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ICL Education Group – Early Childhood Studies – Research Seminar Series

September 2018

Alina Abraham, Lecturer ECE

To chant or not to chant? Setting the tone in the classroom with chanting - are
there perceived benefits?

Introduction

Available research in education shows there is a perception in the education system


that mind-body connection based programmes may help students raise the level of
their school achievement (Wang, Seo, and Geib, 2017). It also has been found that
different chanting and meditation practices, by using such mind-body connection,
have been successfully used in the rehabilitation of children and adults after them
being exposed to traumatic events, such as war, stress, of other (Lavretsky et al.,
2013; Black et al., 2013; Horowitz, 2010; Khalsa, Amen, Hanks, Money, and
Newberg, 2009; Catani et al., 2009). This study aims to use a combination of
synthesis-research methods and data collection from elite interviews to establish what
are the perceived benefits of chanting and how can these be put to good use in raising
student achievement from year 1 to 13 in New Zealand Schools. From the literature
springboard, four themes appear prominently, i.e., chanting as embodiment of music
genres that contain spirituality at their core, chanting as embodiment of mind-body
connection (chanting as external bodily expression through dance, music and
movement), chanting in the classroom as the music lesson in theory and performance
practice, and perceptions of chanting benefits by brain research through guided
meditation, vocalization and silent meditation. A critiquing section presents thematic
connections and gaps in the literature.

Identification of topic

Chanting, in general - although sometimes known as incantation, mantra, mandala,


prayer, or karakia, refers to the practice of repetitive vocalization of spoken syllables,
words or phrases, in which neural activity in the brain as well as movement of the
body, especially hands and voice, overlap. The variety of meanings given to the term
is extensive. For the purposes of this research the term ‘chanting’ will be looked at as
an embodied technique as described above, and critically analysed through the lenses
of a literature review that synthesizes the most salient views coming from social,
health and education research, to uncover what appear to be the benefits of chanting
for adult and infant population, why should classroom practices embrace chanting –
if at all, in supporting student achievement from year 1 to 13, and how could schools
implement such chanting techniques as support systems to enhance student
achievement, when so desired. The phrases in italics are also the research questions of
the study. Mainly EBSCO, OVID, and RILM databases are used. The study aims to
answer the issue brought by Hattie (2003) in disseminating the situation of New
Zealand schools under the metaphor of the “glass empty” or “glass full”; Hattie says
that the top 80% achievers are performing and competitive, i.e., we may look at
student achievement with pride as 80% achievement could be considered a very good
result; it is just that the bottom 20% of achievers fall behind – so we can also consider
our education system failing, as we fail one fifth of each classroom, i.e., the 20%
made of individuals that fail the education system. With chanting based programmes
and/or silent meditation based training, the aim of the study is that all 80% and 20%
students above could be perhaps, be successful in their own terms and contexts.

Thematic synthesis of literature

Chanting as embodiment of music genres that contain spirituality at their core

Chanting is a music phenomenon socially contextualized. Long back recognized and


well established in the field of music - especially in church music (Kelly, 2009),
chanting is also present in music classrooms (Kang, 2016; Lawry, 2012; Holtzman,
1995) as is in the political arena; If only referring to chanting national anthems for
example, we could imagine a stadium of people standing up at sports games and chant
in unison their National Anthem while the national flag is raised to the top. By so
doing their emotional health, holistic well-being appear energized and ready to further
give emotional support to their teams from the whole core of their energetic being,
that is from the heart (www.heartmath.org). Their voices meet in one only voice,
called unison, and they are all rhythmically connected by the verses and the rhythm of
the music. They are articulating the same vowels and consonants - that in some
contexts are considered as energy generators (shamans… in spiritual contexts).

Less is understood about the spiritual values of our contemporary world and how in
the lack of such, social work intervention is needed to restore social health. Keefe
(cited by Wolf, 2012, p.27) focuses on Eastern-style meditative techniques as specific
applications in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and states
that meditation methods “are natural adjuncts to social work intervention” for the
benefit of a healthy social-cultural environment (ibid.). Deepening this direction
Canda (as cited by Wolf, 2012, p.27) states that spirituality is a basic component of
human experience and culturally constructed environments. Canda, says Wolf (2012)
“after overviewing Christian, Jewish, shamanist, and Zen perspectives on social
work, he concludes that professional helping may be significantly enhanced by the
introduction on meditative techniques”. Wolf (ibid.) also pinpoints a literature review
based on other types of meditation techniques including Buddhist approaches, mantra
meditation, mindfulness meditation, maha mantra japa, and other. For the purposes of
this study we will specifically address two types of meditation only – one involving
chanting, that is ‘kirtan’ meditation (Sanskrit Belgium, 2016), and another type of
meditation that involve chanting internally in a non-verbalised way , i.e., silent
meditation; these techniques will be referred to in the last section of the thematic
synthesis, i.e., in the perceptions of chanting benefits recorded by neuro-brain
research section.

