Neuro Communication with James Brown
The musical neuro communication with Ravi Shankar ended with his deep bow. The burst of applause was startling after the stillness, as was the quick dash of movement to the bathrooms. I turned to Cousin Sam, thanked him, and started to put on my coat. Sam didn’t move, ”We should stay for the next act.” I whined at that, “I’m tired and it’s a long schlep back to campus on the bus.” “Trust me. We should stay,” he said softly, but firmly. And so, mildly kvetching (complaining in Yiddish), I was still seated when the curtain re-opened.
This dimly lit stage was suddenly overwhelmed by the presence of a young James Brown. The tiny theater could barely contain his boundless energy which I suspect could be felt out in the street and several blocks away. Brown strutted across the stage, howled into the microphone, and lit up that old stage with his glorious moves.
The walls vibrated, the seats shook, and the crowd went wild. Hands waved and feet stomped as we danced in our seats. The African Americans in the audience sang along with I Feel Good. I’d never heard the song before, but tried to sing along, too. How could I not?
It brought back memories of being a senior in high school and volunteering to teach classical ballet at the school in a nearby African American neighborhood. I taught them grand jete leaps and pirouette turns.
The kids taught me some moves that I had no name for, but there they were, on stage performed by James Brown. Yes, I did feel good and I should have known that I would. I had no clue that Shankar and Brown would become two of the world’s most famous icons. Nor did I grasp that this was a night of diversity, a term that wasn’t common back then. All I knew was that from the cosmic spirituality of Shankar to the earth-shaking energy of Brown, we had traveled light years across cultural boundaries. My brain would never be the same.
The good news was that I got an “A” in my Buddhism course. The not so wonderful news was that my journey at Harvard Divinity School came to a miserable halt. I became ill, so sick that I couldn’t move, lost much of my weight and most of my muscle. Doctors of multiple specialties couldn’t agree on what was wrong. Was it Lupus? Colitis? Rheumatoid arthritis? It would be decades before modern medicine could even begin to address the cause. Genetics and celiac had attacked me.
I lost a year of college while my body battled for life. My brain took a journey of its own. While I lay immobile in bed I thanked the doctor for piping music into my room. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3 was an unexpected comfort. It was a shock to learn that there was no music. I was hallucinating. As I slowly recovered, I pondered the phenomenon. If a person could hallucinate music to comfort themselves, what would intentionally listening do? I spent months taking in music from around the world. Through that music my mind went to countries that I feared I’d never visit and cultures I might never experience.
When I was finally able to return to Harvard, I was alive but in poor physical condition. The Divinity School was a far walk from the dorms and it would be better to choose classes on the main campus. What should I study? I was still passionate about World Religions, but I was equally passionate about music and the Arts. I needed a major that would include both. Finally, I chose cultural anthropology and set out on a path that would again take me to exotic lands that I’d probably never see in person. From the drumbeat of tribal dances to the songs of the whirling dervishes, music and movement were my true companions every step along that path.
For years, my journey was a personal one, an introvert’s solution to health limitations and life’s challenges. I collected recordings of obscure musicians and attended concerts by myself. Solitary pleasures seemed the most practical approach given my unpredictable health until one evening at the University in Cincinnati. I was studying late one evening, attempting a masters degree in urban planning, the practical application of cultural anthropology. Passing by one of the courtyards on campus on a summer’s night, I was captured by the sounds of a square dance.
The music drew me closer and there was a group of students having a great time in square dance sets. When the music finished, they laughed and the sets dissolved, only to be reformed for a folk dance from Greece. As the night went on, the sound of bag pipes, guitars, flutes, finger cymbals, and other instruments filled the air. How could I not join the weekly gathering? Just like a normal person, I danced, laughed, healed, fell in love, and married.
“Come perform with us,” said a local dance historian. Returning to my beloved classical music, I added Baroque dance music. Now I not only experienced diverse cultures, but I was able to time travel, too. Did I realize how much the combination of music and movement had reshaped my mind? I was aware, but not conscious of the transformation. Understanding began when I was awarded a research fellowship at the William Andrews Clark Library/UCLA. A fuller comprehension came when I began to write for publication.
The act of writing pulled together and solidified that transformation.
Reassembling my brain over what was possible, I formed Terpsichore, my own Baroque dance company, and connected with musicians to perform with us. Miraculously, I had a child, a healthy little girl. I began teaching Rosie the art of Baroque dance almost as soon as she could walk. If dance and movement could expand my mind so much, what would it do for a toddler? Rosie picked up the style and movements in one week while it took an adult three months to master them. She happily danced in the back of the classes I taught as the adults struggled, the efficiency of her neuro pathways on display for all to see.
