Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project: How it began

Back in June 2020, my husband and I started a little family lockdown project. All our work had been migrated to digital platforms due to the lockdown, so I thought that we should combine our individual skills (software engineer and pianist) to see if we could make some musical online games. Digital games are normally hideously expensive and time-consuming to produce but we had time and inclination.

Earlier on in February, he watched me put together a beanstalk prop for my Jack and the Beanstalk musical storytelling workshop from recycled materials (glue gun, paint and lots of sticky tape will help you make most props if you’re short on capital and big on upcycling).

As a multi-sensory activity, my young Rhythm Circle students were asked to place leaves marked with the treble or bass clef at suitable positions along the beanstalk to reflect high or low sounds.

So I challenged him to create the digital equivalent of the Beanstalk and Leaves activity. He came up with a little prototype: Grow the Beanstalk . A second prototype (Musical Bingo) then followed (accompanied with dark mutterings of ‘I had to do math calculations that I had not done since school days in order to create the bingo wheel…’).

Stumpy even got his oar in by testing out the games for us. I thought he made an ideal test subject: squirmy, high-octane, young school-aged child, not particularly interested in sitting still, or being taught music by mum (he was still in denial about what I actually do for a living. Music was something that took me away from him, so any of my proposed musical activities was to be given short shrift)

The skeptical customer….

During the lockdown, my colleagues at the Attenborough Arts Centre  (an inclusive arts centre located in Leicester) and the Birmingham Education Partnership  had expressed interest in digital offerings.

Live sessions could not be delivered in schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic and workshop organisers and educators were considering digital alternatives. In particular, young people with special educational needs and their families were hit hard when they lost their existing support groups (in the form of support from schools or external providers). A full return to normal school activities seemed a long way off and would be in 2021 if at all possible, especially since many children with special needs were also extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

In order to support my ongoing musical work, I had already begun creating digital equivalents of my musical games and activities in the form of printable pdfs, recorded sound samples and video lessons.

So, when I heard that the Arts Council England (ACE) were re-opening their Project Grants programme, it seemed the perfect opportunity to draw together all these various strands in the form of a research and development project. My proposal to create several online musical games with a view to making them suitable for young people with special educational needs was accepted by ACE at the end of August.

So here we are – 3 weeks into the project. So far, it has been an exhilarating and crazy time, filled with consultation meetings, delving deep into issues of neurodiversity, trying to be organised and decisive….but also true to my ethos as an educator and musician.

Learning by doing

Box Zither

Exploring a box zither – what sound would you get if you plucked the strings?

It is said that children are natural scientists who have a natural urge to explore and experiment.

We have been exploring the world of string instruments this term at the Rhythm Circle Virtual Music Club. Part of that exploration involved making our own string instrument and you can’t get any simpler than a box zither – twangy rubber bands stretched over a box.

This was a lovely sensory thing to do and completely engaging. The children tried out different ways of playing it – plucking, hitting, strumming the strings. If you hold it on your cheek, the vibrations of the strings and box make a lovely buzz which you can feel on your skin.

We tuned it to get three different sounds – low, medium and high pitches (older children might want to try tuning them to a musical scale). Dots marked on the rubber bands were a useful visual aid: you could see that the dots were moved closer to the edge of the box when the rubber bands were stretched. It made it a lot easier to see how much stretching was needed to produce higher pitches.

No need to go out and start buying materials. Empty plastic ice-cream tubs and boxes from the recycling bins would get you started off. Smaller rubber bands can be stretched over the short end of the boxes instead and coloured ones will differentiate the rubber bands tuned to different pitches.

Music and the senses: Taste

If chocolate was a sound, what music would it make?

It dawned on me a few years ago, that when I teach almost all my metaphors are food-based. Food is one of my great weaknesses. Might have something to do with growing up in Malaysia, a society well-known for being food-obsessed. We talk a lot about food, eating, flavours, cooking, and cuisines!

