Listen Up: Branson Summers and His Zen Drumming

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Branson Summers
  • Branson Summers

Branson Summers now lives in Nashville, but he’ll return to Memphis at the drop of a yoga mat to demonstrate the soothing tones of his crystal bowls and steel drums.

“I’m calling it ‘Zen drumming,’” says Summers, who will release his EP Harmonic Circulation on July 31st.

Summers, 27, and his brothers, Jared and Wesley, cut their musical teeth in Memphis when they were teenagers and played in their first band, “The Summers.” They continued to play in bands together after their family moved to Nashville. After the loss of their parents in the Gatlinburg wildfire in 2017, the brothers went in different directions.

Last December, Summers began playing on crystal bowls and steel tongue drums. “I started doing my own thing, creating something I had never done before,” he says. “Crystal bowls are used in meditation and ceremonial gatherings. It’s very peaceful. It has one long tone that kind of resonates throughout your whole body. The bowls are made of crystal quartz. And then I have a rubber mallet and a stick that’s wrapped in cowhide.”

Summers runs the mallets around the bowls. “The cowhide creates a more distinct, clear, prominent note. And the rubber mallet is more of a softer note, but it also is used to sustain the note.”

The steel tongue drum is “like a metal tank that has tongues carved into it that are all different notes. So, I had the one bowl and the one drum and started putting the two together.”

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Summers posted a video of himself playing the bowl and drum on Instagram. “A friend hit me up and said, ‘I’m teaching yoga. I would love to have this as live music for my classes if you’re interested in coming. We do a weekly class every Sunday.’ So, I was instantly into the idea of providing live music for a yoga class.

“It just really inspired me to kind of run with this new idea of drumming that I’ve never really seen done before.

I don’t want to take credit for creating it, but I’ve done research and haven’t seen anybody do the combination of crystal bowls and steel drums. It’s meditative, peaceful. One of my favorite words to use in relation to it is  ‘Zen.’ It’s a very relaxing style of drumming. It’s the complete opposite of anything I’ve done before.”

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Summers moved with his family from Louisville to Memphis in 2008. He and his brothers performed as The Summers, with Summers on drums at the Redbirds Stadium and other venues. They later changed their name to Cavalier. After moving to Nashville in 2015, the band changed its name to Renaissance Fair. They toured and they also recorded a couple of songs in the Boston area.

"The Summers" featuring Jared and Branson Summers, bass player Peter Armstrong, and Wesley Summers in August, 2011.
  • "The Summers" featuring Jared and Branson Summers, bass player Peter Armstrong, and Wesley Summers in August, 2011.

But the band began to break up. “Music was becoming too demanding. Practices became more scarce. We were butting heads more. We were starting to disagree. And we chose to end the band to preserve our friendships.”

They all were in Gatlinburg during the wildfire, where their parents were among the 14 people who died. Summers and his brothers were injured. “When I got out of the hospital, I knew that I wanted to get back into music. Because it has been my life since I was a teenager. And it’s hard for me to turn my back on something I’ve been committed to for so long.”

Summers currently is in a band, Mirror Mind, which he describes as “kind of like ‘90s grunge. We’ve got a lot of people comparing us to Smashing Pumpkins or Alice in Chains. Little bits of Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine. Our lead singer has this kind of Ozzy Osbourne sound to his voice a little bit.”

His girlfriend, Leslie Davis, gave him his first steel drum, which he’d seen in a drum shop, as a Valentine’s Day gift.  His brother, Jared, gave him his first crystal bowl as a birthday gift. “I just thought of putting the two together — playing the drum with one hand and swirling the bowl with the other.”

Summers, who sits cross-legged on a tapestry mat when he plays, gradually has been building up his set of bowls. “I’m up to four different notes. There are seven primary notes, so I still need three more to get the full set. But right now I’m making it work with the four I have.

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And I have two different steel drums that have completely different tones. Different notes.”

When yoga studios began closing during the pandemic, Summers started live streaming his Zen drumming on Instagram. “I just started playing in front of a camera and letting people tune in when they want to.”

He gets “an extremely positive response. Everybody loves it. They feel at peace. It’s like a break in your day. A lot of times I do it around 11 or noon. And it’s like a chance to kind of take your mindset off what’s going on around you and just go inward. What the drums do is kind of create this atmosphere of sound you almost get lost in. It’s spiritual. It’s peaceful. It’s everything people want to calm down or zone out.”

His music is “pretty much all improvised. I do have a couple of patterns I consistently return to. I’m always experimenting with new patterns and melodies, if you will.”

Summers recorded his Harmonic Circulation EP with a former Memphian, producer Paul Ebersold.  “He’s up here in Nashville. He really connected with it when he saw what I was doing. He’s gone down the spiritual path. He’s doing yoga. He was very into the more ambient and atmospheric sound of the drums and the bowls.

“So, we got in the studio together, spent a day, and I just ripped it. It was all improv on the spot. Each song individually has a consistent feel to it, but if you play it from the first song to the last song, it slowly builds.”

The first track, “Outer Ether,” just features crystal bowls. The EP then progresses to more and more steel drums. It goes from “more spacious to more high energy.”

Summers is easing his way back into the yoga scene now that more studios are re-opening. He’d love to book his live Zen drumming gigs at Memphis studios.

He also plans to keep live streaming. “My goal is to live stream two to three days a week and offer it two or three times a day. And give people the option to get a little peace.”

Click here to view a Zen drumming video

To listen to Harmonic Circulation, click here.

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