Rusted Root’s Jim Donovan teaches stress relief workshop

Published Mar 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm (Updated Mar 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm)

Finding ways to reduce or relieve stress was the topic of a recent seminar at Metamorphosis wellness center in McMurray.

Taught by Jim Donovan, a founding member of the band Rusted Root, the March 1 workshop was attended by a small group of local people. Donovan uses sound – specifically drums – to help empower people to live a better life.

The five-hour training involved teaching techniques of how to energize the brain and clear the mind, how to lessen fear and how to create deep relaxation and stress.

“Jim Donovan’s Sound Empowerment Training aligns perfectly with our mission to help people live happy, healthy lifestyles,” said Melissa Migliaro, founder and owner of Metamorphosis.

Donovan, who lives in Greensburg, has a master’s degree in educational leadership and is a full-time instructor at St. Francis University. In addition to his 15 years with Rusted Root, he has been teaching drumming workshops for about five years.

Donovan assured the participants that no musical training was necessary to play the drums he brought with him. He also said that by the end of the day, the participants would have the tools to lead their own workshop.

“I’m on my spiritual journey and [the program] caught my interest,” said Kiddy Riggle of Bethel Park. “I’m into the holistic approach to things.”

Teresa Saxton of Mt. Lebanon said she came for similar reasons. “I’m curious about drum circles,” said Saxton, a musician by training.

“I’m trying to get stress relief,” said Lucy Taszarek of Eighty Four.

Husband and wife Steve and Ellen Ulmer of Bethel Park attended the workshop for two different reasons.

“I’m a licensed counselor and therapist,” Ellen Ulmer said. She added she would like to incorporate drumming into her counseling while her husband said he was there to help reduce stress.

“I’m kind of an anxious person. I’m looking for tricks and tools,” to help reduce anxiety, Steve Ulmer said.

The first thing Donovan had the group do was what he called a “courage test.” He had everyone stand up, shake their arms and count to seven as loud as they could. They repeated this test several times – shaking their arms and legs as they went along.

Afterwards, Donovan asked the group what they were feeling. The answers included “energy,” “vibration” and “loose.”

Donovan said that exercise was a way of showing them that, “In a short period of time, we can change the nature of how we feel.”

“We will be using sound and rhythm as a tool to transfer energy that is heavy into energy that is light,” he said. He explained that heavy energy includes feelings of stress and anxiety, and light energy is that of happiness and contentment.

After the first exercise, Donovan explained the three types of drums that the participants were using. There was a bougarabou drum, which is from West Africa. It is a single-headed drum with an elongated shape. The djembe drum is also from West Africa, and is a skin covered drum with rope. The ashiko drum is of Nigerian decent and the tubano drum is tube-shaped and is called a NSL drum, because it’s “not so loud.”

“You don’t have to be perfect. Musical expression is a right of every person,” Donovan said.

Donovan then led the group in a few drum beats that they then copied. After that, Donovan remarked that many people were watching his hands while he drummed to see how he was doing it. He then had the group close their eyes and do the same exercise.

“Most people find it makes it easier when you take the eyes out,” Donovan said.

He then had the group try to mimic as best they could the sound of one big drum. He had them lower the drum to the floor and relax their bodies, eventually to stop tapping on the drum and tapping on just their legs.

“Take a moment to become aware of the muscles in your face. Allow your face to become expressionless,” Donovan said as the group tapped their legs. He said if they had any thoughts, to acknowledge them and let them pass.

“Focus on the sound,” he said. He had the group soften the tapping and then breathe with the tapping and eventually told the group to sit in silence for a moment.

To wake the brain back up, Donovan had them rub their hands together,

“I’m curious to see how many people say they feel different then when they first arrived,” Donovan said.

Everyone agreed they felt different.

Ellen Ulmer said she had tried to meditate before, but never fully could.

“The sound kind of put me right there,” she said of the drums. “I just felt like I was floating.”

“I felt the stress leave,” Riggle said.

“It’s fascinating that all we were doing was moving our hands back and forth,” Donovan said.

Donovan said the exercise was a technique known as the stopwatch tap technique.

“Think of a ticking stopwatch and move your hands to that sound and breathe,” Donovan said. He said most people can get to a state of relaxation in about two minutes.

“The brain loves patterns,” he said. “It’s a natural human experience.”

He said what the group was experiencing in that state of relaxation was the state the body is in right before you fall asleep. That slow brain wave state can release chemicals to help the body begin to relax.

“I hope you can all do it for yourself. When we have tools like this, we can get into a space where the learning and sharing becomes easier,” Donovan said.

For more information on Jim Donovan and a list of future workshops, visit For more information on Metamorphosis, visit

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