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September 23, 2023

Growing Brains and Expanding Minds Through Music and Rhythm

Two students stood in front of the whiteboard, conferring quietly as they stared intently at the patterns in front of them. After a few moments of visible frustration, a third student jumped in to help. Eventually nodding in agreement, the trio looked to their teacher, Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver, to see if they had solved the problem correctly, and then began to perform the complicated polyrhythmic pattern written out on the whiteboard, one student clapping rhythm A and two students clapping the contrasting B rhythm.  

“Are you guys listening to each other?” The students nodded. “Now lead them,” Dr. Jessica instructed, pointing to the rest of the students in the room and dividing them into two groups. The groups lurched into motion, first hesitantly but quickly finding their groove. “Ready….and SWITCH!” The students moved as a single unit, pausing in time for a moment before quickly swapping rhythms. You could practically see the gears turning in their young brains. The next time they were given the cue to switch, they swapped rhythms perfectly in sync without skipping a beat. 

What started out looking like a scene straight out of a summer school math classroom was actually a workshop on neuroscience and rhythm for young musicians at this year’s two-week-long Summer Chamber Music Intensive program. Under the guidance of DCYOP faculty, 21 students explored chamber music repertoire while polishing their sightreading and ensemble skills in both small groups and a full chamber orchestra. The program culminated in performances at both Sitar Arts Center and the George Washington University

Bassoonist Oscar Machado, a long-time DCYOP musician and Washington Musical Pathways Initiative student, came away from his first time participating in the summer intensive feeling excited about all he had learned from his coaches and peers. “If somebody needs to be introduced to chamber music, this is the program. They’ll be introduced to everything they need.” 

In between rehearsals, students participated in a supplementary course to give them a much-needed break from the rehearsal room and the chance to learn fun and useful supporting skills. In previous years, students have been coached in yoga, dance, and musical leadership; this year’s students turned inward to study the impact of rhythm on their own growing brains. 

While everyone knows that developing good rhythm is part of becoming a good musician, it’s the connection to cognitive development that first drew Dr. Jessica, herself an artist and performer, to her work as a neuroscientist. A researcher and founder of Growing Brains, she specializes in helping children and their families recognize the needs of young brains and learn how rhythm can help them develop both their sense of individual power and connection to their communities. Her work inspired her to create a go-go music inspired children’s musical production, Finding Rhythm: A journey through the musical brain, that made its Kennedy Center debut in 2022. 

During the Summer Intensive, Dr. Jessica gave students plenty of opportunities to put their musical brains to work in new and inventive ways that paid off when it came time to rehearse their music. “It was a really fun experience for me,” shared flutist Murilo dos Santos. “It really challenged my mind and helped me to build up subdivision in my head while I’m playing my instrument.” 

Back in the classroom, Dr. Jessica wrapped up her time with the students on the eve of their final performances by drawing a direct connection from the students to their audience through the power of rhythm. “Do you guys see how when you really lean into your part of the polyrhythm you are powerfully guiding the audience to move in that way? But then when you’re locked in with your partner, even though it’s contrasting, you are creating… connection. This is everything in music. This is the experience that you’re giving the audience.”  

“We’re not doing this just for you, even though you know now that it’s really, really good for your own brain development. Right? We are doing this as a gift. You are demonstrating what it means to stand in your own power in your rhythm and then to lock in with the ensemble and find that level of connection. And a lot of people in the audience can’t do that, they don’t have your skills. I listened to you guys play yesterday, you sound beautiful. You’ve got this!”