Musicians as Writers: On Rhythm and Language

One of my summer jobs this year is to host two short, weekly music workshops for kids at Summer Ink, an adventure-based writing camp run by Simmons College. In this one-week online camp, the students have the same variety of experiences that many summer camps offer—sports and adventure, art, music, etc., except that this year, of course, the camp is online. Doing it online is an experiment, and a fun one. The students do many writing exercises, one of which is to spend a half hour with a subject-area specialist, then write about their experience. My job is to give them music. 

It's an interesting challenge. What kind of compelling, writeable music experience can you do online with kids you've never met and will probably never meet again, who may or may not be musicians, and whose only instruments are a kazoo and a simple percussion instrument such as finger cymbals, a shaker egg, or a little silver bell? Any sort of synchronous musicmaking is ruled out, because of the delay in digital transmission. There is no technology yet that allows us to play music with someone in "real time." Any of those virtual orchestras and choirs you've seen since the pandemic hit were all recorded separately with a "click track" to make sure they were playing to the same tempo, then were synced up afterward by a very patient and slightly obsessed music director. There is no way to play music synchronously online (yet).

So, the kazoo and the percussion instrument, minimal musical background, and online with delay. These are our constraints. The two instruments, however, cover two important elements of song: pitch (notes) and rhythm (the beat). What's missing, and what writers provide, are the words. After a few failed attempts at playing some traditional call-and-response band games in Week 1, I changed tack and decided that the most important thing music offers to a young writer is a sense of rhythm. Personally, as a musician, I think about the rhythm of everything I write: long sentences, short sentences, how a sentence ends, how it feels when you read it aloud, the weight and accents of one word versus another—the flow of the sea, the percussion of the ocean, the finality of the beach. That's the way word choice and phrasing in poetry works—and for me, it's also about the way prose needs to work, too. 

The example I gave the kids (because you know how much I love people who write about their pets incessantly), was a recap of my morning. I told them, I could say, 

"I took the dog out for a walk this morning." 

That would be true but that sentence has no flow. A more rhythmic and impactful way to say that is:  

"This morning I went for a walk with my dog." 

That is, 

"this MORN-ing-i WENT-for-a WALK-with-my DOG." 

That's a 3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1! rhythm. By the way this is the same rhythm that underlies both an Irish jig and a blues shuffle—in my opinion two of the most compelling movement rhythms on the planet. Just as it does for music, rhythm gives our prose forward motion and emotional impact. 

In the workshop, each student practiced saying their name to a steady rhythm. After they did so, I repeated their name and then described how the syllables fell on strong or weak beats, depending on pronunciation, also demonstrating the awkardness that results when we put a weak syllable on a strong beat. SU-san ge-DUT-tis LIND-say is more sensible than su-SAN ge-du-TIS lind-SAY. 

For the kids, I then set a tempo and had each student say their name. I recorded each of them through the computer using Soundtrap, which is free online music production and recording software. After the call, I spent about a half hour or so making a sound collage with their names over a drum groove. In this way, students were given a very simple introduction to the use of rhythm in prose. 

For fun, here's the video I showed them as an introduction, in which the characters from the Harry Potter book series state their names in rhythm. (I stopped the video before the pipe bomb, of course...)

With this in mind, students then stated their names. The music that resulted was really fun and a little wacky. Check it out.