Drum Group Helps Muscles and Coordination and Lifts Spirits

Admit it. It's hard not to tap your foot or clap along when you hear good music. Being one with the music makes you feel good. It brings joy to the heart and soul.

Now, imagine what it would be like to actually make music—as part of a group, no experience necessary! That's happening in at least one local senior facility, where John Avinger, former director and producer of the Seattle World Rhythm Festival, leads seniors once a week in drum groups.

Avinger has studied, played and promoted hand drumming since 1981. He ran John's Music in Wallingford from 1981 to 2011. Now that he is retired from his retail store, Avinger is turning his drum passion to help the elderly, most of whom qualify to live in a nursing home. His weekly drum groups are extremely popular.


Rhythm can help to "turn on" the brain.

"They offer many benefits to the seniors, including increased attention span and concentration, practice with listening skills and following directions, increased range of motion, activity tolerance and fine and large motor coordination, and increased eye-hand coordination," said Susan Disman, Recreation Therapist at Providence ElderPlace-West Seattle, where several of the drum groups meet. "In addition, rhythm can help to 'turn on' the brain to enhance motor initiation, and learning something new can enhance brain function," she said.

Avinger, who started teaching drum classes at the request of the staff at Providence ElderPlace and Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle, said he had never worked with an elderly population before. The facilities had the drums but needed a teacher.

"They just love it," Avinger said of his students. "They have the best time and I'm kind of blown away. I just can't get over. There are a lot of levels of disability going on in there. I just do what I do with all my classes. I don't move very quickly. I actually give them rhythms. We're not faking it. I say we're going to play this rhythm and I give them words and they play it. At our last session, we did three rhythms at the same time and they did it. It was an astounding breakthrough. They were so pleased."

While his students learn a new skill, Avinger also benefits. "These are things I never would have anticipated in a million years," he said. "I get a lot out of it. It makes me feel great to have them respond."

Avinger speaks about one drummer who has difficulty hearing, seeing, and is developmentally disabled. "She does it better than anybody," he said. "Somehow she does it. I don't really know how. She is the most enthusiastic one of the whole bunch."

Drummers, he said, use the term "entrainment," which means being linked up and doing something together, in tandem. "In this society, we don't get that very often. You can do it dancing and playing instruments. For people who are not musicians and who aren't dancers, this offers them a way to do that. It doesn't have to be complex. You don't have to learn to play a musical instrument. You just whack the drum."

Click here to view a YouTube video of Avinger teaching the Providence ElderPlace West Seattle drum group at Providence Mt. St. Vincent.

Avinger cites research that touts the benefits of music for people with Alzheimer's disease or other disabilities. "The difference with the drumming is they get to do it. They're not just listening to it or watching it," he said.

Bottom line, Avinger said, is that both the drummers and he are having a good time. "They laugh a lot and they're having an experience that I know there's no other way for them to have. That experience is doing something absolutely coordinated with someone else."

"I've been very involved in administrating and organizing the drum scene for over 30 years. Now I'm doing things that are fun to me, like this. This is really fun."

For more information, visit the Providence ElderPlace and Providence Mount St. Vincent websites.

—Cynthia Flash, Flash Media Services