As friends and writers, we share many experiences together. Some are pleasant diversions, like sipping beers on our decks; banal requirements, like brainstorming article ideas; still others are otherworldly. As mothers, too, we often take our children with us on our adventures, including a recent trip to New Vrindaban. But few of our joint escapades have moved us and our kids as much as the drumming circle at the Saint Joseph Retreat Center.
Located just a few miles up Pogue’s Run Road in Wheeling, the Saint Joseph Retreat Center is part of a complex of facilities created by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who arrived in Wheeling from Missouri in 1853. Their commitment to serve the people in their communities, whom they call “dear neighbors,” continues today in the form of outreach services and the Retreat Center, which is located in the former Holloway Mansion.
Friend and fellow writer, Rich Knoblich had been urging us to attend the monthly drumming circles, but it took us until June 2018 to finally make it a priority — and we are glad we did!
“Are you sure I’m allowed to be here?” Laura’s 12-year-old son Andy asked as we pulled into the parking lot at the St. Joseph Retreat Center. He looked nervous and uncertain. Christina’s 7-year-old son Tristan was less concerned about joining in than he was about being bored. Still, we both hoped the experience would open some creative doors and also give us a memorable mother-son experience.
Anna Marie Troiani, executive director of the St. Joseph Retreat Center, and Jennifer Hezoucky, a music therapist and leader for the evening, welcomed us as we found our way to a comfortable living room scattered with remnants of Mrs. Holloway’s sophisticated decorating choices: a lovely fireplace, richly colored flooring and custom-made curtain rods from Wheeling Corrugating.
In the center of assorted couches and chairs, a large coffee table overflowed with a multitude of drums, including the usual suspects like bongos, snare and hand drums. But there were others that surprised us, such as the ocean drum. In the mix, Hezoucky had added maracas, bells, triangles, clackers, whackers and a pair of wooden frogs that made a musical ribbit when struck.
“Is it OK that I’m here?” Andy asked. Troiani and Hezoucky told him they were thrilled to have kids join the circle for the first time.
“I’m pretty nervous,” he admitted, and Hezoucky told him to look at the instruments and find one that spoke to him. He went for a big drum that sat on the floor, begging to be whacked with an open palm.
Tristan, on the other hand, rather unenthusiastically chose a small drum and found a chair between Christina and Rich. He settled in for what he expected to be another one of “mom’s boring things.”
Music as Therapy
Jennifer Hezoucky is a board-certified music therapist who lives in Jacobsburg, Ohio. She runs Life Song Therapy and served as musical guide for the evening.
According to her website, music therapists work in medical facilities, mental health facilities, clinics, day care centers, drug and alcohol programs, hospice care, nursing home … the list goes on. Basically, anywhere you have human beings learning, growing and healing, music therapy helps.
We asked Hezoucky about her work beyond the St. Joseph monthly drumming circle. What happens in nursing homes and hospitals when the drums come out, we wondered.
“They brighten,” she said of residents and patients. “We do a lot of singing. When we sing, we do a little drumming beat or whatever they can. I don’t just come in and sing and they listen. It’s an activity that gets them engaged.”
Studies reveal the benefits of music therapy. Drumming can help the body physiologically as well as emotionally. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, and it can boost the immune system, making it a valuable healing modality. Drumming can also reduce pain.
“I try to use my music to help patients with reducing pain because when you’re participating in something creative, you can’t be thinking about your pain,” Hezoucky said. Additionally, when she enters a room for a music therapy session, she’s also giving the patient a choice, something many of them lack.
“They don’t have choices in the hospital. I go in there and if they absolutely don’t want music, I remind them that they can make that choice.”
Making Music Together
When Christina told her husband that she was taking their son to a drumming circle, his response seemed typical for anyone not in the know: “Won’t that be cacophonous?” He imagined a bunch of untrained drummers banging along to their own beat, and in many ways, that is what happened. Yet, it was so much more.
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Hezoucky began each “song” with a beat. At times she played drums; others she played a woodwind or stringed instrument. We, in turn, followed when we felt ready. Not long after each song began, we were working together to create something much bigger than any one individual.
Looking around the room, we saw each participant in different states of inertia. Two women sat on a divan — one meditating with her eyes closed, the other lightly tapping on a drum. Another woman sat in a chair, thwacking out a drone beat on the large bongo between her knees. Others added the slow rolling roar of a rain stick and the reverberating ting of a triangle.
Although each song started out without a sense of oneness, by the time Hezoucky stopped the music with thunderous booms, we had created a powerful energy. Each new song slowly became a melodic stream we could step into and out of as we were so moved. In this space, ego vanished. No individual was greater than the whole. We worked together, not out of force, but out of desire to join with each other in an organic, expansive composition.
At one point, Andy, Laura and Rich stood around the community drum, playing and moving freely without fear of being embarrassed for hitting the wrong notes. There are no wrong notes in drum circle, only the desire to find your spot in the thumping flow.
As the music flowed, participants could swap out their instruments for another. We felt drawn to instruments that seemed to fit us and the musical energy. During an early song, Laura shook the ocean drum, which rocked and rolled like sea waves. Later, she switched to a bongo.
It took Tristan a song or two to find his instrument of choice. It wasn’t a drum, a handle bell or a clacker; instead, it was a clatterpillar. Small wooden rectangles adhered to an elastic band to make surprisingly loud music. Once he found his groove, he stuck with it until it was time to head home.
After the circle ended, it was obvious that Andy had had a great time, too. He was smiling and visibly relaxed. Even Hezoucky could see the difference.
“I was really excited to see him,” she said. “I had a feeling he would come out of his shell.”
Christina felt joyful and relaxed as well. The energy she expended in that hour was returned to her three-fold. By the time the drumming circle ended, she felt like she could run laps around the beautiful St. Joseph grounds. Although she didn’t actually run, we walked the stone labyrinth and strolled along a paved path that meandered through the marshy bottomlands.
As the sun set on an energizing evening, the four of us strode back up the walkway to head home. Two writer-friends and their boys reveled in yet another one of the Ohio Valley’s unexpected treasures. All four agreed that we will be back.
Drumming circles are held the last Monday of every month. The next one is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 30, at the St. Joseph Retreat Center. The cost is $10. No experience or instruments required. For more information and directions to the Retreat Center, visit the center’s website.
• Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative non-fiction and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including her most recent memoir, “The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.” She has been a Weelunk contributing writer since 2015. Christina is a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She lives in Wheeling with her family.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.