Enumclaw piano teachers discover new way to teach pulse and rhythm in kids

Every once in a while, Enumclaw piano teachers Angela Wentz and Shala Gunnells find students who have trouble keeping a steady beat when they sit down at their instruments. It’s a common enough problem for many kids who just started an instrument. Many outgrow it, but some do not.

Shala Gunnells and Angela Wentz discovered kids don't learn how to keep a steady pulse until between the ages of 7 and 11.

Every once in a while, Enumclaw piano teachers Angela Wentz and Shala Gunnells find students who have trouble keeping a steady beat when they sit down at their instruments.

It’s a common enough problem for many kids who just started an instrument. Many outgrow it, but some do not.

And for those kids who have consistent rhythm problems, Wentz and Gunnells had hit a brick wall. No matter what they tried, the training wouldn’t stick.

That is, until the teachers realized it wasn’t just the keyboard that gave these kids trouble – they were also very clumsy.

“We found these kids trip a lot,” Gunnells said. “They also have a hard time at their instrument. A big portion of that is their pulse. They don’t have that feeling of pulse in their larger muscles.”

Now, after two years of research culminating in a presentation at the Washington State Music Teachers Association’s centennial conference on June 26, Wentz and Gunnells believe they’ve discovered a brand new way to teach music to kids, especially those who are cursed with chronic clumsiness and have yet to find their inner rhythm.

Separating pulse and rhythm

Wentz and Gunnells said most piano teachers teach pulse and rhythm simultaneously.

“Pulse is a steady beat, and rhythm being how you divide that steady beat,” Gunnells said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

But during their research, Wentz and Gunnells found the two aren’t always connected, and should be taught separately.

“What we hadn’t realized, and evidently a lot of music teachers never realize,” Gunnells said, “is that pulse and rhythm are learned in two different parts of the brain.”

And not only are they learned and controlled by different parts of the brain, but those parts of the brain develop at different ages as well.

A sense of rhythm actually begins developing in utero, Gunnells said, around 25 or 26 weeks.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, fetuses entering the third trimester start to breathe rhythmically, although the lungs are not fully developed.

This rhythmic breathing is partly developed in the midbrain periaqueductal gray, or simply the midbrain, according to a 2014 National Institute of Health review.

Pulse, on the other hand, is developed in the prefrontal cortex, Wentz and Gunnells said, a part of the brain that typically begins developing around the age of seven until age 11.

However, some children do not develop their sense of pulse normally, like two of Gunnell’s and Wentz’s students, Hannah and Rachel.

Without their sense of pulse, many activities for Hannah and Rachel were affected, from piano playing to even walking and running.

In order to help out their students, Gunnell and Wentz devised exercises to help Rachel and Hannah develop a sense of pulse.

Large muscles help develop fine motor control

Rachel and Hannah are both middle school students, well past the age when their prefrontal cortex is supposed to develop a sense of pulse.

While they practice piano often, Gunnells and Wentz noticed they were unable to hold a steady rhythm.

“They were frustrated because they could never get a song to sound correct,” Gunnells said.

And repeated practice wasn’t helping either – their students were stuck on the same songs for several months before Gunnells and Wentz figured out a way to help their student’s brains develop a sense of pulse.

The key, they said, were the student’s big muscles in their arms and legs, not the small muscles in their hands.

“The pathway to developing the finer muscles of a musician seems to be through the big muscles,” Gunnells said. “If you train the big muscles, the big muscles train the brain, and the brain then trains the smaller muscles.”

Wentz and Gunnells started having their students march to a metronome. But it wasn’t just a regular march – they had their students use their entire body by picking up their knees and swinging their arms in time to a beat.

“The big deal in the pulse exercise is getting the big muscles involved,” Gunnells said. “That seems to be a direct route to the brain.”

Even after a few minutes of marching in time, when the students sat down at the piano, the effects were almost immediate as both Hannah and Rachel seemed to be able to hold a beat for much longer and with more control than they could before.

“It seems silly, but it’s a little thing, and Rachel just does it for a couple minutes in place,” Wentz said. “The change is incredible.”

Another small exercise Wentz and Gunnells use is having their students beat a drum at a steady rhythm, using their entire arms and chest while doing so to teach their bodies how to hold a steady beat.

And with continued exercise, Wentz and Gunnells believe Rachel and Hannah will be able to develop their own sense of pulse.

Metronomes and neurological diseases

Not only will using metronomes help Hannah and Rachel develop their own sense of pulse, but there are wider application’s to Wentz’s and Gunnell’s research as well.

Using metronomes as stimulus is a commonly discussed method for treating Parkinson’s patients.

“For some reason, using a metronome helps people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, or any kind of neurological disorder that is disrupting their normal movement,” Gunnells said. “If they have a hard time writing, and they put a metronome on, their writing improves, almost to normal.”

Several studies claim listening to a metronome can help Parkinson’s patients increase their walking speed, help them maintain a longer gait (the length of their steps) and reduce the number of freezing episodes, when Parkinson’s patients lock up and cannot move.

Other studies claim general music therapy for stroke victims also helps redevelop and strengthen motor control.

A 2009 study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences had stroke patients train on a MIDI-piano with their index finger, or drum pads with their whole arm, much like Wentz’s and Gunnell’s drum exercise with their students.

The study claim their results showed the stroke victims saw a marked improvement in their gross and fine motor function with respect to speed, precision and the smoothness of their movements.


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