Does Birmingham Belong to Me?

An aural exploration of sounds that belong to an area

everyday objects make very handy visual aids for musical exploratory play

“The rustling paper sounds like shopping bags.”

Another child demonstrated how the sound of pinecones crunched up sounded like footsteps on crunchy leaves. Another likened the sound of metal washer clinking together to the sounds made by a cash register at shops. Pebbles tapped together sounded like a woodpecker. If you scrape the surface of corrugated cardboard, it sounds like a zipper being done up on a coat.

Words, words and more words came pouring out this morning to describe timbres on the Play House project “Does Birmingham Belong to Me?”. We challenged the students to write down / draw their ideas on sounds found in their respective areas of Sparkbrook and Kings’ Heath. I brought along this little collection of loose parts to help students at Montgomery Primary Academy verbalise their ideas about sounds as we explored soundscapes. Something tangible to touch, see and manipulate helped open the floodgates and made it easier for young students to talk about sound ideas.

The tinfoil pie dish was a big favourite. After being folded, rattled and drummed on the previously smooth surface became crinkly and lent itself to further creation of scrape-y sounds.

Tongue Drums @ Sound Play workshops

An invitation to explore sounds on the tongue drums with different beaters

Over the years, it has been an absolute pleasure and honour to be able to contribute Rhythm Circle music sessions to IYAP ( Inclusive Youth Arts Programme at the Attenborough Arts Centre) both online and in-person.

Last Sunday on 28th April, I brought along my newest musical toys (tongue drums) to share with the young people who attended two IYAP sessions. Tongue drums are simply one of the most useful instruments for music workshops. These versatile instrument are tactile, incredibly robust and immediately playable. They were especially useful for young people with PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties) as they only neede the gentlest little tap to make a sound.

Larger tongue drums give deeper pitches which are the best for feeling vibrations. The smaller ones can only make higher pitches which some young people preferred. We placed the tongue drums on backs, tummies, heads, knees to feel its vibrations. We then explored the timbres made by using different beaters with felt / rubber heads and the swishy sounds made by drum brushes. Did you know that you can pop in small rubber balls into the cavity of the tongue drums? The balls make lovely soft chimes if you roll them around. A great way to create some aleatoric music (music created by chance elements).

Tongue drums also tempt players to indulge in a spot of spontaneous musical composition. The tongues are numbered and players can easily make up sound patterns using the numbers as a visual aid.

I am already looking forwards to my next visit in June 2024 – can’t wait to build on the musical explorations started last week. Perhaps we should measure the duration of sounds made by the tongue drums….

The Inclusive Youth Arts Programme provides activities for children and young people with complex needs and disabilities. The Attenborough Arts Centre has been supporting families with special needs for over 20 years and has an amazing  year-round programme of events.

How do you make a good drum?

Experimenting with different materials to build the perfect drum

Rhythm Circle embarks on a thumping new adventure this year with a brand new partnership with Primal Sound UK.

As a pianist, I find drumming very liberating, addictive and a great way to de-stress. Hand drums have become one of my favourite instruments over the years and my djembé is a well-loved and well-used instrument in the Rhythm Circle studio.

I wanted to share the joy of drumming with my students and finally was able to do so with Rhythm Circle’s very first African Drumming Workshop. This exciting workshop was led by Sarah Westwood from Primal Sound UK. Sarah introduced us to 3 different types of drums – djembés, dun duns and talking drums, and led us through an exciting drumming session.

After a short drumming session, our younger students explored different materials to find out which membranes made the best drums. Cloth, rubbery therabands, clingfilm, and cardboard were put to the test and assembled into drums in different ways. Some children layered on multiple materials to create a denser membrane. Others made a beater to go with the drum and also closed off both ends of the drum frame in an attempt to ‘trap the vibrations’. We discovered that drums placed directly on the floors and lifted into the air made a different sounds.

The older students were taught Djolé rhythms. We practiced each new element and then combined them and played as an ensemble. My skin tingled from the vibrations made by 20 drums and I felt bonelessly relaxed after the session. Everything was taught aurally, so we could simply focus on the physical aspects of playing the drum. This was a great way of training rhythmic/melodic memory and getting away from the visual strictures of printed music (often a ‘curse’ of classically-trained musicians).

