Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Last summer, I holed up in the amazing Woodcrest Studio for a day to record some songs with my old friend, Tom Zartler. Tom is a gifted musician himself, but he's also a wizard in the studio. He recorded, mixed and mastered this piece, and he also created the wonderful video. The song itself is named after one of my favorite novels by Ray Bradbury, which takes a whimsical, almost pastoral look at his childhood. Thinking about my two beautiful daughters, I tried to capture the same feeling.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Drums can change the world. Well, at least they changed mine. It all started in the basement. It was dark down there, and tools were everywhere, although I never saw anyone ever use them. It smelled like standing water and earth and concrete. We set up on a water-beaten plank of plywood so as not to destroy any of the instruments, and began pounding away.
Rules did not exist, only sound - lots of it. Sound rolling over us, boiling in our ears, and scraping our spines from the front of our bodies, soaking our minds with feedback. I pounded out rhythms on my snare drum until the tips of my fingers bled, and when they did I celebrated and played even harder.
I can remember going home after those Saturday afternoon jam sessions. I was only a little back kid then, and I had to be back for dinner. On Saturdays in the winter, I would stop home, eat, get dressed into something nice and walk to Mass. I can still remember one time, counting down the minutes until I could cut out the back door of the church to run back to finish writing a new song. That feeling of excitement in the stomach and the pride that came from knowing that my friends and I had worked together to create something new is unforgettable. Ironically, we played music that reeked of the darkness of the city, but all I felt was joy.
It was joy and freedom and work and pride and dreaming and creating and sweating and learning all at once. It was a creative time that I have always remembered, and it has become the bar against which I have judged every other pursuit I have embarked upon. Without that first Slingerland drum kit – sharpie marker all over the snare head, the ride cymbal that made my ears ache, the missing resonant bottom heads that made the batter heads louder - I would not be writing this right now. The absolute joy and freedom and creative power that flowed from my bleeding fingers crawled back inside me and colonized my mind, compelling me to remain a drummer all my life. It has also inspired me to want to share my love of drumming and music with my students.
They are my audience. I want them to experience the pure joy in making music that I felt in those heady basement days. I want to convince them that music already exists for them. It is waiting for them. It lives inside their beating hearts, breathes through their lungs, and shoots like pulses of electricity from synapse to synapse within their brains.
Every note we will ever play is already playing. All we have to do is reach out to it with willing hearts and open minds. We are drawing water from a well. Our body is the ladle and the universe our spring, connecting us through timeless creative forces.
Can you see it? Can you hear it?
Sunday, January 22, 2017
The Drummer’s Guide to the Brain: The Neurologic Case for the Efficacy of Music Instruction for Students with Learning Differences
After researching the neurologic components of language and music in order to better understand how music instruction can benefit adolescents with language-based learning differences, I would like to discuss the big picture. What have I learned? Where do I need to go with my work? The fact is, I never planned to be an English teacher. When I graduated high school, my plan was to play the drums. I just love to hit things.It was drums all along. My dad had different ideas, so to appease him I studied Literary Theory at a local college. Four years later, I was still looking for ways to play the drums. Even though one opportunity did come up, I didn’t have the chance to take it, so I ended up teaching. When I started teaching, I didn’t realize that I’d fall in love with it, but I did very quickly. And yet even now, more than twenty years later, I still describe myself as “an English teacher who plays the drums.” So, when I discovered that drums could help my most at-risk students, you can imagine how excited and motivated I became to find ways to use drums to help them. Here was a way to join together the two things I loved the most. As a result, I find myself asking, can drumming and improvisation really help students who learn differently? Of course, music provides a brain workout every time we engage with it, either by listening or playing it. What about those of us who learn differently? Are my ideas about drumming and improvisation they really founded in any meaningful evidence? Can my approach really make the differences I want to argue that it can?