If I could absorb Rosie’s process of learning, could I use it to teach the adults? I had re-structured my own thinking more than once. Surely, I could do this. So, instead of starting the next class by teaching the steps, we began with the music, then the visual of the steps, added numbers and left-right to the music, and finally practiced the movement itself. There could be no extraneous sound or other distractions in order for this to work. To my delight, the students’ progress was substantially improved by changing the sequence.
This was just the first time I experimented with sequencing in my teaching. The neuro pathways are a bridge to new cultures, past and present. They lead directly into the matrix that every culture customizes to its history, geography, and demographics. Music and movement are a vital part of that matrix as shorthand for the Big Data that is culture. By combining the music, movement and its imagery, costumes, historical settings, historical personalities, and then back to the music, the brain builds a cognitive technology. Children do it automatically, but adults can build the mindset to make it doable relatively effortlessly.
The cognitive technology formed the basis not only for my teaching Baroque dance, but for teaching cross-cultural communication. I started out teaching English to international students, training them to be aware of the American culture that was now home.
Acculturation progressed more quickly with music. I played the Star Spangled Banner for them, letting them hear famous Americans sing it while I explained the history and symbolism of the American flag.
As had become my habit, I solidified the process in my mind by writing. The text book that emerged, Matrix Model Management System: Guide to Cross-cultural Wisdom, became the cognitive technology that I then applied to the business world.
My use of music to better understand cultural diversity now extended to executives in international industries relocating to the US Southeast: Nissan, International Paper, Volkswagen, and Kimberly Clark. Surprisingly, they all knew something about music from the South, regardless of their country of origin. Elvis Presley resonated whether they were German, Chinese, Dutch, South African, Mexican, or Polish. Miley Cyrus was well known among the younger set. Most of them knew the song, Chattanooga Choo Choo, and could hum along if they didn’t know the words.
The South is the poster child for using music to open cultural windows. We smiled and swayed in our seats to the sounds of New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and Appalachia. We traveled through Southern geography with bluegrass, gospel, mountain music, blues, ragtime, Dixieland jazz, Rockabilly, and Zydeco. We looked at history and civil rights through songs that captured and held their attention: I Wish I was in Dixie, Sweet Home Alabama, A Change Is Gonna Come, and This Little Light of Mine.
When I was assigned to coach groups rather than individuals or families, I added movement to the agenda. It began with groups of international medical students. I played square dance music for them and taught them the Virginia Reel. Laughing when they mixed up their left from their right, clapping for the extra flourish, and stomping their feet to the music, the enjoyment of the experience was tangible. This is how you learn to appreciate a culture and have the rhythm of its life deeply embedded in the minds.
What was it like to add a square dance to a corporate training session? In the case of a group of expat executives and their spouses, I had them watch a video of Dolly Parton singing Rocky Top Tennessee. Then we all hummed along with her, adding a little toe-tapping in the process. Then it was time for the real challenge: teaching the square dance steps. Most had never danced a square or circle folk dance before. There was much giggling at all the bowing and curtsies of “Honor your partner” and “Honor your corner”.
The couples had never heard the term “ballroom position”. One executive panicked when I picked him to demonstrate it and yelled, “Why me?” He tried to get me to choose someone else, but I persevered, and placed his hand on my waist. It was like the dance lesson scene from the Harry Potter movie where the professor played by Maggie Smith insists on demonstrating the waltz with a reluctant Ron. Yes, it was definitely beyond their usual comfort zone.
Awkward as it was, we kept going. I gradually transitioned the trainees into a workable comfort zone by deploying the music of my soft voice, a legacy of my Bermuda childhood. When we were finally able to combine the music and the movement, the group’s comfort level was tolerable. By the time the training was finished, they were laughing, partnering, and stepping with ease. Their neuro pathways had expanded and they all wanted more.
CONCLUSION: NEURO COMMUNICATION & DIVERSITY TRAINING
All too often, diversity trainers flood their corporate trainees with Dos & Don’ts. Do this kind of handshake, smile like this, don’t make that gesture. Corporations become frustrated when there’s little change in behavior and even less in mind set. Some companies invest in a culture exchange featuring food, but that doesn’t change much either. But the addition of music, especially when accompanied by movement, helps develop the neuro communication pathways that build awareness and appreciation of cultural differences. The experience can then be solidified by asking participants to write down how it felt and what easiest, most difficult, and strangest to them.
As I write this article, I listen to the classical cellist Yoyo Ma dive into Southern Bluegrass with his Goat Rodeo Sessions. Ma demonstrates that music isn’t just a window into other cultures. It’s a bridge builder that reaches across cultural boundaries. Awareness and appreciation expand into inventiveness, creativity, and collaboration, not to mention great fun. The joy of music and the cognitive technology of music generate hope for the future, a culturally diverse future.