My first thought was “No way in hell.” That’s a defensive reaction triggered as a conditional response as a result of the worst gig I’ve ever had: a tween birthday party. The caller was a mom in my local drumming community. Her sincerity made me waiver on my vow to never again book another birthday party. Yet my mentor Arthur Hull taught me to say yes, hang up the phone, and then figure it out. There simply had to be some middle ground here….
I explained to the mom about how terrible the last one was because the parents surprised the kids with the drum circle and none of them actually wanted to participate, nor did the other parents in attendance. It had been quite possibly the longest hour on earth! So I did what I learned in Transformative Leadership training about taking effective action: accept, decline, or counter offer. I went with the counter.
I told the mom that I would do it with certain conditions (above and beyond my normal logistical requirements). Condition 1: the birthday girl had to agree beforehand and make sure her friends would be into it. Condition 2: the program would happen before cake or any other sugary treats. Condition 3: adults were required to participate, not just spectate. Condition 4: we’d make it a rites of passage ceremony rather than a recreational drum jam. All were agreeable and the deposit was delivered, with balance due on the date of the event.
We had 25 in the drum circle immediately following an afternoon of tie-dye, running around, and a great outdoor dinner. I arrived after those first two, but did enjoy a bite to eat while chatting with Grandpa, a retired Highway Patrol Colonel. Yes, you could say these seemed a bizarrely mixed crowd of conservatives and hippies. Once it was time to start, it took nearly 15 minutes to herd everyone into place before we could begin the ceremony.
Here's how it went:
1. Setting the Stage: Tasking the group to arrange the circle of chairs, explaining the King Arthur metaphor about equal voice and equal responsibility for how we gather.
2. Calling Us Together: Singing “Say Ya”, an echo song to help everyone be in the moment. Being physically here wasn’t enough; being present was something much more. I demonstrated the song, then asked for brave volunteers to take a turn leading it. Two kids and an adult volunteered to lead the group in song, and regardless of how badly they botched it, we all sang whatever it was that they sang. It was a great affirmation of their courage and leadership.
3. Empowering the Participants: Sharing the folkloric uses of the drum and giving a basic drum lesson. This teaches everyone to use the tools playing bass and open tones, then repeating after me. We then take turns going around the circle and everyone plays a pattern the group can echo.
4. History and Mystery: I tell stories while drumming to create a bit of magic. Origins of the Soul is an old folk myth about how each person is born with an inner genius and has to go through life trying to figure out what that is. The legends say that in the old world, birthday cakes only had one candle regardless of your years. The candle wasn’t for you, but rather it was to remind you to tend the fire inside you.
5. Engaging and Aligning: We play the Nyabinghi round robin. This Jamaican heartbeat rhythm helps to attune all the hearts together. The rhythm has big space in the pattern. We go around the circle several times and ask everyone to take a turn sharing in the spaces. First time around: share your name. Second time around: share an animal sound. Third time around share something really big and really important to you. Fourth time around, share your caveman sound — get primal with it! Grrrrrrrr! This activity usually loosens everyone up a good bit, and even groups who already know one another tend to learn a good bit about the people in the circle — who’s willing to go for it, and who’s going to play small.
6. Tilling the Soil: I love James Asher and Arthur Hull’s percussion album titled “Feet in the Soil”. It makes me think of getting grounded; of Earthing. I often use a dance activity I learned from friend and colleague Dave Holland: “When my foot hits the ground, you play one sound.” I demonstrate, then invite others to take a turn leading the drum dance. I tell them this tenderizes the ground so that we can fertilize the garden and plant some seeds.
7. Bestowing Gifts: Place A BIG BASS DRUM and mallet in the middle of the circle. The birthday girl is instructed to hold out her hands as if holding a basket, into which we’ll all place some goodies. The goodies are words, something unique to mankind among all the creatures on earth; nothing else does it the way we do. It’s our gift, and we can use it to deliver gifts through our words.
The group is instructed to take turns entering the circle and sharing a few words to describe how they experience the world as a result of the birthday girl’s presence in it. IT’S NEVER ABOUT THE PERSON HOLDING THE BASKET and always about how the teller experiences life; that way there’s never a statement the recipient can refute. This is because it’s not about them; they just happen to be the occasion for the other’s experience. The goodie giver makes eye contact, delivers the goods, then strikes the drum once to hammer it home. I have them start with the phrase “Because of you, I know the world to be….” The empty basked fills and becomes the goodie basket! A scribe records the themes expressed.
8. Celebrate: Learn to play and sing the celebration song Baye. Everyone is encouraged to do it like they mean it. Let's do some serious celebrating, joyous together through rhythm and song!
9. The Birthday Song: Create an in-the-moment song by layering in each player in the circle. This song has never been heard before and will never be heard again. The birthday girl starts the song and is responsible for keeping the beat on the bass drum for the whole group. It symbolizes steadiness and reliability, a commitment to be the very best she can be to honor how she’s showing up for all these people as indicated by the goodies they shared.
10. Closing Comments: Take one last pass around the circle for each person to share one word to describe their experience in the ceremony.
11. Reveal: Bring out the cake with one candle and sing Happy Birthday.
12. Document the Occasion: Load the scribed goodie words into a word cloud program to create a piece of art commemorating the occasion, then deliver this to the mom and birthday girl, printed and framed to hang on her wall as a reminder, not only of the event itself, but also of who she truly is in the world. On those occasions when she forgets, it's there to help her find her way again. Regardless of who she might be in the moment, this shows who she is at her very best and how she inspires others. With this sort of reminder as encouragement, perhaps we can find ways to show up fully and to be the very best of this that we can be.
This format embraces ideas from a book I’ve learned to love: The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath. In it they say the positive occasions we most remember in life are characterized by some combination of four traits: ELEVATION from the normal everyday, a sense of PRIDE in our accomplishments, new INSIGHT into our selves or the world around us, and CONNECTION through community and the presence of others.
All of those things happened in this ceremonial event:
ELEVATION. PRIDE. INSIGHT. CONNECTION.
EPIC, for short.
This birthday party was exactly that!