To answer these questions, I want to consider an experience I had with a student in my English class this past week. Margie is a tenth grader who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder. Dyslexia, as many of us know, includes a constellation of impairments in how people process and produce written and spoken language, while auditory processing disorders refer to impairments and delays in the systems through which the brain processes sound. What does that mean for a kid like Margie in the day-to-day life of school? Just last week, she came to class and told me that, although she did the reading that was required for homework, she literally didn’t understand any of it. Keep in mind that this is a text that is considered three grade levels lower than her in its readability. Later in the same class, she asked me to repeat a few ideas that I had spoken several times. Each time, she asked me to say it slower. And later, when asked to read out loud, Margie willingly agreed despite her difficulties. However, as she read, she completely ignored all punctuation. As a result, for example, the first word of a sentence was read as if it were the last word of the previous sentence. She paused where there was no reason to pause, and her reading did not sound at all like spoken language. Not only that, but she incorrectly decoded several words, reading them out loud as words which they weren’t. All of this is not to point how disabled the child is, but to illustrate just exactly how difficult it must be for Margie to read independently, to process what she hears in the classroom, and to produce written assignments, all fundamental skills for academic success. Of course she didn’t understand anything she read that night. In fact, with all of the inaccuracy errors, punctuation marks missed, and fluency difficulties, even though she read the same words as everyone else, to her, it was as if she actually read a completely different chapter than what was assigned. What’s the answer here? There are, fortunately, many ways we can help Margie, beginning with systematic, multi-sensory reading instruction. However, I am exploring how music, and specifically, the rhythmic, improvised approach I take in my music classes, can help her, and why.
To do this, we have to look at two elements of music that are very closely related to language: beat synchronization and what I call melodic perception. Let’s first consider beat synchronization. The prevailing view among neuroscientists today is that beat synchronization is a crucial skill when acquiring and processing language (Woodruff-Carr et al 76). Why is that? We don’t speak in time to drums. Language doesn’t run to a back beat (Patel 122). In fact, from a drummer’s perspective, language is like the most complex jazz fusion around. The time is constantly shifting as words vary their duration and emphasis depending on their placement within a sentence. The melody rises and falls at seemingly random intervals, and follows no key signature, or other hierarchical tonic structure like we find in music (Patel 203). So, what does it mean to say that beat synchronization is so essential to language?
First, picture all the neurons in your brain. When stimulated, they send out tiny electric impulses to each other and trigger potential responses from our body. Our brains are a gooey mess of tissue that is literally alive with electricity. Attach a few electrodes to the surface of your scalp, and we can measure Event Related Potential (ERP), otherwise known as Frequency Following Response (FFR), a reading of those little electrical impulses that are careening around our skulls. These are so powerful that, at different frequencies, they can be detected on our scalp. Provide the stimulus, and watch the ERP fire away. The frequency at which it is detected tells us what part of the brain is being activated. High frequencies mean that the lower parts of the brain – those associated with intake of information – are being activated: the basal ganglia, the brainstem, the cerebellum. Mid-range frequencies correspond to the mid-brain – the auditory cortex, the inferior colliculus, and the higher frequencies relate to areas of the brain that process higher order thought – abstract thinking, language, memory, executive function – the temporal lobe, broca’s area, the frontal lobe, the occipital lobe ("Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling").
Okay, let’s take it easy. I can hear my musician friends making fun of me right now. Just shut up and play the drums. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. Because playing the drums with a kid like Margie can really help her. I swear to god. So, let’s get back to work for a minute - all of these neurons are firing away all the time. Not only that, but they are doing it simultaneously all around the brain. That’s a lot of energy. How is it conserved? One way is through rhythm. When our synapses are activated, they tend to fire in rhythmic syncopation; they all fire at the same time ("Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling"). Let’s consider a classic experimental procedure. You’ve got some electrodes on your head, and through some earphones, you hear a syllable - /dah/ (“dah”) (Woodruff-Carr et al 78). That sound goes into your ear, it travels into the cochlea, and vibrates the basilar membrane. In fractions of a second, the area of this membrane that gets vibrated creates a frequency that then gets transmitted into the brain. As it travels up the brainstem and into the auditory cortex for processing, it first passes through the inferior colliculus (IC), a tiny node that acts like a gatekeeper, determining where in the brain the stimuli will be sent for further processing and, ultimately, the triggering of more neurons (Riggs, "Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways"). This an incredibly simplified version of the Ascending Pathway of Auditory Perception. I told you it was the drummer’s view.
