Yes, it’s true. I used to be a drum circle snob. For those who may not know what a drum circle is, please allow me to describe one. Picture a bunch of ordinary people wearing Birkenstocks and tie-die apparel reeking of patchouli oil. They are holding handmade drums and being led by “Tony Robbins,” wearing the same garb but with dreadlocks. A simple drone of a rhythm seemingly goes on forever.
You see, I was above that. I was a DRUMMER. A real drummer with a drum-set, cymbals, and other cool gadgets and accessories. I played paradiddles, flams, ratamacues, and as many mini drum solos as can humanly fit into a simple song. I studied drums in Hollywood at the Musicians Institute in 1985 and toured the country performing in a multitude of bands and genres.
Drum circles bored me.
That is, until I met Remo Belli at a winery gig in Paso Robles, California. During a break in the set, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to the legendary drumhead manufacturer. Belli is known for inventing the manufacturing process of the Mylar drumhead in the late 1950s. His company in Southern California, REMO Incorporated, is the largest drumhead manufacturer in the world, and one of the largest and most successful businesses in the music instrument industry.
About 30 years ago, they also began manufacturing handheld world percussion. REMO invested over 25 million dollars into the study of the physical and emotional effects of healing rhythms on the people who played them. There were studies at UCLArts and other educational authorities that developed and documented the rhythmic ways of helping and healing our culture.
Belli was a small man with a big heart and a huge vision. But when I first met him, I thought he was a crazy old man. He told me about an abstract concept of developing a drum culture that went “horizontal, not just vertical.” In other words, drumming wasn’t for professional drummers anymore, but for EVERYONE. I stood there listening to the way he humbly expressed his ideas and vision. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was in the presence of greatness. A true genius at 88 years old, still the acting CEO of his company.
I told him about my humble music school, Music Motive, and our motivation of bringing music enrichment classes to public schools throughout San Luis Obispo County. Needless to say, we hit it off. The next week he invited me to his part-time home in Cambria and described to me the various programs REMO Inc. had funded. He gave me his spiel about the therapeutic drumming programs that had been developed, showed me some of the ethnic drums and prototypes they invented, and some really cool designs that made hauling 30 or more drums possible in a Prius.
REMO’s programs include Community Drum Circles developed by Arthur Hull and Christine Stevens, as well as physical and emotional healing programs. But the one that resonated most was Beat the Odds, an evidence-based music program that promotes emotional and social development in the framework of a drum circle. It was developed at UCLArts and Healing and recommended for 3rd-5th graders in a classroom setting. I thought, Boom! Bingo! That’s my heart, helping kids with music!
PHOTO: Steve with Remo watching Ringo & His All-Starr Band, October 2, 2015 at Vina Robles in Paso Robles, CA. Steve’s highlight was when Remo nudged him and said, “I remember when [the Beatles] were just kids.” Evidently, Remo was at the Ed Sullivan Theater when the Beatles debuted in the U.S.A. in 1964.
For more than 35 years I have been a drum teacher. Like most professional instructors, one of my most joyfully fulfilling experiences is when one of my students “gets it.” After some deep soul searching, I realized that same feeling of accomplishment could be possible within 20 minutes in a drum circle. Better yet, it can be possible for someone who had never picked up a drum before. I was hooked. How could I have been so arrogant about drumming? No longer would I be a drum circle snob.
In response, I did what any level-headed, open-minded drum teacher would do: I bought 60 drums—from REMO, of course—and got some training. Within 15 months, I led community drum circles for kids and adults, became a certified Beat the Odds facilitator, recruited and helped train two other facilitators, and began our first Beat the Odds program at five public schools in three San Luis Obispo County school districts.
The Beat the Odds program is proven to help children in a very fun way with positive risk taking, team building, self-esteem, awareness, empathy, leadership and expression of feelings, while managing anger and stress by teaching resilience and gratitude. During the past year, we have presented 152 Beat the Odds sessions and a dozen or so drum circles to more than 700 children on the California Central Coast.
Sadly, nearly 10 months after meeting Remo Belli, he unexpectedly passed away during a brief illness. Although he wasn’t alive when we started our first Beat the Odds sessions, I have the satisfaction of knowing that his legacy will continue with me and many others, as well as with the millions of people who will benefit from the work he did while he was here. Belli’s vision will live on with the masses, utilizing one of God’s greatest gifts to us all—rhythm and music.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my djembe and I have a drum circle to join. Are you in?