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Morning Call Article

By Milton D. Carrero, Of The Morning Call – Read on MCall.com

There’s something about drumming that seized control of Mary Ann Gergits.

A registered nurse who worked in the Lehigh Valley Health Network’s department of clinical research, Gergits was used to thinking on empirical terms. But soon after her husband’s death in 2007, she and her daughter attended a drumming workshop as part of a women’s winter weekend.

Gergits, 68, was looking for a new direction in life. The Allentown woman found it in the beat of the drums. As she experienced how a group of strangers united harmoniously in a common rhythmic pulse, Gergits discovered a new calling.

“It just really impressed me to see something that made everybody smile,” Gergits explains. “Everybody could join in, participate and relax.”

Still faithful to her scientific background, Gergits began researching the health benefits of drumming. The activity, she learned, not only reduces stress but also enhances the immune system. A 2001 study published in the Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine Journal showed that drumming increases the activity of our body’s natural killer cells.

Before long, she was on her way to Ann Arbor, Mich., to become certified as a drumming instructor with a group drumming guru, Christine Stevens. It took awhile for Gergits to begin leading drum circles in the area, but she continued practicing. Rhythm became her form of catharsis as she came to terms with the death of her partner. The drum allowed her to release her grief with cadence.

A couple of years after she finished her training, she was hired by Compassionate Care Hospice to lead group drumming circles for the elderly and patients living with dementia. Administrators say the activity enables patients to respond at a more visceral level. Hitting the drums helps them relax, while the rhythmic patterns that they try to emulate stimulate their memory.

“I’m there to make them smile,” Gergits explains. “They enjoy the beat and they definitely respond.”

Recently she led a group drumming session at Alexandria Manor senior living center in Nazareth. About 25 elderly residents, some of them Alzheimer patients, sat around Gergits, their walkers in front of their chairs. They followed her on the first set of measures using shakers, maracas and tambourines. After listening to the group merge in the first rhythmic pattern, Gergits decided they were ready for drums.

She distributed the percussion instruments and pointed to a few of the residents to come up with a rhythm for the group to follow. Each time, Gergits instructed them to say their names with the drum, creating a repetitive sequence.

The rhythms seemed scattered at first, but gradually became more regular. The noise eventually dissolved into a consistent pace. Gergits seemed pleased.

“The key is to get them to join in,” she says.

That proved to be a challenge with resident Rina Neimiller, who after hitting the drum a few times, fell asleep. Gergits later woke her and persuaded her to dance.

Seeing them moving inspired Charlene Ford to stand up for one last boogie. Dancing, it turns out, is one of Ford’s passions.

“That’s how I met my husbands — all four of them,” she says.

After 45 minutes of laughing and jamming to improvised time measures, Gergits ended the workshop with an outburst of belly dancing. At this point, even the senior living center administrators were dancing.

Gergits asked around the room to find out how they felt after the workout. “Happy” was the most popular answer.

For 87-year-old Hazel Kugel, the drum circle was “something different, a good way to let some of my energy out.”

Loise Todd felt exhilarated. The 88-year-old said the session gave her “lots of oomph and energy.”

The comments were self-affirming for Gergits who is fully invested in drumming as a way of reaching these seniors. She recently spent time learning about group drumming from a music teacher in the Bahamas and then returned to facilitate a conference on drumming in Lancaster.

She is still working as a nurse on a part-time basis, but drumming is becoming ever more important for her as a healing tool.

“I’m not going to stop here,” Gergits says.