How does the IC know where to send information? While the Ascending Pathway is occurring, there is a simultaneous Descending Pathway also occurring. As that information is traveling through the midbrain towards the IC, the other parts of the brain are also being stimulated by the information (Riggs, "Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways"). This is where memory and rhythm come into play. Previous experience with a sound like /dah/ triggers responses from the parts of the brain where memory and understanding of that stimulus is located. In the case of a syllable, it would come from the occipital lobe (Shaywitz 2003). So as the information is ascending into the brain, the brain is simultaneously sending down another signal that will take the information in and process it in the proper part of the brain, and therefore trigger the proper potential reaction - laughter, anger, the swing of a stick towards a snare drum. What happens? You hear the sound, and you know what it says. You know that this is a syllable beginning with the letter D, etc. This is basic phonological processing, right? Sure, unless the Ascending Pathway and the Descending Pathway are out of sync. As these areas of the brain are sending out signals and are being read as FRP’s on an EEG, we can see a series of pulses. All of these pulses should be happening together, rhythmically. No matter the area of the brain from which they originate, they should be happening in regular rhythmic oscillations ("Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling"). Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. We call this Oscillatory Brain Function, or Phase Coherence (Tierney and Kraus 782). However, in a student like Margie, who struggles with language processing, the mid-brain releases signals that are out of sync. Boom. (Bam) Boom. Boom. (Bam) Boom. (Bam) This dysfunction in phase coherence leads to auditory processing impairment and dyslexia, and overwhelmingly, we are beginning to see that musical training, especially training that involves a heavy focus on rhythm and improvisation can help improve oscillatory brain function (Kraus and Slater 210, 216). All of this, of course, leads us back to beat synchronization.
One compelling study in this area looked at young children playing a conga drum. Some could synchronize their beat with the beat that the tester was playing. Among the ones who could not, there was a higher incidence of language impairment (Kraus and Anderson 56). Another study found that participants who could more quickly and easily synchronize to a rhythm, and also adjust to changes in a rhythm had stronger phase coherence (Tierney and Kraus 782). The auditory system is constantly taking in and responding to sound at the millisecond level (782). Some researchers call this Dynamic Attending Theory. As we grow and acquire language, we develop temporal expectancies based on the rhythms of all the signals that travel around our brain. Once these oscillations are out of sync, these expectancies begin to drift, and we process language and sound in a delayed manner (Kraus and Slater 210). Picture Margie asking me to repeat what I said. “Can you say it again more slowly, please? Ok. … I’m sorry, can you say that one more time?” Boom. (Bam) Boom. Boom. (Bam) Boom. (Bam) And think of this same student hearing that syllable /dah/. Delayed processing means that she does not always recognize that this is a syllable beginning with the D sound. Failure to recognize the syllable in sound, also means delayed processing of it in written form, hence inaccurate decoding and automaticity.
