Sunday, December 7, 2008

Eric Barnhill Video: Music and Imagination: The Rhythmic Brain

Sharon Dutton

or: The ways that Dalcroze training helps kids do many other things.

Eric Barnhill’s background is in special needs. He is also an accomplished musician with some training in Dalcroze. In his introduction, he claims that children with special needs are often brilliant about music when they are not performing well in mainstreamed disciplines. “Where people saw very little ability, I saw a body who couldn't organize itself into a beat”. He credits the Dalcroze method of teaching music for the development of what he calls "Cognitive Eurhythmic", which he teaches in Manhattan. He discovered that children who had difficulties with attention, but who were brilliant in music in beat, often could not organize beat into meter or other hierarchal structures. While working with children who had speech/language/ reading difficulties he found that “if I could get them to move, could get them to reflect their movement, I could get changes in their language performance”. Barnhill claims that “rhythmic features of music, through the gateway of movement, impacts psychological processes, which in turns impacts the structure and certain aspects of the functioning of the brain”.

He identifies two ways to think about content in the brain:
Grandmother cell
Associations, pyramid, thing-specific cell
40 Hz Hypotheses,
Rhythms created by the electrical activity of the brain creates content.

Different groups of neurons in the brain oscillate at 40 hz when they are part of our conscious perception, allowing researchers to “see” the parts of the brain that are currently conscious. He theorizes that, although they are not necessarily connected, these parts “know” they're in synch - all oscillating at 40 hz.

Barnhill summarizes the work of four psychologists, each of who have considered the role that movement plays in human perception.
J J Gibson – specialist in vision, optical perception. Gibson felt that studying visual perception in terms of two or three-dimensional concepts provides and impoverished view of the world. An integrated view of visual perception includes movement in our visual sense, and the detection of rhythmic patterns of movement.
Mary Jones – a theorist of attention 1970's, and founder of rhythmic theory of attending. Jones’ theory of attention considers how people respond when the object of attention changes in time, as events transpire with distinct beginnings, rhythms, tempi, and endings. For Jones, a rhythmic pattern exists that is more central to attention than things that are static.
Madeline Haines and James G Martin These psychologists developed theories of communication that deal with prosody, or the ways that speech tempo and inflection impart meaning to speech production and interpretation. Barnhill notes that reading difficulties are connected with phonological recoding. “People silently regenerate the prosodic contour of the spoken version of what they are reading, even if it's very quick”.

Barnhill theorizes that movement is the missing component that connects the work of these four researchers. According to Barnhill, when we move to music, when we interpret the patterns and rhythms of music through movement in an integrated way, the movement itself becomes a teacher, “and it (the movement) can teach us better, more efficient, more functional ways to go about our rhythmic processes of mind and ultimately this could have an impact on the neurological processes of the brain”. Barnhill suggests that when several brain functions are operating, as, for example, in reading, that musical movement may cause a neurological over-riding oscillator, organizing several brain rhythms to organize rhythmically, harmoniously –as a laser beam focuses many smaller beams – “giving them order, where there was none”, and thereby help people whose special difficulties result from a neurological organizational dysfunction. Barnhill thinks that he was able to control his tourettes syndrome through Dalcroze training, through synchronizing his mind with his body.

Some interesting concepts that he elaborates on during the question period:

“Brain and music is really a modern idea. It used to be that music was always connected with movement. The reason that you enjoy a concert is because you have a repertoire of actions that you have embedded in yourself and you can have an affective response. The fundamental way to appreciate music is through action, movement, freely changing the thing that you are doing”.

“Dalcroze believed that his method could be a unifier of peoples. Mass spectacles – many people would move harmoniously – like feldenkries – people tend to be more and more of a similar mind as the lesson goes on. The standard format for a Dalcroze lesson has the teacher at the piano, and all else moving. This connects everybody”. “Prediction is often called the brain's paramount function. If you tune up the brain's prediction you can get synchronous results”.

“The brain evolved from movement – first there was movement. It grew to assist beings in movement – movement is the basis for many things”.

A fundamental Dalcroze pedagogical strategy is the “Quick Change”. Strategically, it is fun, while requiring focus and attention. Barnhill discusses this in terms of unifying the class, and of giving children with special needs a bit of new movement repertoire. They have difficulty, he claims, with adapting to the teacher’s beat, but in a class, when all the children are synchronous, they all “change” together. He infers that if the kids with special needs can do this, can adapt their movements to synchronize with the group, then they have just expanded their cognitive repertoire exponentially. “When they learn a new movement, or movement pattern, they will use it. Often they are not being willful, they just don't have the repertoire”. The “Quick Change” does more than develop attention, it builds repertoire. As Barnhill states, the movement itself is the teacher, therefore, learning new repertoire not only enables new learnings in other disciplines, but also affords the opportunity to explore new capacities for extended learning in those disciplines.

Through using Dalcroze pedagogy in his teaching practice, Barnhill has discovered that eurhythmic training improves overall perception and academic performance in children with special needs, particularly in their reading and comprehension skills. It will be years before researchers obtain or even test for quantifiable evidence to support his discovery, but as neuroscientists gather evidence that demonstrates a causal relationship between general music education and other learnings, the approach that is used for teaching music may become crucial. What happens in a Dalcroze lesson is not, and never was cognitive. It is an approach in and through the body, wherein the body and its movement is felt and experienced by the mind, and thereby enlightens and informs us in a very profound, yet intimately personal way. A Dalcroze lesson always goes beyond rhythm into the realm of personal artistry and intrapersonal expression. It is not enough to clap and step a polyrhythm simultaneously, alone or with a partner. It must also be musical, it must also be expressive, it must also be authentically, richly human. The body must not be moving in a mechanical way, it moves fluently, and must also move the observer / teacher, who responds to the visual music with synchronous improvised audible music. If we could witness the neurological firings of those brains, oh, what a light-show that would be!

Music is not, and never was cognitive (until, as Barnhill states, relatively recently). It wouldn’t and couldn’t have evolved this far if it was a mere consequential development of the human brain. I would go further, and suggest that Music, through movement, connects us to Spirit, its creator. Spirit, through its child, Music, (and other art forms) connects with us to our inner, honest, expressive, and authentic selves. Our aboriginal ancestors accepted this truth as their elders taught it to them, and through the passing of thousands of years, experienced an intensely spiritual musical communion with the body, with the earth. We, on the other hand, build schools that enslave, rather than liberate, our children. By emphasizing academic testing over artistic expression, we teach them to value achievement over personal discovery and expression; by submitting to political will, we teach them to value the fleeting façade of political truth over the permanence of spiritual reflection and intuition. Riding on the crest of neurological rhythmic synchronization, Barnhill has discovered the unifying and “slathing” role of Music – to integrate the rhythmic brain, as the sun integrates the rhythms of the earth.

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