Ed McKee leads drum circles for youth and seniors


By: Trudy Horsting
Creative Services Student Writer


Ed McKee, faculty emeritus, has been at JMU for 45 years. He helped create the graduate curriculum for counseling and has been an integral part of the counselor education program since 1973. Just a year and a half ago, at age 75, he found a new passion for drumming and started to teach himself how to play. Now, in addition to teaching, he leads drum circles at two senior facilities and at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center as part of their after school program. McKee says, “I may not know tons about music but I do know about education and it’s the same thing- It’s about getting people excited about something and pushing them to go beyond what’s comfortable. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

McKee first played the drums while on a trip to visit his mother who lives in a senior facility in Ohio. While there, his sister invited him to sit in on her drumming class. Having always loved music, it was a natural fit and he instantly wanted to share the experience with others. He says, “I decided that the best place to start would be with people like my mom who maybe wouldn’t know a good drummer from a bad drummer. So that’s what I did, I started at one of the senior centers in the area; in a dementia unit.” He continues, “From a logical perspective, it doesn’t make any sense because most of them don’t remember me. But some of them will see me and they’ll make a patting sound on the table- they get the connection there.” During the sessions he drums with the group for the first 45 minutes and then they’ll sing together for the last 15. He says, “It’s really rewarding to see them light up. You can look in their eyes and tell that they’re engaged whereas before they might have just been sitting staring into space.”

McKee believes that music can benefit anyone. He says, “Research indicates that when someone is sitting and relaxed their neurological connections are minimized but if they start listening to music, these connections start to light up. Then, when they actually play an instrument, the connections double.” He goes on, “It’s good for the seniors- it’s relaxing, they feel a release and it gets them back in touch.” It’s personal for McKee, because his own father had Alzheimer’s. He says, “It’s really special to do something for this population that I wish I could have done for my dad; since he lived in Kansas City, it wasn’t possible”

Drumming with children is an equally rewarding, but more of a lighthearted experience for McKee. The focus is simply on learning how to start together, stop together, play loudly and play softly. He compares working with students to working with wood in his workshop, another one of his hobbies. “When I pick up a piece of wood, it’s just a log, a raw product, but by the time I’m finished with it it’s something that has value.” Drumming gives children an opportunity to try something new while improving basic fundamental skills. He says, “It gives them a chance to do something that’s different and unusual- something that they wouldn’t get a chance to do at school or at home.”

If not leading a drum circle, teaching at JMU, or hand-making his own drums to donate to programs, you can find McKee playing at Our Community Place (OCP) in Harrisonburg. He describes OCP as a place of inspiration for him, and he’s thankful for the guidance he gets from Eric, Tom, Leons and Robby who are regulars at the drum circle each week. Every new rhythm he learns he’s able to take back to the programs he leads. McKee says playing music has been an incredibly valuable addition to his life, but even more enriching has been teaching it.

Back to Top

Published: Monday, December 4, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Related Articles