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The Science of Rhythm

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The Science of Rhythm project delivers person centred interactive drumming sessions to special and mainstream schools as well as community groups in North Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands. The group sessions are for six to 18 year old students on the autism spectrum and those with associated learning disabilities, and help them to build self-confidence, break down barriers and inhibitions, and plan for their own futures.

The project, led by Biant Singh Suwali - an experienced percussionist and social worker, and Transitions Coordinator for the Mansfield Community Learning Disability Team, aims to establish transition drumming groups that will develop into self-sustaining sessions facilitated by a teacher and participants.

This case study outlines how The Science of Rhythm project started and now operates and discusses how drumming and interactive rhythms are incorporated into person-centered reviews to help build confidence and self esteem and in turn lead to successful transition and adult independence.

The main catalyst for the project was that I felt there was something missing in young people’s lives - that the focus was on young people’s disabilities rather than on them as people… The spirit of rhythm knows no boundaries. Drumming is the tool that helps people to connect and can also be used to achieve specific goals such as improving communication, mood and self esteem.” Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm
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The Science of Rhythm project was set up in 2009 by Biant Singh Suwali, an experienced social worker and percussionist, and Transitions Coordinator for the Mansfield Community Learning Disability Team. Aware that the focus of disability support was all too often on young people’s disabilities rather than on them as individuals, Biant was inspired by the visual approach to person centred planning used by Helen Sanderson Associates. He felt that drumming and rhythm could make a significant contribution to the Person Centred Review process and person centred thinking with regard to supporting young people on the autism spectrum.

Biant set out to turn the standard transition process on its head by engaging young people on the autism spectrum in an activity that not only absorbs them, but also is about them and for them. Once they are relaxed and confident in this environment that is centred on them, they can then move comfortably into a person centred planning and transition process that works.

“I have always felt that there was something missing in my life.  I thought this was because I was disabled. Now I realise I didn’t know much about who I was as a person.  Everyone was so concerned about my disability, they forgot to help me find the real me.” The Science of Rhythm student

The Science of Rhythm sessions now run in 12 special and mainstream schools across North Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands for young people aged six to 18 who are on the autism spectrum and who have associated learning disabilities. The project was initially only open to Year 9 students and up, however participating schools were keen for sessions to be available to younger children so after-school clubs – ‘Rhythm is One’ – were also set up. This enables Biant to make more comprehensive assessments when the young people move into transition because he has already established a relationship with them. He can then continue this relationship through their Year 9 reviews until they leave school.

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Sessions are also run within the voluntary sector through Mansfield based charity APTCOO (A Place to Call Our Own). Here Biant is able to access those people who are not necessarily on the social services radar as their condition is not severe, but who still have very real support needs.

The project has also been the starting point for developing a Transitions Pathway for Independent Life Skills programme and toolkit. As part of the project young people create personal identity maps, looking at their family and community and helping them to discover a sense of who they are. Objects of personal reference such as a photograph, their grandad’s pipe or a piece of family jewellery are used as a catalyst to create a narrative for their lives and as a template for their own cultural reference. This is incorporated into The Science of Rhythm sessions as a creative approach to discovering self-awareness and identity.

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The Science of Rhythm sessions involve interactive drumming and rhythm, talking and creative activity, as well as discussion around objects, family history, lineage, and identity. All activity is underpinned by the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba, a communitarian African philosophy.

The Seven Principles of Nguzo Saba

•  Unity (Umoja): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
•  Self-Determination (Kujichagulia): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
• Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to solve them together.
• Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
• Purpose (Nia): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
• Creativity (Kuumba): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
• Faith (Imani): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

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In conjunction with drumming, the hand and its five digits is used as a symbol to encourage connections, develop relationships and challenge inequalities and ideas of exclusion.

The five digit principles of the hand
• Discover…your identity and your potential for creativity in supporting sustainable change during the complex process of transition.
• Engage…with your self so that you can then establish connections and a sense of common purpose, build relationships and trust yourself and others.
• Imagine… so that you can step outside of your current mindset and work to develop a shared vision. Positive collective experiences bring hope for the future.
• Shape… a vision and sense of how things might be with a renewed sense of self-esteem and positive identity. New found confidence gives birth to new possibilities.
• Sustain…strong connections and relationships that underpin emotional wellbeing, healthy and thriving communities and organisations.