Chanting as embodiment of mind-body connection (chanting as external bodily


expression through dance, music and movement)

In the last fifty years Body-Mind Centering (2017) offers therapeutic and artistic
training (ballet/dance/movement) that could be used equally as therapy or prevention
of stress, incorporated either in daily co-curricular activities or in the school curricula.
Programmes are accessible to parents and children during, before and after school.
The practice was initiated by psychologist and choreograph Bonnie Bainbridge
Cohen, and her practice led research connects conceptually to the anecdotal story of
artist Gillian Lynne, as recorded by Ken Robinson (SALT, 2011), in which the child
was presented to her doctor as it was assumed she suffers from ADHD (attention
deficit disorder); what doctor has found was a perfectly happy and healthy child that
was gifted for dancing, and so, at doctor’s recommendations the child trained for
ballet and dance, becoming a professional in the field for the rest of her life. The
moral of the story is that there is an internal chanting in each student, and if their
talent is brought forth by an intelligent programme and a dedicated teacher, each child
can develop the career of their dreams.

Chanting in the classroom as the music lesson in theory and performance practice

All over the globe music classrooms are filled with the sound of human voice or the
timbre of musical instruments (Kang, 2016; Lawry, 2012; Holtzman, 1995). Less is
known of the effect pitched sounds have upon visible matter. A whole field of study
called ‘cymatics’ is dedicated to the analysis of the visual patterns that vocalization
creates in solid, liquid matter and other media (Jenny, 2001, 1967; monoscop.org,
2001). It is shown in this field of study that chanted vowels create imprints as
described, and these patterns are also common patterns in the natural world – i.e.,
koru patterns in vegetal and mineral wolds, as they are also brought by modern arts,
i.e., Brancusi, 1918, retrieved from MoMa, 2012; Grey, 2017, retrieved from
www.alexgrey.com/art). These patterns are the same as in ancient Hindu mandalas,
Australian aboriginal art, and other geometric – based decoration in the clothing
traditions of the Pacific region, carving, and visual arts (AHTR, 2015). Same patterns
created in solid matter by chanting the syllable ‘om’ are the same patterns observed in
vegetal, mineral realms, and also in geometry inspired art artifacts. Does than
chanting resonates to ‘integration’ in oneness (Sanskrit Belgium, 2016)/ a unity of all
matter? The critiquing section of this study will discuss the issue.

Perception of chanting benefits by neuro research through guided meditation,


vocalization and silent meditation.

Benefits of chanting as alternative medical remedy have been acknowledged by health


research studies more and more over the last 17 years since the dawn of our century.
Thus, EBSCOHealth database shows 154 articles published between 2000-2017, in
comparison to 14 articles published over a double number of years, that is between
1967-1999 - according to the same database, only.

Most recent studies look specifically into the uses of chanting as alternative therapy to
restore adults’ holistic health in cases of leukemia, Alzheimer disease, and dementia;
What Lavretsky et al. (2013), Black et al. (2013) and Khalsa, Amen, Hanks, Money,
and Newberg (2009) observed, was that through the uses of chanting, various regions
in the brain that were obstructed before the activity of chanting, have become
reinvigorated and new synapses and neural pathways fire up and create new patterns
of action in the brain activity.

More over, Khalsa et al. (2009), demonstrated that Kirtan Kriya, i.e., a guided
meditation derived from Kundalini yoga, does lead to change in cerebral blood flow in
the brain during practice and supports long term positive clinical outcomes in active
participants. The technique of Kirtan Kriya is rhythmic and very specific in its
requirements. Performing Kirtan Kriya involves a twelve minutes sequence of
alternative loud chanting for two minutes, whispered chanting for another two
minutes, silence for four minutes, and symmetrically again, whispered and loud
chanting as described above. Small muscles activity is also required, and thus,
connection of fingers is added to the action of chanting. In this way with each stage of
the chanting thumb and index, thumb and middle finger, thumb and ring finger touch.
Rhythmically, when fingers touch syllables are also vocalized or silently whispered.
The order of syllables follows the pattern Sa, Ta, Na, and Ma – said to be primordial
sounds in this practice (ibid., p. 956).

