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Abbie Ehorn Cultivates Wellness With Group Drumming

04/22/2015 12:30PM ● By Laura Christman

Therapeutic Rhythms

May 2015
By Laura Christman

The thump of a drum is more than sound. It can be an expression and connection. A way to release worry, show support, gain strength – and have fun.

“There is always something magical that happens,” says Abbie Ehorn, whose drumming for wellness efforts are reverberating through the North State.

Ehorn uses hand drums, shakers and other percussion instruments to help with stress, grief, anxiety, eating disorders and family dynamics. She’s trained teachers and mental health clinicians, led sessions with foster families, worked alongside therapists and drummed with World War II veterans.

“I’ve really found a passion working with the needs of the community,” she says.

“Abbie is just amazingly versatile,” says Hillary Lindauer, executive director of Family Counseling Center in Red Bluff . Lindauer and Ehorn joined forces to land a Dignity Health Community Grant in 2012. It paid for drums and launched ongoing drumming sessions for the center’s clients as well as beatstress workshops for the community.

The response? Resoundingly positive, according to Lindauer. “Some people said they didn’t expect how powerful it would be emotionally.”

One of the pluses of drumming is the concentration demanded, she notes. Participants struggling with an emotional difficulty are drawn away from their problem and into the moment, Lindauer says. Plus there’s strength in being in a group.

“I think it helps people to bond. It helps break down isolation,” Lindauer says.

A few years ago, Tehama County Mental Health used state funding for innovative approaches to purchase drums and have Ehorn train the staff in therapeutic drumming. Ehorn is working with Shasta Community Health Center in Redding on drumming as a tool for pain management. And she’s led percussion sessions with residents at the state Veterans Home in Redding.

Sherrie Brookes, supervising rehabilitation therapist at the Veterans Home, says watching residents join in was moving. “It really instills a sense of community. They’re all here with a different life story, and they all come together to play music.”

Ehorn’s community wellness efforts are on top of a fulltime teaching job. She’s music
specialist for Evergreen Union School District in Cottonwood, where she provides music instruction for some 1,200 kindergartners through eighth-graders.

She tapped into the potential of drumming 10 years ago in the classroom. Inspired by a
drumming activity at a teacher training in Chico, Ehorn decided to teach world rhythms to her middle school students on drums. Th e drums were an instant hit. And Ehorn noticed more being mastered than beats. Students worked together. Distracted students focused. Disruptive students engaged. Students with autism and other challenges felt included.

Ehorn wanted to know what was behind all of that. She read, attended workshops in Southern California and decided to become a healthy drumming facilitator. She studied with music therapist Christine Stevens and neurologist Barry Bittman, pioneers in drumming for wellness.

Facilitated drumming is not a freeform drum circle. Th e facilitator provides ice-breakers, relaxation exercises, guided imagery and drumming techniques. The protocol encourages confidence and connections. Research shows it reduces anger, improves mood and boosts the immune system, Ehorn says.

Drumming is a way to express feelings difficult to put into words. In sessions with cancer patients, Ehorn will ask: “What do you want to say to your disease?” Aft er someone pounds or taps the feeling on the drum, she asks others what they heard. They might respond, “I heard you feeling apprehensive” or “I heard you feeling frustrated.” In a bereavement group, a loved one’s name is set to a beat. Others echo the pattern while saying the name. Th e exercise provides validation and connection. In many sessions, Ehorn suggests participants visualize letting go of a fear or problem as they sweep their hands across the drumhead.

“I think that is a real powerful metaphor for people dealing with stuff they don’t want,” says
Mary Jo Brown, who had Ehorn come to her Healthy Steps class at Enloe Medical Center in Chico.

Using the rhythm of music in healing has a long tradition in many cultures, Ehorn notes.
“There is something magical about making music with other people and connecting without words.”

Unlike instruments that require lessons and lots of practice, drums are very accessible, she
adds. It’s easy to jump in and feel successful right away.

“Whether you are 5 or 105, you can do it,” Ehorn says.

Her goal is to continue to find ways to use drumming to help others.

“I want to get the word out that drumming can be a real part of healing,” Ehorn says.