Since there are very few enjoyable de-stressing activities which you can do as a family, we’ve have been absolutely inundated with requests for more drumming sessions. So we have created Rhythm Circle African Drumming, the new drum circle in Sutton Coldfield which will meet regularly throughout the year.

Spanner Glockenspiel Workshops

Making your own musical instrument is a fun way to explore sound. Recently, I introduced students at the Folville Summer Music Camp to Spanner Glockenspiels. The Spark Arts organised these lovely music sessions and were brilliantly supported by the staff of Folville Junior School in Leicester.

The same workshop was delivered to two groups:

  • 22 students in Years 2 and 3
  • 18 students in Years 4 – 6

We got into our musical groove with a drumming session on Folville’s marvellous collection of djembes. As an introduction to graphic scores, students were asked to compare loud/quiet sounds and to choose shapes which represented them. Students was invited to create a pattern of loud/quiet sounds using foam circles and we all played their compositions.  I was particularly impressed with the excellent musical discipline and ensemble work shown by the older students.

Next, we discussed how sounds could be made using a spanner (tapping , knocking, scraping on various surfaces). I demonstrated the sound made by a suspended spanner when it was tapped firmly with another spanner. The clear chiming sound and extra resonance it produced caught the attention of the students. We then compared the sounds of two different spanners, concluding that one was higher than the other and used coloured stickers to identify the spanners which made high/low sounds.

After a quick tutorial on how to assemble the spanner glockenspiel, each student assembled their own instrument. Most students found that their constructs were rather wobbly. Some came up with clever ideas to stabilise their instruments by stretching a third pair of rubber band at right angles to the other two pairs.

The students recorded their ideas using a simple pitch graphic score with coloured stickers to differentiate the pitch of their spanners. The older students added different musical elements to their graphic scores:

This graphic score included timbres. Squiggly lines = scraping sounds, coloured circles= tapping sounds. 
Another student chose to add rhythms: brown circles  for high pitched spanner and long sounds, blue circles for low pitched spanner and short sounds.
Pitch and Dynamics : loud= big circle, quiet = small circle

One student traced and coloured in the shape of his spanners to decorate his graphic score

The workshop ended with some musical colouring and a few rounds of musical bingo.

If you would like to have a go at making your own spanner glockenspiel, you will need :

  • some spanners
  • a sturdy box (square or rectangular biscuit tins, or wooden boxes / trays. Sturdy cardboard boxes will also be fine as long as they can hold their shape. Plastic takeaway boxes are another good option)
  • 4 big rubber bands
  • a variety of beaters.Any metal/wood/ felt/rubber/silicone-tipped kitchen implements tend to be perfect for sound exploration. I use chopsticks, table knives, silicone spatulas, and pencils.

I prefer to use recycled / found materials to make  these instruments. It encourages sound explorers to adopt a more informal can-do approach to music making, and helps them think of creative uses for things in their everyday environment.

To make the spanner glockenspiel:

Step 1. Collect lots of old interesting spanners. The old fashioned heavy ones are the best as they create the nicest sounds. The Reusers in Sutton Coldfield is one of  my go-to place to stock up on spanners  for Rhythm Circle workshops. It took me 2 visits over 2 years to acquire 40-45 spanners of just the right kind.

Step 2. If you need to clean your spanners, soak them in some mild acid and dish-drops to shift the rust and grime (you don’t need industrial strength acid bath for the job. In a pinch, Coca Cola or vinegar will do). Soak the spanners in the acidic solution for a couple of hours, then scrub them to remove more rust and grime. Best tools seem to be a steel mesh scrubber and toothbrush to clean the little grooves and hard-to-reach places. 

Step 3. Dry the spanners and rub lightly with oil to prevent further rusting. Skin-friendly oils are preferable as the spanners will be handled by little hands. I used Johnsons’ baby oil, but plain cooking oil will also work.

Step 4. Now for the fun bit! Stretch 2 rubber bands around your box and keep them bunched up together. Tuck one end of a spanner in between the rubber bands. Repeat with the other two rubber bands and tuck the other end of the spanner in. Before putting a second spanner into your rubber band cradle, twist each rubber band around the other one in its pair. This will tighten the rubber bands around the first spanner to stop it from wobbling in its cradle.

Step5. Tap spanners with a beater. Metal-tipped beaters give a clearer bell-like sound and wooden/soft-tipped beaters make a muted sound.

