I Got Rhythm (December 2019)

Ira Gershwin wrote the lines “I’m chipper all the day, happy with my lot. How do I get that way? Look at what I’ve got. I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man, who could ask for anything more.” I don’t know about you, but I could do with being chipper all the day and happy with my lot so I thought I’d explore his ideas. I’m not sure I’ve got much to say to you about romance, and my musical skills are considerably less impressive than many of yours – as we saw in last week’s Carols. This leaves me with rhythm and the thesis that if you have rhythm then your lot will be inevitably happy. Actually that claim is too bold – what I really want to say is that there is a natural rhythm to Harris Westminster life and if you get this right then your time will be smoother, happier and more successful.

The rhythm is quite sophisticated, with a regularity to the weeks – I hope you have your 168 hours organised with slots for homework, prep and wider reading; then there’s the regular beat of term and vacation – we’re having another one of those shortly, which I will speak about next week,

These are not the rhythms I want to talk to you about, though – what I want to explain today, with illustration from the world of music, is how there is a rhythm to the two years – how the experience of each term at Harris Westminster is, or should be, different to the last, how the beat of that drum carries you from the beginning of Remembrance Year 12 to the end of Celebration Year 13. Let’s start with this term – I’ll tell you what you should have achieved and you can work out how you’ve got on. The main goal of Remembrance Year 12 is to get started, get a rhythm going, get organised so let’s think about a straight forward rhythm – 4/4 – common time. This is the rhythm that lies behind most pop songs and much classical music. 4/4 simply means that there are four beats in the bar (that’s the first four) and that each beat is a quarter of the longest note, a breve (that’s the second four and we don’t really need to worry much about that – the most important thing is the number of beats in a bar). 4/4 is a straightforward and versatile rhythm you can foxtrot to it, quickstep, and even tango. Your weekly rhythm will also have some fours in it with four subjects and four sets of homework. There is a strong beat on the 1 and a lesser one on the 3 and if you get that beat right you can do some very interesting things – I got rhythm, the song I started quoting is in 4/4 and is a great exploration of what you can do by playing round with that time signature – I commend it to you.

To play well you have to listen to the music and pay careful attention to what the beat is doing, make sure that you can hear and respond to the one. And there is the link to scholarship – as well as getting your routine set up you need to get the hang of response this term. If you didn’t do too well last time, that’s ok – you get another go when the second assessments come back this week. One more thing that I want to tell you about, before we leave 4/4, is a video of Harry Connick Jr that you should definitely look up on YouTube. He’s playing the piano and singing and the audience are clapping on 1 and 3 which is rather square – cool kids clap on the 2 and 4. Harry is cool, the audience are not, and so to help them out, without them noticing he slips an extra beat into one of the bars so they clap on 1,3,5 and then on the next one they’re on 2 and 4 and suddenly his audience of squares are transformed. For some of you, this term, we’ve put in some extra beats, some nudges to get you into the proper rhythm – don’t fight the nudges, they’re there to help you.

That was this term, what about next? Well, if Remembrance Year 12 is the response term, Resilience is Purpose, and as my inspiration here I’m turning to the film Dirty Dancing – if you’ve not seen it then you should. It’s about a 1950s teenager who learns to dance to modern, latin, syncopated rhythms. One of the first challenges is not moving on the one – remember, that’s square – the heroine, Baby, needs to learn to be cool, to move on the 2. One scene later, a new dance, and she’s not moving on the 2, not moving on the 1 – Johnny, the teacher says “It’s a feeling, a heartbeat, ba doom”. Really understanding the rhythm requires feeling, not just counting – something that has held my dancing back throughout the years: I’ve always been better at counting than feeling. Similarly, really understanding subjects requires purpose, not just mechanics and for most of you this is a change of approach – use next term to feel your subjects, to understand why, to let go of the routines that got you through GCSE and embrace the deeper rhythm of the subject, the feeling, the heartbeat.

And so, on to Celebration. Here the temptation is to worry about your end of year exams and to revert to good old 4/4 time. This is an error – you do have to do well in your end of years, you should take them seriously, but this is not the time to close down, it’s the last chance to really open up, to embrace new ideas. Time signatures may normally be 4/4, possibly 3/4 or 2/4, but many amazing and interesting songs come from experimenting with different rhythms. All you need is Love, by the Beatles is in 7/4, as is Money by Pink Floyd. Seven Days, by Sting and Mars, the bringer of War, from Holst’s Planets suite are in 5/4. The American rock band Tool took this further with their 2002 hit "Schism" (which I hadn’t come across before I started writing this assembly). Tool say that schism is in 6 and a half/4 which they achieve by alternating 6/4 and 7/4 bars. The world is big and full of interesting things – don’t get focused on exams too early, spend Celebration of Year 12 expanding the borders of your knowledge.

After that it gets complicated – you will have seen the Year 13s this term looking rather stressed. This is because they are trying to do two things at once – studying their subjects with lots still to learn and, at the same time, sorting out UCAS application and coping with offers and rejections from universities. A time signature that does two things at once is called a compound time signature and the simplest one is 6/8. In 6/8 there is a strong 1,2 but each beat is broken down into 3s – a suitable example is Queen’s We are the Champions. Within it, sometimes the three dominates, particularly the lilting verses, and sometimes the drums hammer out the two. No time for losers ‘cause we are the champions of the world. Look at how the best of the Year 13s have been working this term – that’s what you’re aiming for.

Resilience, Year 13, is finally the time to focus on Mechanics, to make sure that you’ve got all your knowledge spot on, make sure that the wonderful ideas you explored in Celebration can be translated into clear and accurate answers. It’s the time to return to I’ve got Rhythm and to appreciate the way the 4/4 metronome holds the highly-syncopated jazz classic together. It’s time to listen to the Stranglers “Golden Brown” – not for the lyrics which are disappointingly about heroin abuse – but for the way it’s written in 3/4 except for one bar in four which is in 4/4 – if you did enough exploration you will consider the possibility that this is really a single long measure of 13/4. This might then get you to reflect that maybe Schism is also in 13/4 and to wonder what other masquerades there are. Worry about the mechanics when you’ve already felt the purpose, listened and responded, explored widely; and then some truly wonderful things come into focus.

Finally Celebration Year 13, the performance. Half a term of final rehearsal, careful focus, going over the tricky bits until they’re easy and then the exams. This is when you get to be Harry Connick Jr, where you get to toy with the examiners, to manipulate them into being cool kids, to take them out of their usual, and rather square idiom.

That’s the rhythm of Harris Westminster: Response, Purpose, Look Wider, Two things at once, Mechanics, and Performance. You should have your response sorted out – take this half term’s really seriously: both subjects and CPs – and if you’re feeling this is too much look at the Year 13s and up your game. You should also have organised your weekly routine, your weekly rhythm. And if you’ve got rhythm, well then Old Man trouble, you don’t mind him, you won’t find him round your door, you’ve got daisies, in green pastures, you’ve got learning – and who could ask for anything more?