So, what’s the point? Am I arguing that teaching Margie to play the drums will help her language impairment? Well, yes and no. Kraus argues, “…musical experience can strengthen aspects of brain function which also support language related skills, and may thereby offer a framework for the remediation of language difficulties” (Kraus and Slater 212). In another study, Kraus states, “…children with dyslexia have a less accurate perception of musical rhythm than typically developing children do. Sensitivity to musical rhythm predicts phonological awareness and reading development” (Kraus and Anderson 55). However, I have no preconceived ideas that rhythmic musical training will completely “cure” Margie’s language impairments. However, many researchers are arguing that rhythmic musical training, because it forces the exercising of temporal expectancies that are so essential to phase coherence, can actually help improve oscillatory functions in the brain. Among test subjects with stronger beat synchronization skills, we also see a high occurrence of faster auditory processing speeds and stronger language skills (Tierney and Kraus 790). Therefore, I propose that systematic, multi-sensory reading instruction can be enhanced when partnered with musical training, especially musical training that is based in rhythmic exercises. Beat synchronization is linked to the discrimination of sounds within spoken language. When we speak, the spaces between the words, the duration of syllables, and the fluctuations in amplitude and pitch all help us determine where words begin and end, creating the illusion of a single flow of ideas, when in reality we are only hearing a series of sounds. But this illusion happens, in one way, through the synchronization of the Ascending and Descending Pathways, through Temporal Expectancies that already exist, and in the speed at which we can synchronize the neural responses within our brain. My simple argument is this: students like Margie that struggle with impaired language skills can only benefit from drumming.
There is still much work to do. I think I have a handle on how the brain is processing rhythm, and why rhythm is central to language. I’m in a good position professionally because I can see my language-impaired students read, but I also get to hear them drum. We play music together and read together every day. Over and over again, I see the rhythmic aptitudes that are described in my research played out in real life. Students like Margie who struggle to process what they hear in class, who read dysfluently, who cannot recreate the prosody of language that is so central to reading comprehension come to the music room and struggle to find the rhythm of even the simplest songs. I spend hours a day hitting a floor tom, just to provide a loud enough pulse so that the students can more easily synchronize. But just banging away is not going to be enough. I don’t feel right just knowing that drumming is good for their brains. The next step is to develop lesson plans in my music curriculum that are specifically related to the different studies I have read. If one study describes the relationships between adjusting rhythm and language skills (Tierney and Kraus 2016), then I need to develop lessons that require my students to work towards better rhythmic adjustment. This will not only make them better musicians, but also target specific areas of phase coherence while simultaneously indirectly exercise their language skills.
When I started teaching music, the focus was drums, but in order to create a more robust, competitive program, I expanded my horizons, studied music and improvisation, and created a program that is based in improvisation. I really believe that improvisation is essential for teaching music to students who learn differently, not only because the alternative approach meets them where their greatest strengths are, but also because improvisation targets another area of language that is related to music – melodic perception.
Goswami calls it Temporal Sampling Theory. When we hear a syllable like /dah/, not only are we hearing the sounds of the letters, but we are also hearing the almost imperceptible rise in amplitude and volume as the syllable is uttered. The rise in amplitude and the decay that follows tells us where the syllable begins and ends, and the ability to distinguish the beginning and ends of the sounds within words and phrases enables us to determines exactly what is being said to us. It gives language meaning. This is called Rise Time Perception (Goswami 106). Different sounds have different rise times, therefore, the changes in rise time as sounds flow through our ears help us determine what these different sounds are. As we grow, our brain takes auditory snapshots of the different sounds and the rise times that are associated with them, and then, as new sounds enter, the rhythms of the pulses that are being emitted by the neurons taking in the information – the oscillations – become synchronized with the rise times of the different syllables (Goswami 109). So our brain actually synchronizes its endogenous rhythms with the external rhythms of the language it is attempting to process. It does this by drawing on these auditory temporal samples that it has already stored. Hearing sounds again, we draw upon these old snapshots and can quickly synchronize. This has a lot to do, obviously, with beat synchronization. In fact, Goswami even states, “The rise time difficulties found in dyslexia suggest that an orchestra of people with dyslexia would be poor at keeping in time” (106). But Temporal Sampling Theory also deals with melodic perception. Why? Melody is the element of music that most relates to language because of prosody (Patel 225). Prosody refers to the fluctuations in duration, amplitude, and volume that give meaning to spoken language. Spoken language is not merely a series of sounds, but also those sounds coupled with their associated variations in volume and duration. It seems to me that the most elemental part of prosody is rise time perception. Melody, being founded in the rising and falling of pitch, the ways in which it follows rhythm, but also relies upon duration and amplitude, is a mirror of language in music, and improvised melodies, some researchers argue, are closer in sound and in processing to the flow of language (Kraus and Slater 210).
