Rhythm: Hardwired Into Our DNA

For many of us, our entire world has been flipped upside down. Our homes are no longer just homes: dining rooms are now classrooms, bedrooms are offices and kitchens function as if they are full-time restaurants. On top of that, we’ve been forced to seek new avenues to serve students, families and communities. While the practice of social distancing prevents exposure to COVID-19, it has also had a negative impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of mental health recipients – but drummer Ronnie Negro is working to combat isolation and keep these recipients’ spirits up.

Recognizing that drumming is a therapeutic art form for this population, ArtsWestchester and Negro teamed up to offer a highly-structured multi-session workshop series. With support from Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, the workshops introduce various drumming techniques, such as rhythm and tempo, to participants at local mental health facilities. Negro explains: “Rhythm is hardwired into our DNA. The first sounds babies hear are their mother’s heartbeat from inside her womb. Later, they react to music instinctively… Plus, we can utilize our laps, tabletops or clapping to form a rhythm, so it doesn’t require an expensive investment.” Negro has been a performing drummer since the late 1980s, performing on Broadway and with his band Powderfinger, and has been one of ArtsWestchester’s teaching artists since 2011.

Negro’s classes strengthen cognitive skills like hand-eye coordination, memory and pattern recognition, in addition to promoting self-expression and healing. He continues: “The participants can learn to appreciate music on a deeper level, even if they have had no prior musical training. Through the physical performance of rhythm, they develop focus, as well as fine motor skills. The mathematical elements of rhythm also foster problem solving and analytical skills.”

The recreational drumming workshops are part of ArtsWestchester’s artist residency program, which pairs teaching artists with schools and community sites in order to integrate the arts into active curricula. Normally, these services are provided in-person, but given the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19, they are now being offered virtually. All of the lessons are prerecorded and taught in sequential order, allowing anyone to pause and repeat a unit if desired. No materials are required to participate in Negro’s workshops from the comfort of home. “Everyone is feeling some sense of isolation during these times, but those suffering from mental disabilities are even more affected… Any sense of normal life is welcome, and this video series is another way of telling the participants that they are not forgotten.”

A version of this article first appeared in the June issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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