Back in July I accepted an invitation to lead a workshop at the Music Mark North West Teachers’ Conference. The event took place yesterday and it was fantastic to have a chance to share much of the philosophy underpinning Rhythm for Reading with so many receptive music educators.
I have had first hand experience of teaching and researching in several parts of the North West region including Bradford, Keighley, Bolton, Oldham and The Wirral. Each of the schools I have worked in was situated in a complex community and I recall being so impressed firstly by the professionalism and resilience of the staff working in these schools and secondly, by the parents who were coping with economic hardship, mental health problems and family difficulties.
When I started to devise this workshop, I thought it would be interesting to pose the question: should rhythm be counted or felt? In dance and music and also acting, it is not difficult to find instances when counting is used as a device for organising choreography or the duration of time in the interplay between musical ideas or characters in a drama. Yet, audiences will agree that the best performances in any medium contain exquisitely sensitive moments, which certainly are not counted, but are felt with such intensity by the performers that a ‘moment’ of sensitivity can take on a particularly enhanced quality that is felt collectively by everyone in the room.
Similarly, most poetry ebbs and flows with the pulsations of thinking and breathing, which unfold naturally with the development of the poetic idea. Some poems are deliberately written so that the words emphasise a particularly regular metre. As a ‘device’, this is sometimes used lightly for humour, or when the syllables carry greater weight, to create a darker, fear-inducing atmosphere of suspense. Indeed, our awareness of rhythm can quickly evoke fear: the relationship between primary emotion and rhythm is a deeply rooted one.
It is certainly easier, in my opinion, to nurture sensitivity to rhythm in schools where the cultural ethos is strong. In such schools, pupils know that their ideas and contributions will be acknowledged and treated respectfully and they will therefore feel secure when trying something new in front of their classmates. On the other hand, in schools where the culture is relatively weak, pupils maintain a state of vigilance, attending to and monitoring their own safety whilst learning. It is far easier for pupils to cultivate sensitivity to rhythm in a supportive and safe school environment that ensures a consistently-strong culture of respect throughout the community. Sensitivity to rhythm could also be described as a flow state. Flow states are highly desirable as they nourish intrinsic motivation, resilience and self-esteem, which support a life-long love of learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
So, yesterday’s workshop was a behind-the-scenes view of Rhythm for Reading in which we considered the emotional and cultural challenges that pupils might be facing in NW schools, including newcomers to the region, pupils with SEN, pupils with EAL and how rhythm can support these pupils to cope with their challenges. The impact of increased sensitivity to rhythm is apparent in various ways. Teachers have rated improvements in social behaviour, learning behaviour and reading behaviour. Each of these domains is served by the attention system, which of course is highly influenced by state of mind and constantly attuned to the regularities in environmental sounds that envelop our everyday lives.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness, London: Rider, Random House Group