The interactive drumming and rhythm sessions support each of these five principles creating excitement, energy and a unique collective experience. The group rhythm exercises require participants to respond intuitively to the original rhythm and also to the intuitive responses of other members. This process requires a simultaneous leap of faith from the world of thought and reason into that of expression, allowing a rhythm to draw on the individual emotional journeys of participants and take on its own unique direction.

“When you drum you are handling this amorphous ball of energy that is coming off the drum and you are throwing it out in the circle.” The Science of Rhythm student

This ritual follows an ancient practice from the West African Tribes of Mali in which elders would drum before any discussion or decision making was undertaken. Drumming clears the mind of individual needs and any awareness of self, allowing each individual to contribute fully as a group member without an ego.

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It’s amazing to be there and to drum with these young people who have such a passion about drumming, who are so engaged. To be able to be a part of that is a privilege.”  Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

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The Science of Rhythm interactive drumming and rhythm sessions range in size from five up to 40 people of mixed disability. Ages range from 6 through to 18 years old, though members within a group are usually of a similar age. The groups have a strong ethic of inclusion, with no fear of disability. The sessions last around two hours and usually run for six to eight weeks depending on funding. 

Biant leads the first sessions, introducing percussion and the West African Djembe drum that is used. Each member of the group has their own Djembe and Biant teaches the students how to explore rhythm using the basic foundation sounds ‘bass, tone, slap’.

Sessions begin with using the drum as a heartbeat to correspond with their own. Everyone synchronises their beats providing a unique lesson in equality and inclusion – everyone as one. Rhythms are then developed into time cycles of three or four beats and move on to games and songs around the individuals, for example using the students’ names.

“The sessions are a fantastic percussion discussion – everyone listening and playing together, developing their communication, eye contact and social awareness skills with every beat. It is a very organic process.” Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

Biant has developed a toolkit so that teachers or other members of staff can lead the sessions once the basics have been established within the group. The enthusiasm that is engendered through the process of drumming means that the groups become self-sustaining, with the young people themselves helping to facilitate the sessions.

There has been scepticism about the project from some professionals who feel that children with profound disabilities do not gain any benefit from drumming. In considering the requirements of those with more complex needs, Biant considered how to maximise the experience for those with sensory impairments. As part of the Aromatic Beat Project, essential oils are put onto the drums at many of The Science of Rhythm sessions and the aromas are released as young people drum.

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The young people who do not benefit at all from drumming are those who are very sensitive to sound. With these young people other forms of expression such as art or poetry are used to meet the same ends; enabling them to explore themselves as people before they address the issue of transition.

A new group for siblings has also recently been established – The Suitcase Project. Sessions focus on identity with links to the government’s Every Child Matters Five Outcomes of being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being.

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When they drum they get it ‘right’ and they feel good in themselves. They feel and hear ‘yes I can’ in every groove, and lose the fear of making mistakes, which allows them to make fewer mistakes. It strengthens their role within the group, as well as their values and vision, and gives them a confidence to look forward and think about the future.” Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

The Science of Rhythm uses drumming to build self-confidence and break down barriers and inhibitions for young people on the autism spectrum. This in turn allows participants to explore new ways of communicating, thinking and problem solving and relating to each other.

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Biant believes that drumming digs deep into human potential and that the confidence and increased self-esteem that it gives to young people on the autism spectrum is invaluable in enabling them to take a full and active part in their own transitions. It also helps them to lose the fear of making mistakes because with drumming there is no right or wrong way – there are many ways. There may only be three notes, but a whole range of tones and rhythms can come from these.

