Group drumming: Get into a happier rhythm at work

Percussion is a great way to motivate staff and improve camaraderie and engagement

ice breakers for meetings and conferences

Article originally published in the Irish Times, 5 October 2018. Written by Olive Keogh

Drumming has been used for centuries to send messages, create bonds and promote unity within groups. It has also been found to reduce stress and to “tune” human biology in positive, life-affirming ways.

Now its therapeutic benefits are being channelled in a new direction – to improve motivation and communication in the workplace, to wow delegates at conferences and company gatherings and an unusual way of encouraging employees to let off steam after a gruelling meeting or an intensely busy period at work.

Drum Cafe is one of the oldest providers of corporate drumming workshops. It was formed in South Africa over 20 years ago by Warren Lieberman and Brett Schlesinger as part of an interactive experience at a music venue there. They were subsequently approached by a number of companies that wanted private sessions for their employees. That has since evolved into an international business that has run more than 50,000 events in 65 countries.

“We’ve worked with every kind of company and with numbers from 10 to 6,000,” Schlesinger says. “Drumming can be a terrific ice breaker, a great energiser and an easy way of connecting people. No skills are needed and I think what surprises people is just how quickly a group can get into a rhythm together and make a really big impact.”

Drum Cafe’s client list reads like a roll call of blue chips and includes Microsoft, Dell, BMW, Shell and Unilever. The company has been to Ireland more than 20 times.

Schlesinger says drumming creates a real buzz among jaded audiences that have heard one too many motivational speakers and eaten one too many canapés at big corporate events over the years.

“It’s really interesting to see people’s reactions when they come into the room and see the drums on their seats,” he says. “Yes, it takes them out of their comfort zone and they are a bit apprehensive at first. But they are also attracted by the novelty and the fun element. And when you get them going, the feeling in the room can be absolutely electric. I can tell you, when that happens, it’s an event or a conference they won’t forget in a hurry.”

Serious purpose

While the drumming is fun, Schlesinger says it can have a serious purpose allied to corporate objectives such as improving relationships within teams, closing the gap between management and employees, breaking down barriers and helping employees to embrace change or to understand how a new skill or process is learned.

He also says his company has seen a shift in mindset in the 10 years since the financial crash, with companies now really keen to engage their employees.

Drum Cafe is one of the oldest providers of corporate drumming workshops.

“Companies have become more concerned about making people feel part of the organisation and part of the team and making that meaningful. They want people to feel better about working there,” he says. “They use us to help get that message across, whether that’s in a quick session that lasts 20 minutes or one that goes on for a few hours. The energy levels it generates are high, very similar to something like paintball, in fact.”

Schlesinger points out that, when someone is drumming, they can’t be doing anything else – an unusual experience for many these days with always-on technology.

“The number one enemy of a conference or corporate event is the mobile phone,” he says. “People are constantly looking down, and getting their full attention is really difficult. But you need two hands for drumming so for that period they are in a technology-free zone, which is surprisingly positive.

“One of the comments we hear over and over is how alive and connected they felt [in a human as opposed to a technological way] to themselves and to other people after a drumming experience.”

Energising experience

Tania Lancaster, UKI strategy employee engagement lead at Accenture, says her organisation used drumming recently to mark the start of a new financial year and the launch of a new strategy.

“The room would have been made up of about 250 people, from analysts through to senior managing directors,” she says. “The day had been pretty full-on, and I was looking for something to finish it off on a high and get people feeling they were energised to deliver our new strategy and were part of a team/family.

“The three guys who came along [from Drum Cafe] were amazing. We only had a 25-minute slot but they still managed to work their magic. Everyone had a brilliant time and there was great camaraderie after it. People said they felt really energised to undertake the work ahead. It also humanised us, I think.”

Neil Dowling of Dublin-based Drum Nature (which teaches African drumming) runs corporate sessions mainly around team-building objectives. “I’ve led groups from five or six up to over 100 and companies have largely used us to reinforce training or messages they wanted to get across to help promote a collective vision,” Dowling says.

