Saturday, March 23, 2013

It Takes a Tribe!

    My husband Mauricio and I are musicians/researchers and did quite a lot of field work in Havana, Cuba for a book we were writing on the drumming tradition of a certain religion of the country. In addition to getting the practical information we needed to finish the book, we were fortunate to get an intimate look at how religious rituals and creative traditions such as drumming, singing, dancing, garment and food preparation, are passed on to
children. It is an organic process where the entire family, immediate and extended, gather together at an elder's home and that elder, or group of elders instruct. They interpret the meaning of songs sung in Yoruba language, the dances and drum rhythms by telling stories of their African ancestors. Because it is an oral tradition, there is a memorization process for which students use no pen and paper, recording device or computer to make notes,
but depend on muscle memory, repetition and a deep respect for the ancestors they honor and the mentors who teach them. Early in the learning process, the young members are assigned an activity that plays a role in the overall performance of a ceremony. The process gains momentum when the more
knowledgeable members assist the less knowledgeable ones. 

     I came away from this experience with a deeper understanding of a holistic approach to teaching and learning, a method that allows students to make connections through life experience. In the scenario I describe, the Afro-Cuban children make generational and spiritual connections through sacred music and stories they are told, which instill a strong sense of who they are as African Diaspora. They make mind and body connections through the art-forms they practice and perform in sacred ceremonies, and gain awareness of how disciplines work together. They make connections between linear thinking and intuitive ways of knowing, and connections between the individual and the community.

     As co-creator and teacher of the Talk-n-Drum Language & Music Program, I have noted that young children experience joy when engaged in interdisciplinary activities that allow them to connect with their peers. They enjoy the social aspect of learning and grasp the new material with ease because they see it as pure fun. I have noted that children enjoy performing specific rhythmic, verbal and movement patterns that teach the new information, mainly because the mind is pattern seeking, and because these exercises allow students to feel in synch with one another. The music is a crucial element of the lesson and melodies must possess an aesthetically pleasing quality that the brain can easily hook into. Tonal intervals must be easy to sing and should be combined with the right rhythmic pattern at just the right tempo. It took about a year of composing and testing songs in the classroom before Mauricio and I had a repertoire that worked well. Bottom line is, once my little learners are 'in the zone',
they are open to learning anything! So whether I am teaching them Spanish, basic music theory or sign language, my hope is that I am instilling in them the love of learning.

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