You can group the spanners in sets which are in tune with itself – they don’t need to be arranged according to concert pitch tuning. For younger students, I normally start with 2 spanners:  one high-pitched and one low- pitched. 

To extend learning, you can add more spanners of different pitches to explore more complex pitch patterns, or introduce different musical elements. Older students can be challenged to arrange a bunch of random spanners by pitch order, or to compose tunes which they can play on their spanner glockenspiels.


Sensory Music: Exploring the sensory and well-being aspects of music

“What part of your body did you use to experience music?”

It is always a pleasure to explore a Rhythm Circle pet topic and one of my favourites is the multi-sensory aspects and benefits of music.

For the second year now, I’ve had the privilege of introducing this aspect of Rhythm Circle work to doctors of the future. At the University of Leicester, 3rd year medical students who chose the SSC Disability and the Arts module spend several weeks with the Attenborough Arts Centre learning how art in its myriad forms support people with special needs.

This year’s intrepid medical cohort rose to the challenge by assembling, playing and composing music for spanner glockenspiels and balloon drums. They used a simple graphic score to capture ideas about sound patterns and this led explorations of different playing techniques (tapping, glissandi and different ways of combining different pitches.

Simple graphic scores capture ideas about sound patterns – each coloured dot represents a different spanner. Each team had slightly different ideas – we even had performance directions to use specific beaters (1st score at the top) and glissandi was represented by a dots played in rapid succession vertically (4th score from the top).

We concluded that the experience of making, playing and composing music involved many parts of the body, not only the ears and fingers, but also eyes, skin, and brains.

Many thanks to the fabulous Marianne Pape and the Attenborough Arts Centre for hosting the annual event.

Talking about Timbre

Timbre is a musical element which describes the quality of a sound.

You could describe a sound in terms of pitch / intensity / duration / whether or not it had a repeated pattern but also in terms of its timbre (clanking / rasping / chiming / thudding / buzzing / metallic etc. sound). Interestingly, this musical element can be simultaneously easy and difficult to articulate with words depending on one’s vocabulary and life experience.

We use lots of onomatopoeic words (zoom, bang, whoosh, hiss, etc… words whose sound matches the sound of they describe) to describe sounds found in everyday life. So it can be just a little step to apply these words to music.

Commonly used onomatopoeic words. What is your favourite?

This summer, Rhythm Circle’s Musical Holiday Club ended with a workshop on Timbre. We explored sounds which you could make using the human body (no rude sounds allowed!). Cue lots of foot stomping/ clapping / finger and tongue clicking / hair swishing. What made a ‘tap’ different to a ‘boom’? How could you make whispery sounds without using your voice?

Vocal sounds were great fun and led into a discussion about how a face might look when producing a particular sound. It was great spelling practice for the students to write down their lists of sounds.

In the RC workshop, two different groups of students used Rebecca Rochelle’s poem ‘Fireworks’ to create a musical soundscape. The poem consisted of words which described the sound of fireworks. The students explored and demonstrated ways to create sounds which matched each word. We discovered that ‘zoom’ seemed to inspire movement, and everyone unanimously agreed that ‘whizz’ was the hardest one to demonstrate.

Good Vibrations: Listening with your skin

Last week, I had a multi-sensory music playdate with Tim Baker, resident musician at Sense TouchBase Pears. This was my first visit to the beautiful West Midlands hub of the charity Sense which supports people with complex disabilities.

From his music studio at Sense TouchBase Pears, Tim runs music sessions for people with special needs. I had ‘music cave’ envy – this was heaven for a multi-sensory sound junkie like me.

Tim’s collection ranged from traditional instruments (guitars, drums, xylophone bars, bell chimes, rain stick, shakers) to digital equipment which enables users to feel amplified sound vibrations (SUB-PAC and vibrating floor) and an awesomely cool Om wand.

It looks like a kite frame with a very thin, clear wide rubber band stretched around it (like the kind you find on invisible straps in clothes) You swish this around in the air and it makes a low sound like a lightsaber.

The vibrating floor and SUBPAC were a revelation – best experienced with ear defenders to minimise sound coming in through your ears.

As a musician, I know that sound is produced by vibrations – in guitars, the strings vibrate and is amplified by the body of the instrument. In a drum, the stretched skin of the drum vibrates, etc. But this was the first time I’ve ever experienced the vibrational qualities of music mainly through my skin instead of my ears. Eureka moment!

