Drumming Up Nursing Homes

It was just a another routine visit to a Southern California nursing home when Chris Wahl witnessed one of music therapy’s triumphs.

Wahl met a woman in a nursing home. She had been found living on the street and didn’t even know her own name. The patient was anti-social and hostile toward everyone around her. She never participated in any activities at the facility. In her usual custom, Judi Wahl, Chris’s wife, placed a hand-painted drum attached to a walker in front of the woman and reassured her that she did not have to play if she didn’t want to. Weeks later, the woman finally picked up a drumstick and joined the drum circle.

“It increases socialization definitely. People who never go to any other activity go to these drum circles. It increases a sense of community; it gives them purpose and self-confidence,” says Chris who witnessed the woman’s growing excitement to attend the drum circles whenever they were offered. The once cold, angry resident would now enthusiastically offer to start beats for the group, and delightedly instruct other residents and nursing companions on the proper way to play the drums.

Music therapy is a favored treatment for all kinds of disorders and maladies, including depression, anxiety, pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Drum circles, in particular, are popular because you don’t need musical experience, training, or even talent to have a good time and reap the rewards. Studies show that music therapy, in general, can have physical, emotional, and mental benefits, and can help patients manage pain and stress.


Wahlbangers Drum Circles

“Playing the drums is the most fun exercise you will ever have,” says Chris, who was a professional drummer for more than 40 years. He began drumming at six years old and continued learning everything he could, from classical drumming to improvisation.He first played in ensembles when he was eight years old and instructed band lines in high school. Later, he toured with several bands, including The Flesh Eaters, and recorded with artists such as John Tubree and The Ugly Janitors of America. Then, a hand injury abruptly stunted his professional career. While no longer able to play professionally, he continued playing drums in one way or another, determined to keep his musical blood pumping.

Chris had the idea to manage his first drum circle in 2010 after Judi’s mother, Verna, suffered a massive stroke and was admitted to a local long-term care facility. What began as a family venture—with his musical experience and Judi’s experience in business and marketing—bloomed into the nonprofit Wahlbangers Drum Circle. Today the organization has a seven-member board of directors and numerous volunteers dedicated to improving the quality of life for seniors, veterans, and adults with disabilities through community drumming.

The organization stands out with its use of Remo Sound Shapes, which Chris customizes and paints at home. “A lot of the residents have very limited mobility, so I realized that the hand drums that I had been collecting since I was eight years old weren’t working. I started figuring out ways of putting the drums on walkers so we could put them right up to the wheelchairs,” Chris explains. They’ve purchased hundreds of these drum heads from California maker RemoRMC. “The largest hurdle is to get them to take a chance and hit the drums; the more unique, interesting, and inviting we make them, the more they are drawn-in to explore the different sounds available.”

Joy of Music Therapy

While adult homes are necessary for senior citizens with failing health, a long-term care facility can be a lonely place. Families are busier than ever and many residents have few or no visitors, and are provided with little of the comfort and joy that comes from socialization. Music therapy helps enrich the lives of these patients.

“The greatest thing that I’ve learned is how good it makes us feel to have purpose in our lives and to make such a difference to the people in the nursing homes,” Chris reveals. “To see the people smile, which they don’t get enough of, makes us feel better than I would have ever imagined.”

Wahlbangers Drum Circles have spread rapidly within the two years since their inception and have been gratefully received by nursing homes, practitioners, patients, and their families. “We want to expand and spread this as far as we possibly can, so that everybody who needs a drum circle has one,” Judi explains.

Currently, the couple helps support the organization out of their own pockets, but they are looking to the public for donations to continue their mission. They gladly accept volunteers to help manage drum circles already functioning, and those who want to bring a Wahlbangers Drum Circle, complete with the unique Wahlbangers drums, to facilities in their hometowns. Visit the website www.wahlbangersdrumcircle.org to see how you can help the organization.

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