“Body Music is the oldest music on the planet,” says Keith. “Before people were hollowing logs to make drums they were likely stepping, clapping, and singing to express their musical ideas. Body Music connects people at an essential level, exploring what is sonically possible with the instrument we all share, creating layers of music and movement in community. When students connect at this level, they become more open to verbal communication and collaboration.”
Keith is a percussionist, rhythm dancer, and educator whose artistic vision straddles the line between music and dance. For more than four decades, he’s toured the Americas, Asia, and Europe, presenting Body Music performances, workshops, and residencies. A prolific soloist as well as director of several ensembles, his forte is collaboration, including performances with Charles “Honi” Coles, the Turtle Island Quartet, Bill Irwin, Jovino Santos Neto, Kenny Endo, and Bobby McFerrin.
“Teaching grew naturally out of my career as a performer,” says Keith. “I trained as a jazz drummer, but in 1979 I stepped off the drum kit and onto the dance floor, and began developing the Body Music technique I’ve been exploring ever since. Clapping, slapping, stepping, and vocalizing, Body Music is music you can see, dance you can hear. The work is accessible, actively intercultural, and an effective teaching tool.”
The founder of Crosspulse, a non-profit dedicated to the creation and performance of rhythm-based intercultural music and dance, Keith also founded and directs the International Body Music Festival. Launched in 2008, IBMF has been produced in the U.S., Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia.
Currently, he uses Body Music to teach basic rhythmic and math concepts, and developed an easy way to experience complex polyrhythms, crosspulses, and polymeters. With Linda Akiyama, he co-authored a book/DVD set called, “Rhythm of Math,” for grades 3-5. “I enjoy teaching children because they don’t have filters,” says Keith. “They’re so used to learning, they just jump into the material. It’s remarkable what they’re capable of doing at a young age.”
“Because Body Music reaches people at a very basic level, I can engage everyone in the room regardless of skill, experience, or age. Everyone starts in the same place with our common instrument, including adaptations for those with disabilities. I enjoy the elation of the students when we get multiple parts going, literally feeling the music in their bodies. It’s an endorphin-producing activity that develops music skills, but also wakes people up and helps them learn by physicalizing conceptual information. The work I do develops coordination, timing and sense of time, ensemble awareness, hearing on different levels, feeling time on different levels, rhythmic independence, and much more. Conceptually the work connects to language development, mathematics, history, anthropology, geography.
“At the foundation of intercultural communication is entrainment or synchronicity, non-verbal communication that allows relationships to progress at a faster rate because the participants are in-sync. I work in extremely diverse groups, with language and cultural barriers, and find the methodology to be effective across communities.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“It’s a combo of things. I’m proficient at assessing situations and ability-levels, then figuring out the balance between including everyone, yet challenging everyone. So I teach at a few different levels simultaneously, which comes from experience, and becomes intuitive.”
How do you encourage youth leadership?
“My classes are interactive. I ask for volunteers to demonstrate parts. Some are eager, some are shy. Sometimes I encourage them to take the leap I know they can make. I use humor, a lot. I am thorough, but make it playful at the same time, which increases their comfort level.”
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“I’ve been teaching for a long time. I taught drumming in my teens, but really started teaching in my early 20s. Now I am more trusting of my gut. I usually have an idea of how to begin, but then I follow the class, follow the ability and energy of the group, stay a few steps ahead, and bring them along. I have learned to trust that experience, so I’m able to relax. Trusting keeps it a creative act, with that electricity. Students feel that, it energizes the room. I admire teachers who don’t seem to be doing much, but a lot is happening: they are a catalyst. It’s exploration, collaboration; the teacher facilitates, in a gentle, subtle way, and extraordinary things happen.”
photo by Irene Young