“Rhythm connects both sides of the brain and drumming is very participative and satisfying and people work together to create something that is much bigger than the sum of the parts.”

Drum sessions are typically priced according to group size, and all equipment is provided. Open-air drumming, which brings an added dimension, is possible but can be rather tricky in the Irish climate, as the drums don’t like to get wet.

Drum Cafe With Al Gore at African Climate Change Programme Launch


Al Gore, former US Vice-President and climate change lobbyist, has launched the African branch of the Climate Reality Project, which aspires to assemble individuals and organisations to implement eco-friendly measures and “spread the truth” of climate change to communities on the continent.

Towards a 700 attendees audience at the Climate Reality Project workshop throughout three days, in Johannesburg, on Thursday, Gore said the African division of the organisation would look to collaborate with “climate leaders”, African governments, nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and scientists across the continent to recognize continent-specific solutions to global warming.

“This is a critical time for Africa. Although the continent produces a relatively small proportion of the carbon pollution driving global climate change, the continent bears a disproportionate share of its impacts.

“Drought, desertification and food shortages are becoming more widespread and the continent faces daily reminders of the dire consequences of inaction. The good news is that, if we act together now, we can solve the climate crisis, [with] Africa already playing a key role in that effort,” he commented.

Strategic African Objectives

The Project would work to attain quite a few strategic goals on Africa, including  the creation of a network and communication hub for qualified Climate Reality Project “leaders” and others in the continent to gather and share information and resources.

Food & Trees for Africa founder Jeunesse Park, who would head up the activities of the Climate Reality Project’s newly formed African branch, said its formation came at a crucial time for the continent, which faced increasing climate instability.

Under the umbrella of the South African NGO Food & Trees for Africa, the division would in addition develop wide-ranging communications “assets”, including workshops, events and social channels to “tell the story” of climate change in Africa.

 “While this presents us with many challenges, we also have the unique opportunity to not only help millions of Africans to understand climate change, but also to innovate and implement solutions that we can share with the rest of the world,” she told Engineering News Online.

UBUNTU… I am because of those around … The message of Nelson Mandela

I am taking you straight into the heart of South Africa where Drum Cafe was born nearly 2 decades ago. From the very core of this country emanates the heartbeat you’re feeling now, as your read this. We’ve convened here this summer to talk about the future of Drum Cafe, now a global force that has changed the way communities connect with each other, beat by beat. It’s been a transformative time for all of us and as usual, I’m eager to trace the experience back to you.

We’ve all sat in rooms for presentations. There’s usually a few strong take-away’s. I’ve had so many from this conference, but the one that strikes me so deeply now is a concept that I have understood since I was a child. And given my proclivity to sharing nuggets of wisdom, here comes a gem.

Umunto Ngumuntu ngabantu

“I am through others.”

This is the concept of ubuntu – how each person is made whole by their interactions with the people around them. It’s an ancient believe that runs deep in all the tribes of Africa, as it binds together the collective life-force of each tribal member.  I hadn’t spoken about ubuntu for a while, and when we got into a lively discussion about it at the Drum Cafe conference, I felt electrified in a whole new way. Ubuntu is Drum Cafe.

Ubuntu asserts that only through sharing a common humanity can a person become fully human. We tap into that humanity every time we heal the separation between each other – imposed by hierarchy, business units, competition, geography, and fear of differences. If we begin to see ourselves through our connections with others – through others – we start to re-prioritize our thinking and our doing. We feel the gravitas behind each and every interaction we have, realizing that there is so much to gain from that moment of being.

It’s clearer than ever to me that each program Drum Cafe engages people in, is a chance to birth ubuntu into that culture as a permanent operating system behind all the others.  It takes interconnectedness to a whole new level and penetrates even the firewalls of the deepest corporate chambers.. This old and proven concept can hold the weight of us and give us flight — all at the same time.