This is why I rely so heavily on improvisation as a technique that I believe to be perfectly suited for students with learning differences, especially language-based impairments. Many music teachers tell their students what to play or sing. They give them sheet music, or they sing along with them as a guideline. Improvisation removes these supports, and requires that the student process the sounds they hear, synchronize with them, and respond to them. It is a full workout of the neurologic aptitudes for both beat synchronization and rise time perception, or melodic perception. Ultimately, “…music training can modify reading and phonological abilities even when these skills are severely impaired” (Flaugnacco et al 1). And if the elements of music found in improvisation can be so closely linked to the elements of language, it makes sense to me that a curriculum based in improvisation effectively targets both musical and linguistic skills.
Lots of work still has to be done here, but it is with great excitement that I look for more and more ways to make music with my students, and to make drumming part of our everyday live.
Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling.
Youtube.com. Http://spot.colorado.edu/~gilley, 19 June 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Flaugnacco, Elena, Luisa Lopez, Chiara Terribili, Marcella Montico, Stefania Zoia, and Daniele
Schon. "Music Training Increases Phonological Awareness and Reading Skills in Developmental Dyslexia: A Randomized Control Trial." PLoS One 25 Sept. 2015: 1-17. Print.
Goswami, Usha. "Dyslexia - in Tune but out of Time." Psychologist Feb. 2013: 106-09. Print.
Kraus, Nina, and Jessica Slater. "Music and Language: Relations and Disconnections."
Handbook of Clinical Neurology 3rd ser. 129 (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.
Kraus, Nina, PhD, and Samira Anderson, Aud,PhD. "Beat-Keeping Ability Relates to Reading
Readiness." Hearing Journal (2015): 54-56. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. 2nd. edition ed. New York, NY: Oxford
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Shaywitz, Sally E. Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-based Program for
Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2003. Print.
Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways. Dir. Wendy Riggs. Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways.
Youtube.com, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
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2015: 1-14. Print.
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Auditory Neural Stability Supports Beat Synchronization in Preschoolers."Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2015): 76-82. EBSCOhost. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Beyond The Basic Rock Groove: Addressing Linguistic Rhythm in the Music Classroom Through Improvisation
Fifteen years ago, I was an English teacher at an inner city high school in Philadelphia. As a way to connect with my students, I decided to teach drums after school. I made this decision on a whim, and what I didn’t know then was that it would transform the professional and creative direction of my life. One moment in particular had a tremendous effect. I had been reaching out to struggling students, and inviting them to come after school and jam with me. One of them was named Brandon, a quiet student who simply could not complete any assignments. I had been working with him individually, but found that he struggled just to write one sentence. I also found that when he and I spoke, I had to give him directions in small chunks, for only then would he accomplish tasks. I was a pretty inexperienced teacher, and I was really scratching my head over how to help him make progress, so I invited him to play drums after school. It took a while, but he finally showed up. He shyly sat down behind a drum set and I began to teach him what I always teach new students – the basic rock groove. This groove is based on two beats, and it repeats itself every four seconds. At the same time, when played correctly, it sounds like the beat of pretty much every rock, hip-hop, or pop song ever written. It is a simple way to make the students feel like they have accomplished something very quickly. Once they feel that success, they are more confident to take on more tricky challenges.
Teaching Brandon the basic rock groove, I was stunned by what I heard. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get his body to play more than two beats. One, two, stop. Restart. One, two, stop. Restart. It was frustrating for him to endure, and confusing for me to see. Suddenly, I realized that he could not sequence the steps in the pattern. He could play beat one, and allow that to lead into beat number two, simply because the second beat was the physical carry-through of the first beat. But when it came time to repeat that step, to hold on to what he had just heard and performed, he could not do it. Every time he executed the rhythm, it was like he was starting from square one all over again. I realized that this was how Brandon was processing everything he heard around him. He was hearing sentences one at a time, not as part of a larger discourse composed of ideas woven together. Similarly, when it came to writing, he could only process his ideas one at a time. He could not string together ideas from one sentence to the next. I was frustrated by the fact that I did not know how to help him. I had a hunch, however, that the answer was hidden in the drumming.
