Drum Circle Ideas for the Music Classroom

Drum Circle Ideas for the Music Classroom

Kevin Tuck



Drumming can be fun. It can also be an absolute nightmare in a classroom. Lots of kids with loud “hitty” things can be enjoyable and a fun activity, or it can just mean a headache for the teacher (Quite literally!)

This article is intended to be a few quick ideas that you can do with students at any stage, and using just about any instruments you have. Anything that you hit, scrape or shake to make sound will be great for this.

OUTCOMES - What students will learn in this lesson:

• Students will learn about TIMBRE - the quality of sound, by exploring the contrast between sound groups
• Students will learn about DYNAMICS - through following a conductor and varying their volume
• Students will lean about RHYTHM and IMPROVISATION by improvising a one bar pattern.

1. What you need

The first thing you'll have to think about before attempting a drum circle class is to make sure that you have adequate instruments available.

What instruments can you use?

Pretty much anything!

It'd be great if you had a good quality Djembe for each and every student, but of course we all know that something like that is next to impossible. You can do this with pretty much anything you have available to you in your classroom.

Even if you have NO instruments at all - you can use some imagination and come up with a few “junk percussion” ideas which you can implement from items you may have lying around.

What instruments are best? What is good to do is have a MIXTURE of four groups of instruments: DRUMS
Djembes, Bongos, Conga drums are the most commonly associated drums for this type of drumming. Basically and drum that you play with your HANDS are ideal for this type of activity. Traditional “drum kit” drums are really not that useful, as they really are designed for sticks. You can use the floor tom as a low drum, and try and find a nice big soft mallet for it. Other types of drums like old fashioned “Tambors” are useful, as are “frame drums” and any other skinned instrument.


This includes Wood Blocks, Temple Blocks, Claves, Jam Blocks (which are modern, plastic wood blocks), Rhythm Sticks and Tapping sticks. You'll need a stick to hit these instruments. Try and find a SHORT stick - that way it can't make too much noise!!


These include cowbells of all shapes and sizes, tuned bells, triangles and small gongs. Once again, if you can get SHORT sticks they are limited in the volume that they can produce.


These include maracas, egg shakers, guiros, tube shakers, home-made shakers from tubs of rice & gravel, and rainsticks. Anything can fall into this group! This is obviously going to be the quietest group, so we need to mix them around into the rest of the group so that they are heard.

How many do you need?

For this lesson you'll need one instrument per student. You can have as many instruments as you like, but the minimum is to have one “something” for everyone in the group to play. Students will rotate regularly, so they wont spend the whole session playing one instrument.

2.How to set up

This is a drum circle activity, so guess how we'll set up? A circle of course!

Don't wait until the students are in the room. If at all possible get in there early and have the circle set up before your students arrive. This will save all that confusion of getting started. Set up enough chairs for the participants in a fairly close circle, with no gaps. Then place instruments on the chairs ready for them.
Place them in the order of DRUM - WOOD SOUND - METAL SOUND - SHAKER and so on around the circle. It isn't essential that you have one of each sound group, but it really does help.

3.How to start and stop

When you bring in the students they'll want to start hitting immediately. Its a good idea with school students to establish a few rules straight away, or you'll have bedlam before you know it, and the beginnings of that headache in the first two minutes.

Doing this with virtually any school group I would have a written activity that I could hold in reserve, and make it clear when you start that if they are silly about it then you'll stop doing it, and you'll do written work instead. For the majority of classes that'll scare them enough, as doing an hour of fun drumming beats an hour of written work any day!!

Let them know that there will be a time to play and a time to stop, and when we're stopped it is important that they listen and are ready to follow instructions. Don't talk too loudly, and don't ever talk over them tapping instruments. If anyone is tapping an instrument while you're talking, have them put the instruments down on the floor and not touch them. Talking while they are playing just gets worse and worse, and you'll end up with sore vocal chords at the end of the day from talking over drumming.

There really isn't a set rhythm that you have to do. The more rigid you get in the rhythm that you start with, the more nervous and unsure they'll be about starting.

The actual rhythm really doesn't matter. Let them know that it is great to improvise around the pattern they are given, and as long as they are listening and playing in time then they'll have a great time.

