Can group drumming practices with young people prevent and treat trauma?

A blog post from Prof. Catherine Maternowska, Honorary Professor of Violence Prevention for Young People at the University of Edinburgh.

On a chilly Sunday morning in Edinburgh, a small group convened in one of the university’s main squares. A van pulled up, and its driver hopped out, opening the vehicle’s back doors to display stacks of drums in a variety of sizes and various hollowed-out gourdes full of rattling beads. We unloaded the van, each of us carrying one or two instruments, depending on their heft, to a lower-level lecture room on campus.

Inside the ordered lecture room, and in collective spontaneity, we pushed the desks aside and made a large circular space for the djembe drums carved of hollowed wood with tight goat and cow skins pulled over the tops. Almost ceremoniously, we laid out the shekere, the dried gourds wrapped in beaded nets, and one of the participants unpacked dozens of freshly carved wooden sticks called imirishyo.

Finding rhythm together

I am a seasoned violence prevention ‘pracademic’—holding professorial status but deeply engaged in practice globally. Having researched, evaluated and practiced violence prevention for 30 years now, in over 40 countries I have learned a lot, by listening.

We were an odd group of people, most of us not knowing each other well, or at all. Four were drummers: a local African drummer from Scotland (and driver of the van) who generously provided our instruments; a musicologist drummer who lived, studied and drummed across the continent of Africa; a Ghanian social worker who’s been drumming most of his life to heal young people; and a feminist creative arts leader from Rwanda whose drumming circles with women and girls addresses both the longstanding intergenerational effects of the genocide and the intractable gender equality.

The drummers took their seats, pulling the drums into their legs, and our workshop erupted:

Lyrics chanted in a West African dialect provided striking accompaniment.

Joining the four drummers were the drumming novices, including two young neuroscientists and a radical creative arts methodologist from England; two curious and willing undergraduate students, one from the USA studying cognitive sciences and the other from the Philippines studying health in social sciences; a child rights expert and lecturer from Canada; and two scholars from the public health space, one building a local creative arts and mental health movement, the other was me: committed to the prevention of violence against children globally.

Without hesitation, the novices took seat, drawing our drums in close. ‘Think: ‘fish-and-chips-fish and chips-fish and chips!’. The instruction was hollered above the beats, demonstrating a right hand-left hand pattern—and within minutes we were all drumming. We were also all smiling. And we were all moving to a collective rhythmic beat.

We had gathered around the common interest of healing trauma through drumming.

A community-based intervention that works for children

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk discusses the three main approaches to trauma healing: talk therapy, medication, and/or allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that may result from trauma.

Many, however, do not necessarily respond to traditional methods of treatment (therapy or medication) – and because these therapies are not available to the majority of the world’s children and young people, a collective, community-based approach is likely to be considerably more cost-effective and accessible.

Thanks to a small, yet generous, grant from the Binks Hub, we had gathered, across continents and disciplines, to grapple a difficult fact: that violence against children (VAC) is a global problem. Over 1 billion children (which translates to over 50% of all kids aged between 2-17 years old) have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence in the past year. That’s a lot of trauma, and that figure is only the tip of the iceberg ­– because most children don’t report.

The good news is that the science behind violence prevention is making headway with WHO-endorsed global guidelines called INSPIRE: Seven strategies to end violence against children. The problem is that most of the INSPIRE interventions are often too complex and too costly to implement in all the places where the billions of children live, sleep, learn and play.   

During three days of work and play alongside poetry and science, we combined practice and research giving credence to all types of knowledge. Our goal was to see how we could transcend our disciplines—as drummers, activists, front line service providers, practitioners and scholars—to envision a community-based social intervention that would meet the standards of a WHO scientific public health intervention, and yet be accessible and meaningful enough to reach the millions of children who might benefit from a low-cost, engaging and effective way to prevent and respond to violence.

Drumming from Rwanda to Scotland

On our first day celebrating creativity, the feminist director from Rwanda, Odile (Kiki) Gakire, opened our session with a beautifully disruptive poem describing her experience of the transformative nature of drumming for women. Drumming in Rwanda is traditionally only for men. Her work has helped heal the wounds of hundreds of women who survived the Rwandan genocide, and extends now into schools around Rwanda.

Today, I recreate myself in the image of the old drum. For the next thousands of years, I cement my heart with hope, repaint my eyes with bravery, and sow countless seeds of curiosity and possibility in my creative genius. Today, I pass the new drum to you. This is the drum of freedom. Today, I pass these new sticks to you. These are the sticks of equality. Make the world dance to this music.

Pam Burnard, Professor of Arts, Creativities and Educations at the University of Cambridge talked about decades of work around the healing arts writ large, and the power of musical knowledge. School teachers, she reminded us, when engaged on equal terms to scientists who run clinical trials, offer data and wisdom from the field. Her visual illustrated happy spaces for healing, including the power of hip hop to address trauma (one of her more recent publications).


From Cambridge to Kigali, the afternoon ended in rhythm and an explosion of dance, with Afro-Ceilidh choreography combining the earthy rhythms of Africa with Scottish folk dance – a joyous nod to the power of what happens when local meets global.

The power of drumming to heal trauma

In the days that followed, after more drumming and presentations from the fields of neuroscience and neuroimaging and psychology, we asked: Can group drumming practices with young people prevent and treat trauma? Can collective rhythmic drumming reduce anxiety for adolescents exposed to violence?

A trauma specialist from clinical psychology and the public health experts all opined. We were joined via Zoom by colleagues from Switzerland, Jamaica and South Africa, who shared similar experiences around interventions to prevent violence for young people. Working from the ‘bench’ but eager to move neuroscientific methods to the lived realities of young people, the neuroscientists explained how rhythm, regularity, and predictability appear early in the motor repertoire of young children. There’s even powerful evidence that drumming, playing music, and singing together may synchronise our heartbeats and potentially create positive stimulus in our physical bodies.

Yet the questions remain: How do we measure children’s experiences and exposure to violence? How can we be sure that we are building resilience and protecting their futures? Is collective drumming with trained teachers, some drums, and willing students a viable form of violence prevention? Our network of like-minded thinkers committed to addressing trauma in young people through a scientific and creative arts approach was birthed. The challenge now is to build the community, test the idea and make our way into the hearts and minds of children worldwide.

Dr M Catherine Maternowska is Honorary Professor of Violence Prevention for Young People at the University of Edinburgh, with three decades of field-based research and programming spanning the Americas, Africa and Asia focusing on violence prevention and response, gender equity, and sexual and reproductive health. Trained in economics, public health, and medical anthropology, she use mixed methodology approaches to achieve improved outcomes.