As an English teacher who plays the drums, I have spent the past fifteen years searching for a way to bring together language and rhythm in the classroom in ways that benefit students who struggle with language. Our educational system is arranged in such a way that students are forced to process language all day. Can drumming help those who are most at risk? Can it help students improve the ways in which they process and, ultimately, comprehend language?
To answer this, we must understand what rhythm is, and how it influences both music and language. Only then can we see if musical rhythm, as expressed when we play drums together in groups, can influence the rhythms of language. In Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniruddh Patel provides a detailed definition of rhythm, and demonstrates that if we are to consider its influence on language then we must acknowledge the similarities and differences between musical and linguistic rhythm.
As a whole, rhythm refers to the concept of periodicity, or patterns that repeat periodically (Patel 98). To musicians, periodicity refers to a repeating pattern set against a backbeat of some kind. Whether it is the stately dance of a sarabande, or the driving drums on side two of Zeppelin IV, musicians use rhythm as a guideline for where to place their melodies and harmonies. But rhythm happens all around us – our circadian rhythms keep us healthy, and the rhythm of the seasons help us track the years passing by. And these patterns, while definitely rhythmic, do not proceed in periodically repeating patterns. They ebb and flow with time. That does not mean they are not rhythmic. In the same way, the rhythm of spoken language serves different purposes and exhibits different qualities from musical rhythm. Whereas musical rhythm relies on the periodic repetition of stresses and beats, linguistic rhythm relies more on ways in which patterns of emphasis and duration are grouped together (159). Musical rhythm deals with the patterning of sounds in terms of timing; linguistic rhythm deals with the patterning of sound in terms of prosody and duration of sounds (98, 112).
Prosody is crucial to processing language. It refers to the elements of language that allow for expressiveness, including vocal pitch or intonation, loudness, and importantly, rhythm (Mannell 2007). As Patel has pointed out, prosodic rhythm refers to how long a syllable lasts. This is referred to as duration (Mannell 2007). When we emphasize words in spoken language, that emphasis comes not only from the loudness of that particular word, but also by lengthening the amount of time that the word takes in comparison to the other words in the sentence. This lengthening and shortening of duration as we speak essentially creates the rhythmic patterning that Patel speaks of. The constantly shifting duration of words in spoken language create a distinction between linguistic and musical rhythm. To put it simply, language has no backbeat. Therefore, in order to see how rhythm affects language, we must begin to view rhythm as more than simply periodicity. “By abandoning a fixation on periodicity one is freed to think more broadly about speech rhythm and its relationship to musical rhythm” (Patel 159). When we do this, we begin to see some cognitive and neurological correlates between linguistic and musical rhythm, and thus establish an important relationship between language and music.
The greatest connection can be found in those patterns created by prosody that we discussed above, and which Patel refers to as prosodic groupings. Spoken language, especially English, tends to contain alternating patterns of strong and weak syllables. Therefore, we hear changes in the duration and loudness of words when we listen to someone speak. These rhythmically repeating patterns enable listeners to make predictions about the end of sentences, and to create mental boundaries around what we hear. In other words, the prosody of spoken language allows us to understand when ideas begin and end, and the rhythmic patterning of prosody – the ways in which accents and duration of sounds and syllables are grouped into phrases, helps us process the meaning of language more effectively (139 - 150). Consider the various ways to say the following group of words: Come to the store with me now. If we raise the pitch of our voice at the end of the sentence, we are asking a question. If we lower the pitch and extend the duration of “now”, we are giving a command. If we extend the duration of the word “me”, while simultaneously raising its pitch, we are expressing some kind of preference. Come with me, not someone else. Similarly, composers use accents and shifts in duration to signal changes in their music. A common example of this is the lengthening of the final note in order to signal that the piece is coming to a close. Therefore, as a result of a wider perspective on rhythm, one that takes into account shifts in duration and fluctuations in pitch, we begin to see similarities between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm. Taking it a step further, we can also begin to see that there are some underlying neurological correlates when it comes to processing both musical information and linguistic information (174). Already, I can begin to feel glimmers of hope for students like Brandon. If there are indeed rhythmic connections between music and language in the brain, then the Basic Rock Groove just may help them after all!