The SUBPAC is basically a subwoofer attached to a backpack which fits snugly against the users back. If you play music through it, the user experiences music as vibrations. Low sounds are felt most clearly, but higher tones have their own buzz too.

The vibrating floor is a specially commissioned piece built by Bria and Nathan at GROOVE . It is essentially a subwoofer attached to the underside of a wooden platform. Tim says “I got the inspiration at the “Aural Diversity Conference in 2019, and Luke (Woodbury) from DotLib lent his insight and experience from building the one used then”. You can stand, sit or lie down on the floor to experience the vibrations music channelled through the wood. I even played the piano on it – barefoot with ear defenders to enhance the experience. After a few minutes of using the vibrating floor, my skin began to tingle. When I took the ear defenders off and stepped off the vibrating floor, my skin felt hypersensitive and continued bringing me sensations from every sound in the room including our voices.

There is a very useful toolkit on the Sense TBP website with great suggestions for trying out sound and vibration activities on your own.

If you’ve never visited it, I highly recommend dropping in to the beautiful and inclusive space which is Sense TouchBase Pears. There is a cafe adjoining the Selly Oak library, community classes, outdoor seating areas, and co-working spaces.

Developing My Creative Practice: Rebecca Rochelle

Cross-disciplinary art: exploring words and music with Rebecca Rochelle

Kindred spirits are hard to come by, but I recently found one in my new mentor Rebecca Rochelle.  

In 2021, Arts Council England gave me the chance to delve into some long over-due professional development via their Developing Your Creative Practice grant.

Rebecca is a writer/actor who introduced me to the various techniques she uses in workshops with young children. I was delighted to discover that we had a common belief in offering children a rich artistic diet and in teaching through exploratory play.

Musicians use a lot of descriptive words – not just the standard descriptions like high, low, fast, slow, loud, quiet but also words like swooping, sticky, oozy, crunchy, dark, bright, sparkly, grumpy. Those who have a good vocabulary tend to have more confidence in sharing their musical ideas.

So my initial discussions with Rebecca centred on ways to help young children build a rich vocabulary: using visual aids for pre-readers, onomatopoeic words, acrostic poems, creating ‘word banks’, different techniques of writing poetry.

Music and Words

Visualising musical elements

Music can be such an abstract thing, lacking in concrete visual elements. Once it has been presented, it is gone unless you capture it in some form of notation or sound recording.

One of the best ways to teach the musical element of rhythm is to use the long/short sounds present in spoken word. Children acquire a spoken vocabulary before they can read or write and are quick to catch on to the rhythms of different words.

For slightly older children, one of my favourite activities to explore words and music is by using haiku – the evocative but minimalist way of writing poetry which had its roots in Japan. In using haiku as a creative stimulus, I chose not to follow the strict rules of each line having 5, 7 and 5 syllables but adopted instead the spirit of the poetic form which used words sparingly to conjure different moods.

This haiku was composed by F, my 8 year old student. It was about her recent summer holiday activities:

rainy cliffs
train to castle
ice cream!

F clapped the rhythm of her haiku. I asked her how she could use familiar musical notes (semibreves, crotchets, minims, quavers) to represent the duration of each syllable in her words. She experimented for a while and wrote down her ideas. Suddenly she exclaimed “Look each line adds up to a different number of counts!” Cue excited scribbling of time signatures…

Next, F chose different instruments to play her rhythms: the triangle to represent the sound of raindrops, fast drum beats to show the excitement of the speeding train, and slow piano notes to describe her memory of savouring an ice cream.

Graphic Score Love

After exploring the concept of articulation (smooth and ‘spiky’ sounds) one of our young students S surprised us with this graphic score which she created entirely on her own.

She explained that “They each make different noises. The red one makes smooth sounds, the orange one makes the loudest sound. Yellow makes spiky”. S drew triangles in different colours to represent her ideas.

The idea that there are different types of sounds can be a very abstract one. Most young children find it helpful to visualise their understanding of how a particular sound can be different to another.

The symbols we use for articulation then simply become another way of ‘writing down’ sounds – this time using lines: a curved line for smooth and joined sounds (legato), dots for short separated sounds (staccato), and a wedge for accents.