into the drum and makes it more powerful. This also gives the drum attention. Traditional offerings, depending on the culture, often include things like butter, milk, or ground grains. I have had drums ask for oil or butter smeared on the head, which confused me at first but improved the tone and condition of the head once I complied (if you do this too often, however, it will cause a suede like effect and dull the tone of the drum, though in the instances I’m speaking of that was exactly what was needed). I also feed my drums cornmeal by swirling it around in the head of the drum while I sing to it. Because I see energy, when the light goes out of the cornmeal and into the drum, I know it’s been fed. At that point I usually toss the meal into the grass, though there’s really no reason you can’t use it, but the vital energy in the meal is now in the drum. These are some ways to help your drum become very powerful and increase the bond you have with it.
That’s all for now. If this is your first drum, spend time with it. Remember that you already know how to play and it already knows how to sing. Just spend some time and allow that process. I wish you many happy years together. Love to you!