“There was a young man who said to me ‘Biant, when do I get the groove?’  I said ‘You’ll know when you get it.’  A few weeks later he shouts to me across the shopping precinct -  ‘Biant I got it, I know what the groove is.’”   Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

The young people who participate in the sessions often haven’t engaged with other services before, but they do successfully engage with The Science of Rhythm. Biant has also received feedback that some non-verbal children have begun to vocalise rhythms as a result of their involvement in the project. He believes that drumming has a special resonance for children whose verbal skills are limited, enabling them to communicate and hold their own with other people. 

“They are all starting at the same point, all playing their own rhythms.  They bring to the world ‘yes I can’. When they hit the drum, you can hear them say ‘yes I can’, that’s what the rhythms say. It’s incredibly positive. Drumming releases endorphins, connects you with other people when language might be difficult.” Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

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The central principle behind The Science of Rhythm is that any process should begin with the person rather than one aspect of them such as their disability. By using rhythm to establish a rapport with young people on the autism spectrum and to build their self-confidence the project has found that they are more able to engage in both discussions about, and the processes involved in, planning for their own futures. Transition must be a process not an event, and giving young people confidence ahead of them making major decisions about the future is vital. The process is also a more positive one when the young person is in the driving seat and connected with their goals.

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Many of the young people who have experienced The Science of Rhythm project enjoy greater success when they later move into supported employment or independent living.

“Young people have become group facilitators and leading the sessions puts them firmly in the driving seat when it comes to things like reviews. It helps them to carry their voice into meetings; the confidence really translates into other areas of their life.” Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

Other skills learnt at the sessions are also transferable. Many of the students find it difficult to stay focused for a long period of time, but the complexity of drumming holds their attention. The skills gained in learning to deal with these complex rhythms translate positively into real life situations.

“It improves communication and enhances their capacity to listen and stay focused on a task through sustained physical activity. It also improves hand eye co-ordination and the use of fine motor skills.”  Biant Singh Suwali, founder of The Science of Rhythm

Parental feedback also supports the thinking that drumming can make an important contribution to the transition process.

“Drumming will continue to be a huge influence in Joe’s plans through his transition to adulthood.” Parent of The Science of Rhythm student

Importantly, The nature of the project means that the sessions are sustainable. Schools are able to use funding from the Aiming High Transition Support Programme to purchase the drums; the sessions are run in schools so accommodation is not an issue; the group creates its own facilitators after the initial foundation sessions; and as the group continues skills, knowledge and expertise all grow within the school.

The project continues to develop its approach using interactive rhythm and drumming in the transitions of students across Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands with young people in groups leading the sessions as facilitators and sustaining these transition drumming groups both in education settings and community groups.

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Title          The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings
Author       Yaya Diallo and Mitch Hall
Publisher   Inner Traditions Bear and Company,1989
ISBN          9780892812561
Abstract    The Healing Drum traces the extraordinary cultural legacy of the Minianka 
                  tribe of West Africa, for whom music serves a sacred, healing function for 
                  the individual and society. It explores the Minianka view of humanity, music, 
                  and the cosmos relative to work, celebration, herbal medicine, dance, trance, 
                  initiation, and death.

Title          The Drummer's Path: Moving the Spirit with Ritual and 
Traditional Drumming
Sule Greg Wilson
Publisher   Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1992
ISBN          9780892813599
Abstract    Drummer, dancer, and folklorist Sule Greg Wilson introduces the principles 
                  behind African and Diaspora music, including breath, posture, and 

Title          Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm
Author      Mickey Hart, Fredric Lieberman, D.A Sonneborn
Publisher  Acid Test Productions, 1998
ISBN          978-1888358209
Abstract     Mickey Hart's companion to his bestselling Drumming at the Edge of Magic is
                   a captivating chronicle of our global fascination with drums and the primal 
                   rhythms and spells of percussion, illustrated with 350 photographs and 

Title          The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of 
Joachim-Ernst Berendt
Publisher   Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1987
ISBN          978-0892813186
Abstract    One of Europe's foremost jazz producers explores a world of musical traditions
                  and the effects of sound on consciousness.

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For more information about The Science of Rhythm project, please contact:

Contact  Biant Singh Suwali, Transitions Coordinator, Learning Disability Adult Social Care and Health
Address  Mansfield Community Learning Disability Team
Telephone  01623 436640

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