Tools of the Trade: Ocean Drum


I am always looking for musical materials and methods that will capture the attention of my older adult clients with moderate to late stage dementia. Because of where they are in the disease process, these folks often have a harder time engaging in singing, sharing in discussion, and instrument playing. Some clients also have more severe physical impairments that make it harder to participate in music-making experiences, such as worsening muscle contractures, declining trunk control, and weakening motor skills. Enter the ocean drum.

The ocean drum is one instrument that I think every facility specializing in dementia care should own. Even people with severe motor impairment and very low cognitive functioning can play this instrument with some physical assistance. The reward is a pleasant tactile and visual experience, and a soothing white noise, which is an extra bonus for people who are living with greater levels of anxiety.

Here’s a short video demonstrating how to use the ocean drum and spelling out just why I think it’s so useful for people who have dementia:

You can buy an ocean drum like the one I showed in the video here, or you can buy one with a fish pattern that is visible underneath the beads here.

I definitely prefer the manufactured drums for use with older adults for their quality, durability and more adult feel, but if you are looking for a craft project or are working with children or an intergenerational group, you should check out this tutorial for making your own ocean drum from my fellow music therapist Meryl Brown. Even more ideas on how to use the ocean drum and why it works so well are also available from fellow music therapist Davida Price – just click here.

Have you played an ocean drum before? Why do you think it works so well with older adults? Please leave a comment below!

P.S. For a video on another great instrument for music-making with older adults, check out my previous Tools of the Trade post.

Tools of the Trade: Mini-Marimba

This week in music therapy has brought some amazing musical moments with my older adult clients in long-term care thanks to a special instrument: the mini-marimba. I began using this instrument in clinical work during my internship at MusicWorx of California, and I had to have one for my own practice by the time I left.

There are several features to this instrument that I love. First, it is visually appealing – its beautiful rosewood is smooth to the touch, and the instrument can be appreciated for its craftsmanship alone. The instrument is light and portable, so I can carry it back and forth to sessions easily and hold it in easy reach for a resident without tiring myself out. The marimba also has a gorgeous tone, and its pentatonic (5-note) scale means any combination of notes will sound pleasing to the ear. (The musical term for this is consonance.) This might be the best feature – I can tell clients that no matter what they do, they can’t play any “wrong notes.”

Here’s a short video in which I improvise a short melody on the marimba. Note that I did not prepare this music in advance – it’s that easy to play something beautiful on this instrument.

Of course, I think this instrument sounds beautiful on its own. It can also sound great with other instruments. In group settings, I will ask each group member to take a turn playing a solo while the other groups members support the soloist with other percussion instruments (e.g. egg shakers, drums). It is amazing to see people improvise great melodies on this instrument who might not be expected to be able to do so otherwise. I’ve seen folks who are generally confused and withdrawn come out with jazzy, syncopated melodies on this instrument, with a bit of musical support from me and their peers. It is an incredible thing to witness.

Now that you’re excited about buying a marimba of your very own, here’s the bad news. I put this whole post together, then discovered that I can’t find this particular instrument for sale! If anyone out there knows how to get one of these marimbas, manufactured under the brand name Tapo, please let me know. Otherwise, here are two other instruments that would work similarly:

The Sonor “Walking” Xylophone is also built on a pentatonic scale, with six fixed bars. You could position this instrument between you and another person, with three bars each. I haven’t tried this particular instrument, but it should have the same kind of tone quality as the marimba I featured here.

For a different tone quality, you could also try the Freenotes Wings. These have a longer-lasting bell-like tone. Again, they are built on a pentatonic scale, for that special “no wrong note” feature. I have played these before, and I think their tone is gorgeous – one of them is on my to-be-purchased list.

Addendum: I got an email from music therapy student Brianna McCulloch, who found the 6-note G pentatonic Kallisti marimba available in an online store. It looks pretty darn close to the marimba I featured here. Thanks, Brianna!