Food is something we all need and have experienced all our lives. So whether you enjoy it or not, flavours and textures of food are something our senses understand.

Last week, I was searching for a way to help a piano student who was struggling to interpret and make sense of musical dynamics in particular piece of music. Two sections were clearly marked ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ but all he was able to do was to mechanically produce two different volumes without understanding WHY the music demanded it.

I suggested that he played the sections again and asked “What food do these sections of music make you think of?”. Instantly, the light bulb went off. He pointed to the section which had a prominent bass tune and said “Lamb curry….maybe mutton. Something rich with gravy”. The other section with all tunes high up in the treble was ” Light and bubbly…like lemon sherbet or champagne?”

And just like that, he wanted to show off a light sparkly sound in the
‘quiet’ section and the ‘loud’ section took on a full-bodied tone.

So…. back to my original question. If chocolate was a sound what music would it make? I think of cellos and French horns as ‘chocolatey’ sounds. Coffee is Latin American music: wakes me up and makes me happy.

Brejeiro – one of my favourite pieces by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth

Rhythm Circle / B’opera : a like-minded partnership

Being self-employed and working from home WILL give you cabin fever  and so earlier this year, I decided to make an effort to get out and meet with other people in my industry. And that has turned out to be a very auspicious decision indeed! (I’m from a Chinese family, so we are big on anything that smacks of good fortune/luck/providence).

One of the organisations I came across  was B’Opera, who create bespoke opera and musical performances specially for babies and pre-schoolers. 

I am very excited  to announce that Rhythm Circle has teamed up with B’Opera to form a musical partnership.  Both our organisations have a common goal  of bringing top quality musical experiences to children whilst respecting their needs as an audience.

With Zoe Challenor from B’opera, my new partner in crime

The B’opera team of Zoe Challenor, Jacqueline White and Phil Ypres-Smith put so much thought into addressing children as an audience in their own right. Everything from choice of moods, length of repertoire, choice of themes…. even the period before and after the concert has been taken into account.

But great musical experiences don’t just simply stop when toddlers grow up and begin their formal schooling. At Rhythm Circle, we pick up the thread by empowering school-aged children who choose to take the next step in their musical journeys. Using multi-sensory methods, the elements of music are taught by play, using fun and engaging musical games and activities. We believe that children are as worthy as adults to receive rich musical education and experiences. No short-cuts, no dumbing-down.

So this means that in the future B’opera and Rhythm Circle staff will be working together behind the scenes, sharing resources, and appearing at each other’s events.

RC /B’opera teamwork at Alice and the Library Tree (New Art Gallery, Walsall)

Musical Messy Play

I’d like to introduce my son who goes by the nom de plume ‘Stumpy'(before we had to put his name down on the birth certificate, this was actually what we called the poor child).

Stumpy loves words: the sound of them , their rhythm, singing them, mangling them, making up new words. He also likes paint, mud, orange juice , coins and ice cubes. Especially when allowed to mix them all up. He does NOT like being taught how to sing words. Or what colours to use when he wants to paint. Or just how much water he should use to make a muddy puddle. Or how to form a triangle using coins

Left triangle: made by me. Right triangle: made by Stumpy the minimalist

Stumpy taught me one very valuable lesson: that sound is just a manipulable – just like paint or mud. And it made him very, very happy to be able to explore and experiment with his favourite materials.

Occasionally, he would become curious about my musical work materials and ask to play with them. I would then bring them out to show him and he would immediately touch them or try and make patterns with them. 3D graphic scores are very popular with Stumpy. Big circles = big sounds, little circles = quiet sounds.

When he asked to play with my bottle caps note values, he got very excited at being able to recognise the letters ‘p’ and ‘o’ (ie. minims and semibreves).

Me(jumping at the chance to pass on some musical knowledge): “Look, this symbol is for a 2 count sound and this is for a 4 count sound”.