We must remember, however, that Brandon could only process language in small chunks. He lacked the ability to hear the rhythms of language that Patel speaks of, and this was clearly reflected in his inability to hear and repeat musical patterns. If I could go back in time, would it be possible, armed with this new understanding of ways in which musical rhythm can mirror linguistic rhythm, to help him out by playing the basic rock groove? To answer this question, we must dig deeper, and look at the work of Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist studying the relationships between rhythm and language in the brain. Kraus takes Patel’s ideas one-step further by looking at the precise areas of the brain which process rhythm, leading us to a discussion of Auditory Temporal Processing, which is the time it takes for us to process what we hear. In one compelling study from 2015, Kraus and her associate, Samira Anderson, found that the ability of children between the ages of three and four to synchronize with a rhythm was a predictor of future reading ability. “The synchronizers had more accurate brainstem processing of speech … [as well as] higher pre-reading skills (phonological processing, auditory short-term memory, and rapid naming)” (Kraus, Anderson 2015). Reading this, I can remember watching Brandon trying so hard to play along with my beat, and failing over and over again. Then I thought of him trying so hard to understand what I was saying to him in class. Is this the connection I have been looking for?
Kraus shows us that “Impaired temporal processing reduces the accuracy of sound to meaning connections that are the necessary building blocks for learning to read” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). A student who processes more slowly has reduced accuracy in their comprehension. She continues, “The ability to follow the rhythms of speech is one aspect of temporal processing that has been linked to reading ability” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). And there it is: the connection between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm, the ability to predict meaning based on prosodic groupings, the capacity to comprehend what we hear in a timely and accurate fashion. All of it relates back to the rhythms of language. The longer it takes for us to process what we hear, the worse our ability to perceive those rhythms becomes. We hear words, and in our labor to process them, we miss the important rhythmic cues that give our words additional meaning. As our ability to perceive those rhythms decreases, our comprehension of language decreases with it. In this way, we can see that language, rhythm and comprehension are intrinsically linked. Kraus also argues, “meaningful information unfolds simultaneously over multiple timescales in both speech and music, from overarching rhythms and stress patterns, to the fine-grained timing differences which differentiate consonants and characterize the distinctive timbre of a voice or musical instrument” (Kraus, Slater 208).
So now I return to my original question. Can drumming help children like Brandon? Well, if we hear what Kraus and her colleagues are saying, it seems as if drums alone can’t do it. Additionally, as Patel pointed out, the backbeat found in music doesn’t generalize to language. But as both researchers have shown, the other aspects of rhythm that appear in music – timbre, duration, pitch fluctuation and stress - are incredibly important in language. So what’s the answer? In my experience, the answer can be found in improvisation. This is a visceral and engaging musical form that meets the students at whatever ability or experience level, providing them with a musical experience in which they must synchronize with rhythms around them, and also listen intensely to the expressions being played – paying close attention to the rising and falling of pitches, similar to linguistic intonation, imitating and responding to both subtle and wild shifts in dynamic range, similar to the variations in loudness found in language. In addition, they must listen carefully to what their peers are playing, noting when musical expressions begin and end around them so that they can complement them and contribute appropriately to the music. This final piece is the most powerful aspect of improvisation because it so closely mimics the rhythms of language – the ways in which prosodic groupings can suggest meaning. Not only that, but for students like Brandon, who struggle with processing speed and working memory, improvising with peers enables those peers to support him. As they create music together, Brandon is not left alone behind the drum kit trying to find the beat like he was that afternoon so long ago. He is in a group working together to create music, and his part in that creation is valued, no matter what his contribution. In addition, improvisation provides him with real-time feedback about where the beat can be found, and how his contributions are working. It engages him in a much more intuitive way, and can hold his attention because, in improvising, he is working with a group of peers, and they all must work together in order to make the music happen.