Start each instrument group separately, have them practice and then stop. Then start them one at a time and bring them in all together.

Stop Cues

The single most important skill for you (the leader, facilitator, teacher etc) to master is the STOP CUE. This needs to be a BIG, HUGE, ENORMOUS movement, and it has to be totally definite. You can't use a little movement of “slitting the throat” like you might if you just want people to stop doing something normally.

Your group has to KNOW its coming, and they have to know WHICH BEAT you want them to stop at.

Usually you want them to stop right on beat ONE. Therefore what I'll do is hold one finger in the air and circle around the group (this lets them know that something is about to happen), then I'll hold up four fingers, then three, then two, then one, over four beats, then I'll jump up in the air and down again and move both arms outwards from a crossed arm position.

This sounds really difficult, but in actual fact it really isn't. All you need to do is one big movement, and make it consistent for each and every time that you'd like the group to stop.

Have a look on youtube at drum circle facilitation. You'll find lots of great examples of people leading drum circles for a few ideas on how to start and stop them.

4.Game Ideas

Rhythm Improvisation Game.

This game works for all groups - no matter their level of musical experience. What you do is “pass a rhythm” from one person to the next around the circle. you might start off with a rhythm like this.
Start and stop game.
The idea of this game is to explore the different sound colors of wood, metal, drums and shakers. (or as many groups as you have if you don't have all of them).

The idea is that you need to get the whole rhythm group going, and then go around the group, and let just one group know that they are going to keep going once you've stopped the rest of the group. This seems hard, but really isn't. Lets say you're just going to keep the shakers going. You might start by walking around the circle making eye contact with the shaker players, then mouthing out “shakers keep playing”, before giving a big stop cue and having the rest of the players stop. You should have a massive drop in sound, and then you can encourage a little clap for the shaker players, then bring back in the rest of the group. You can use a big vocal cue like 1 - 2 lets all play, or you can gradually bring back in the group one by one.

Once again, the strength of this activity comes down to how well you can manage the stop cues. If you aren't confident and strong about it, then they won't all stop, and the activity won't work at all.

Once you've done the shakers, then brought everyone else back in, try the wood sounds, metal sounds and drums.

Once you've done this a few times give them a big stop, and have a talk about what they have just experienced.

They have just experienced something called TIMBRE. you can explain the meaning of this word, and talk about how and why instruments have a different timbre from each other.

Dynamic Directors Games

This an opportunity for them to learn about dynamics, and what they mean.

Start by simply directing the group yourself, up for loud, down for soft. Try gradual crescendos and diminuendos (getting louder and softer) as well as sudden changes. You can even have half the group on different dynamics from the other half if you're feeling adventurous.

After they have done this a few times, grab a few dynamics flashcards (such as those available in the Fun Music Company Ultimate Flashcard Set), and see how quickly they can respond when you show the pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff symbols.

Once you've done that - empower the students by choosing a student to direct from among the group. You can make this activity go for a long time, and they won't get bored having a chance to conduct the group.

Instrument Change game

One thing that I would definitely suggest is that you keep it interesting by regularly rotating instruments. One thing you can do is have a little cue, like a whistle that you have, that'll mean right away: “Swap to the instrument on your right”. Always have them get up, leave the instrument on their chair, and move to the next chair. That way, your setup that you had at the start of the lesson should be maintained throughout, and you'll be able to run it right through the

5.Don't Overdo it!

Sure this can be fun, but the last piece of advice I have on this is don't overdo things. I have loads more games, and you can find great stuff on the internet with loads of ideas.

Don't overdo it though, and make sure that you don't try it too often. Kids being Kids will get bored doing the same thing for weeks on end, so you'll have to keep it fresh by finding new ideas and rhythms for them all the time.

You can contact me at the Fun Music Company for any additional advice, and you can find lots of great ideas on the internet. Try searching on youtube for “drum circle” and you can find some great master facilitators who conduct brilliant drum circles.

If you're nervous about your own skills on the drum, and would like more ideas on what rhythms to play and playing techniques, then I highly recommend you check out Tim Irrgang's Djembe Secrets course. It is full of really great rhythms that anyone can learn, no matter their experience level with hand drums.

You can download the full article here.

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