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Connecting Veterans Through the Power of Percussion

People participate in a drum circle.
Veterans, and VA staff and instructors participate in a drum circle on the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus, near the Integrative Health and Wellness Center. The drum circle is the center piece of a treatment program called Resilient Rhythms, used to help Veterans deal with trauma.

The sounds of Veterans slapping bongo skins fill the air, creating a rhythm that echoes through the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus near the Integrative Health and Wellness Center.

With smiles on their faces, VA staff and instructors with the nonprofit group Wahlbangers Drum Circle Organization greet onlookers, gesturing for them to grab a drum and a seat. From there they all start smacking bongos, some aggressively with their palms striking down hard, while others are timid, using just the tips of their fingers with little energy. Both ways are fine. After all, there’s no wrong way in this drum circle, the instructors said, just as long as participants are expressing what they are feeling inside at that moment.

 This drum circle is the center piece of a treatment program called Resilient Rhythms and is used by VA therapists to help Veterans deal with trauma, socialize with other Veterans, and express themselves more freely. The instructors’ goal, they said. is giving hope to marginalized members of the community who can benefit from rhythm-based programs. While the group starts at 11 a.m. with six Veterans and instructors, it quickly grows to a group of 20 by the end of the hour session.     

 “The drumming circle is a place of peace, joy, beauty, and community. Veterans come to laugh, play, and share music. Doesn't matter if you have never played, it's a safe space for creativity,” said Jeanne Ortiz, a recreation therapist with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) and certified health and wellness coach. 

 Wahlbangers CEO and Lead Program Facilitator Christopher Wahl said that he builds and modifies rhythmic tools to be accessible to all players, whether they’re in a wheelchair, sitting, or standing. With drum therapy, Veterans of all skills levels and abilities are encouraged to express themselves and interact through percussion. 

What Is Drum Therapy? 

Drum therapy is designed to help Veterans release inner trauma via physical movement and rhythm that induces meditation, therapists said.

“We love everything to do with rhythm and most of all, we embrace the way that simply banging out a rhythm with others shatters barriers, empowers players of all levels, and provides a foundation and a safe space for fellowship and community building,” Wahl said. 

Music, through history, has served as a tool to bring people together.  

“Music helps me overcome barriers of communication. This is a way for me to feel better about making friends,” Air Force Veteran Alexander Braithwaite said. “You learn a lot from people through music.”   

 Braithwaite said he is a trained pianist and guitarist but a first-time drum-circle participant. He is about to move into his own apartment on the West LA VA Medical Center campus. He currently resides in New Directions, a transitional housing program on the north campus for Veterans experiencing homelessness, offering a full range of services including substance abuse treatment, counseling, remedial education, and job training.

 “You receive a lot of support from other people when playing drums because you can’t screw up,” said Braithwaite. “It helps me feel better about the day.” 

 Drum circles can help people struggling with addiction, create a space for connection, facilitate feelings of belonging, and create new social bonds, according to a Sept. 9, 2016 article “How Drum Circles Can Improve, If Not Cure Depression,” written by Constance Scharff, Ph.D. for Psychology Today.

“I believe this drum circle is very powerful in a way that you can relieve tension and stress. The music and rhythm are healing,” Marine Corps Veteran Jose Segovia said. Segovia is residing at the Domiciliary (DOM), a mental health residential rehabilitation treatment program at West LA VA Medical Center.   

 Dawn Krieger, certified whole health wellness coach in VAGLAHS’ Integrative Health and Wellness Program says that drumming helps Veterans with stress by getting them out of their heads and into their bodies via the hypnotic rhythm.  

Drumming positively enhances motor, social, and behavioral skills while helping learning and social confidence, according to the 2017 study “Motor Learning Induces Plasticity in the Resting Brain – Drumming Up a Connection,” Published by Oxford University Press. The brain can change and adjust itself to become better at learning and performing physical tasks or movements, such as playing a musical instrument, sports, or other activities that require coordination and skill development. 

 Drumming, the Brain & Neuroplasticity 

Not only does drumming provide the above benefits but studies show it has the power to heal and shift the brain by creating more neuroplasticity, according to a report by researchers Matt Puderbaugh of the University of Minnesota, and Prabhu D. Emmady of the UNC School of Medicine, Atrium Health, last updated May 1, 2023. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change, adjust, reorganize, grow neural networks, and adapt due to experience. It may involve functional changes due to brain damage or structural changes due to learning. Plasticity refers to the brain's malleability, the ability to change.  

According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC), more than 185,000 Veterans who use VA for their healthcare have been diagnosed with at least one Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). So, with Veterans, healing the brain is an important factor in recovery. 

Neuroplasticity is an important part of the healing intervention with injury, rehabilitation, skill learning, memory, and environmental enrichment. Doctors are harnessing the power of neuroplasticity for injury intervention because of the way the brain has the capacity to change as it goes through a wide variety of experiences, according to 2014 study, “Harnessing the Power of Neuroplasticity for Intervention,” by Bryan Kolb and Arif Muhammad

“The recovery process after traumatic brain injury is long, but with emerging evidence for neuroplasticity, the prospects for recovery are no longer so grim,” according to the 2016 book “Translational Research in Traumatic Brain Injury,” by Daniel Laskowitz and Gerald Grant.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & Drumming   

Findings from a [BW1] 2008 study. “Drumming Through Trauma: Music Therapy with Post-Traumatic Soldiers,” by Moshe Bensimon and Dorit Amir from Bar Ilan University, revealed that drumming had positive benefits including:    

●      A reduction in PTSD symptoms.

●      An increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness, and intimacy. 

●      Achieving non-intimidating access to traumatic memories. 

●      Facilitating an outlet for rage. 

●      Regaining a sense of self-control. 

The study focused on music therapy group work with six soldiers diagnosed as suffering from combat or terror related PTSD symptoms.

“Veterans can be triggered by cacophonous noise – involving or producing a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds; however, when given the opportunity to take charge of the sounds, and use them as a means of self-expression, that same sound can become soothing and even meditative,” said Wahl. 

The Power of Music 

 The Resilient Rhythms program is a way for Veterans to embrace the power of music and human connection. Weekly the drumming program attracts Veterans from Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services, New Directions, and the DOM. 

“Much more important than the drums to make the beats is the heartbeat we all entrain to while, even if just for an hour, the stress of daily life fades away. We could be playing on pots and pans and the rhythm would still bring us together,” said Wahl. 

 Resilient Rhythms is open to all Veterans and is held Thursdays from 11 a.m. to noon on the lawn just west of the Integrative Health and Wellness Center (Building 220).