In contrast, Tomasino, Fregona, Skrap and Fabbro (2012) used a mix of focused - i.e.,
internalized or volitional meditation, and also outward meditation – or guided mantra
meditation, as previously described. Here, different categories of words and syllables
were used by the experimental group and by the control group. The words and
syllables ‘sadnam’ and ‘om’ were used for the experimental group. The words and
syllables ‘chairs’ and ‘tables’ were used for the control group. Using an ALE meta-
analysis methodology, software, 275 subjects, and 26 experiments in the first stage of
the study, the researchers demonstrated that chanted meditation triggers changes in the
neural activity of the brain in both groups - irrespective of the syllables, words and
phrases used. Researchers concluded that these results are important to showcase
mind-body connections and the importance of mind-body training and research,
triggering individual results of iconic resonance, that is culturally embedded.

Other syllables have been used by other studies, with same results. Analysis of ‘om’
syllable chanting, for example, is used by Gurjar, Ladhake, and Thakare (2009) in a
study of ‘OM mantra’, the syllable being considered on the one hand in its empirical
connotation by Hindus ‘…is the very name of the Absolute’ (ibid., p.363), and on the
other hand by acoustic resonance, i.e., waveforms of frequency modulation of the
‘om’ chanting as a ten-minute recording has been scientifically analysed. The
diagrams represent the visualization of sound as used in chanting, or vocalised
recitation (ibid., p. 365).

Last but not least, research questions if silence is creating order in human mind in the
same way that cymatics presents its impact on matter with visual patterns. Special
attention is given to classroom findings that seem to indicate that teachers’
perceptions are positive in this regard. There is a perception that with silent
meditation also, the benefits for increased focus on task in student population, is
present (aish.com, 2017; Brown, 2014).

Critique of the connections across the themes and any gaps in the literature

From a musical genres perspective, at a simple search in any database of a university


library, upon the word ‘chant’ as a noun, at least 22,000 hits appear for a variety of
publications in the last one hundred years, as ‘chant’ is universal, and each ‘chant’ as a
religious type of music, has developed in its own context and historic development. It
does not appear that any of the sources explains what makes ‘chant’ an istrument of
the political elite (e.g., priest) in bettering the spirituality or health & well-being of
people. Chants do not self-describe themselves, or explain themselves in terms of
their effect on population. It is the nowadays brain-research that starts to descipher
chant’s mysteries – in terms of its beneficial effects.
From an embodied perspective, i.e., human body giving expression to verse and
melody in either a vocalized or not-vocalised way – such as for example, in the mind,
the importance of sound and the pre-natal period of a human-in-the-making is notable.
Sheila Woodward, musician and psychologist, uncovers that ‘at 4,5 months the ear of
the foetus is already adult-like in shape and size’ (1992). There is no literature to
explain why is it that the only organ formed in adult size is the ear; it is known that
the inner ear is connected with the sense of balance and direction, so therefore the
sounds and vibrations seem to be important for the mind-body connection. There is
literature to measure patterns of rhythm and shape in the auditory system (Paterson,
1986), in the shape of the human cochlea (Bekeszy, 1960) and human hand shape
(Gupta et al., 1998). These all are components in the chanting process, but there is no
literature to explain what makes these components instruments of chanting.

From a chanting in the classroom perspective, voice intonation IS chanting, and so is


classical music performance. Anything repetitive and melodious sounds like chanting.
Even in jazz music the principle remains the same, that is, the ‘theme’ is performed,
and then based on the harmonic progression of the theme improvisers construct a
discourse bearing all the characteristics of chanting – that is, melody, repetition,
symmetry. No literature explains how aesthetically pleasant products have an anti-
stress effect on the brain. Due to the mathematical ratios common in all aesthetically
pleasant artifacts, nature and music (possibly due to the ratio 0.61 / Phi) it may be
possible that explanations for the positive effects of chanting on human nature may
sooner or later be revealed my a mathematical formula based on the ratio 0.61 (Phi).

For the purposes of this assignment the present literature review section only touches
upon the issues presented, and it will expand with enriched connections, contrasting
patterns and other aspects, as it develops.

Conclusion

The present study explores an extensive literature on the benefits of chanting for adult
and infant population – especially in connection to school age children year 1 to 13.
The study aims to connect findings from a range of disciplines belonging mostly to
creative arts domains such as music, poetry, dance, but also with deep reverberations
in the realms of spirituality and holistic well-being. While research demonstrates there
is a need for therapy and programmes based on the development of mind-body
connections (Wang, Seo, and Geib, 2017) to support student achievement, research
also shows positive results following chanting practices and meditation (Lavretzky et
al., 2013; Black et al., 2013; Horowitz, 2010; Khalsa, Amen, Hanks, Money, and
Newberg, 2019; catani et al., 2009). Research synthesis and elite interviews are
planned to further contribute to the data collection and expansion of the literature
review in the future.

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