Chris Scholl is the founder of DNA Rhythms, a business that uses percussion to promote mental and physical well-being to people from all walks of life. As it turns out, Scholl is also a part-time ham-bone.
"What’s the difference between a large pizza and a drummer?" Scholl asks, dusting off a riddle he often uses to break the ice at the start of sessions.
We give up, Chris. What is the difference between a large pizza and a drummer?
"A large pizza can feed a family of four." (Ba-dum-tsh.)
Scholl, whose household numbers five by the by, knows of what he jests.
Twelve years ago, Scholl quit his position as an education assistant. He sunk everything he had into a few dozen African drums. The plan was to work with special-needs kids by getting them to "speak" to one another through their instruments, while giving them some physical exercise at the same time.
Except there wasn’t really a job description for what Scholl had in mind. So after running into road blocks trying to explain his intentions to potential clients, Scholl began volunteering his time with schools and agencies around Winnipeg. That way, people could get a risk-free feel for what he and his skins were all about.
"It was good to get some experience under my belt but after a few months of not getting paid I thought to myself, ‘What have I done? I better get my resumé together,’" says the Westwood Collegiate grad.
Fast-forward to 2013; nowadays, Scholl is booked for toddlers’ birthday parties, seniors’ programs, corporate team-builders — you name it. A few months ago, Scholl and one of his associates led a 950-person strong drum circle at the Convention Centre. A Winnipeg firm was ushering in a new product line and wanted to encourage harmony between management and staff, so the company’s brain trust snared Scholl to help them achieve that goal.
"At the start we talk a lot about respect and listening to one another," says Scholl. "With a group that big it’s a little like a high school environment. Some people might think ‘I’m too cool for this’ but usually as soon as enough people start playing, the reluctant ones join in, too."
So what does Scholl do, exactly?
Well, sessions are generally an hour long and — depending on the size of the group; 12 to 18 is the norm — cost around $125.
To get the ball rolling, Scholl, 38, talks a bit about his career as a professional drummer — he once toured Canada as a member of a ska-outfit, the Wedgewoods.
Then he discusses his wellness training. Three years ago, Scholl travelled to Valencia, Calif., to complete a Remo Health Rhythms Facilitator course that stresses the biological benefits of drumming. Namely, that drumming in a group setting helps develop listening skills, exercises the mind and rejuvenates emotions. (Researchers at Remo’s Health Rhythms Department have also discovered that group drumming "significantly increased the disease-fighting activity of white blood cells that seek out and destroy cancer cells.")
From there, Scholl delves into the history of drums as a communication tool. He plays a bit of show and tell with his cache of drums, which he has collected from all over the world. Then it’s time for everybody to bang out a simple beat — something basic like Shave and a Haircut almost always works. Once people get the hang of playing in unison, Scholl turns things up a notch or three.
Finally, before a few breathing and stretching exercises, Scholl goes around the room and asks individuals to "say" something with their drum to express whatever mood(s) they’re in.
When Scholl worked with a group of at-risk youths a couple of years back, he could tell within seconds who was having a rough go of things, by the way they played.
"Sometimes people are holding onto something they can’t or don’t want to talk about," Scholl says. "So what I do is ask them to take that feeling and play it on the drum, to get it out of their system."
Children’s parties are somewhat less intense, Scholl assures us. First of all, his jokes ("What’s the difference between a drummer and a mutual fund? A mutual fund eventually matures.") generally fall flat. And second of all, what could be more joyful than a whack of six-year-olds banging out Happy Birthday on African drums?
Sue Murphy is the activities co-ordinator for the Charleswood Adult Day Club, a facility that offers social, recreational and educational activities to seniors. Murphy learned of DNA Rhythms two years ago. She now books Scholl to work with members for a full week, every other month.
"When we first introduced Chris feelings were mixed — a lot of people told us, ‘But I’ve never played a drum before,’ " Murphy says. "But because of Chris’s methods — and his kind demeanour — people have gone from being hesitant, even not participating at all, to excelling."
The youngest participant at the Charleswood centre is 60, the oldest is 97. Classes number around 18.
"Chris teaches us a variety of drum methods. He’s taught us different rhythms where half the room will play one beat and the other half will follow a different one, sort of like a round. He orchestrates the sound; he has signs for people to go louder or softer but really, anything they tap out is OK with Chris," Murphy says, noting some of the benefits of the program are improved hand-eye coordination and, more importantly, raised spirits.
"People really look forward to it when they see Chris’s name on the schedule. In our last newsletter we had a member who wrote a story about the drum sessions — how they bring out his vigour and vitality — and how they uplift him. We thought that was pretty good."
"I can’t call myself a music therapist because I don’t have the papers," says Scholl, who still practises with a rock band — Members of a Secret Society — every Tuesday night. "I was considering taking the four-year course but I was told I could never use drums therapeutically, that I’d have to learn a harmonic instrument like the piano.
"But to me, any type of music is therapy. When you’re driving home at the end of a long day what do you do? You turn on the radio and listen to music that brings you the most joy. What could be more therapeutic than that?"
One of Scholl’s favourite stories comes from his time in California. He was talking to a person there who was using the Remo system to work with dementia patients in the U.S.
"I don’t know what drumming does to the brain exactly but there have been cases where people actually came out of their state for a few seconds or minutes while they were playing. Loved ones who were close by would say, ‘I know you’re only here for a short time, but I just wanted to say ‘Hi.’ "