One example of how we mimic linguistic rhythm can be found in an improvisational game called “The Soap Opera”. This game works well with High School aged students. One student begins by making up a line from an imaginary soap opera. I model some silly examples, and encourage the students to play up the melodrama. Once a line is spoken, another student sitting at the keyboard must make a sound that responds to what was spoken. For example, a student might accuse another of murder, and the music should reflect this shocking accusation - perhaps a dark, percussive chord created by banging on the keys. In this way, the students are listening to spoken language, and responding with musical language. They are bringing together the two different modalities and exercising their auditory temporal processing abilities. Not only that, they don’t even realize they are doing it because they having so much fun pretending to be on a soap opera! For Middle School aged students who may not be as uninhibited as their older counterparts, we often use a game called the Fish Hook. In this game, one student begins by creating a repeating pattern, usually on a xylophone. Once the pattern becomes repeated, the next player joins in by either imitating what they hear or adding something new. Players continue to layer in sounds until we have the whole group jamming together. The ability to hear when a melody begins and ends tells the students when to join in, and as the piece progresses and develops, students must pay extra close attention to and play along with several elements – the rhythm or groove, so that they can stay together, but also the more subtle shifts in the piece, such as fluctuations in volume, shifts in dynamics, and changes in timbre. In this way, they are practicing fundamental musical skills, but also mimicking the rhythmic aspects of language, and doing so in a fast paced, totally immersive experience that requires them to exercise how well they process what they hear and how quickly they do it.
Improvisation can be done using simple-to-play instruments such as hand drums, wooden xylophones, or other diatonically tuned instruments. In this way, students are free to experiment any way they choose, while at the same time focusing on and practicing those elements of music that are so close to language. It is important to consider that if Brandon could not execute a simple groove on drum set, it is possible that improvising in the ways described above will be even more difficult. However, removing the concept of periodicity from the ways in which we play with rhythm in the music classroom not only makes improvising easier than executing a back beat, it also works in such a way that it can be done at any pace, and at any ability level. It is scalable to the students’ experience, processing speed, and ability, and is therefore more powerful than simply drumming. In addition, in the years since working with Brandon, I have seen improvisation help many other students who struggle similarly to process language begin to open up, communicate more clearly, and as a result improve both their expressive language and their interpersonal skills. Consequently, the music classroom can become a place where students are encouraged to practice both musical and linguistic skills, all the while working together to create music that can be, at times, wild and unpredictable, and at others, beautiful and distinct. Immersing students in music in this way may involve a reimagining of how we teach music, but it must happen if we are to help students like Brandon. Knowing what we do about how music and language are related, we have a responsibility as music educators to use this information to help our most at-risk students exercise their language processing in such a humanistic and intuitive way. Taking a broader view of music, rhythm, and language, we can help children like Brandon move beyond the basic rock groove, and develop skills that not only improve their musicianship, but their future as well.
Kraus, Nina, PhD, and Samira Anderson, Aud,PhD. "Beat-Keeping Ability Relates to Reading Readiness." Hearing Journal (2015): 54-56. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
Kraus, Nina, and Jessica Slater. "Music and Language: Relations and Disconnections." Handbook of Clinical Neurology 3rd ser. 129 (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.
Mannell, Robert. "Phonetics and Phonology: Introduction to Prosody Theories and Models." MacQuairie University. MacQuairie University - Department of Linguistics, 2007. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. 2nd. edition ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010. Print.