Stumpy : “No, Mummy it says ‘poo’. Look, you can make many, many ‘poo’s!”

Music at Home

A musical colleague recently asked me what I do as a musical mum with my child (I have a 4 year old son who recently started school).

My first thought was “Ummmm…….nothing?” But then I thought about it properly and this is the reply I sent to her:

Since my son loves exploring things and experimenting to see what effects he can create, I prefer to let him take the lead in our joint musical experiences. He does not enjoy ‘organised’ musical activity with me but loves singing , making up little songs and sounds. My little one is a joyfully out-of-tune singer but has a great sense of pulse. He enjoys singing and accompanying himself by beating the pulse on a drum/ stomping/bopping to the beat. I guess that stems from being surrounded by so much music since he was in the womb. Throughout my pregnancy and up until he was 2, he was with me when I worked. He has spent countless hours sitting in a dance studio listening and watching whilst I played for ballet class ( possibly where he developed quite a strong sense of pulse??). We used orchestral music in rehearsals and he would nap in a sling whilst I worked, falling asleep hearing rich and complex music .

I’ve always wondered if watching dancers move in time to music has helped my son develop a kinaesthetic understanding of music…

In the car, we listened to Gene Vincent sing Be Bop A Lula on the radio and he said he liked it, and asked me what it was. When I told him, he kept asking for it on Youtube. When my sister got an Alexa, he learnt how to ask for it and would dance to it. Sometimes, he would tell me if he liked /did not like a piece of music which was on the radio and we would talk about the mood of the music.

As for instruments, I’ve learnt to leave them lying around the house on convenient places. He likes trying out sounds on the piano, ringing the ‘dinner bell’ at mealtimes, drumming on a cake tin to keep himself in time when singing. For me, I guess enabling these musical things to happen are more important than music lessons because my child is learning to listen critically

Our dinner bell

Musical make-believe: creative storytelling with music

Every house will have objects which can be used for musical storytelling

Music a.k.a organised sound is really just an aural manipulable. Children will gleefully use it just as they would crayons and paints to describe anything that captures their imagination.

Musical storytelling allows children to come up with creative ways to describe a scene. All we need to do is to provide the means (a space laid out with an inviting array of sound-makers) and opportunity (‘Can you use music to tell us a story about the captain’s cap?’). An attentive audience also tends to help!

It’s amazing how children will pounce on this musical pretend play. One child may use steady beats on the drum to depict a boat sailing on a calm sea, followed by faster/louder beats to show a threatening thunderstorm. Another child may choose to use single quiet notes on a xylophone to describe little waves and change it to broad sweeps of sound across the xylo blocks (‘strong winds blew the captain’s cap off his head!’)

This is musical creativity at its most basic raw form. Just the simple control and deliberate use of pure musical elements: pitch, pulse, rhythms, timbre, dynamics, tempo. Those with more advanced musical knowledge may opt for little compositions to paint the picture (repeated phrases for falling rain, arpeggios for the rocking of the boat, long rhythm/melody crescendo ending in a chordal crashes for thunder).

The beauty of it is that it will suit a wide range of personalities and ages (ahem…..’grown-up’ kids take note) . The shy kid who won’t utter a word might surprise you by coming out with a very vivid music picture. The boisterous one who won’t sit still might show his capacity for focus by keeping a steady musical pulse.

So the next time you need an engaging , non-messy activity for your kids, have a go at musical storytelling.

Musical Development Matters

Musical Development Matters

Before you spend hours trawling the Internet choosing just the right musical experience for your baby/ toddler/school-aged child, STOP….. have a look at this fantastic resource called Musical Development Matters.

Last week, after some complicated juggling, I managed to clear a day to attend a brilliant and inspiring course called Musical Development Matters The course and its accompanying document is really a labour of love by Nicola Burke, one of UK’s leading lights in early childhood musical development (0-5 years old).


“The overall purpose of Musical Development Matters is to support practitioners, teachers, musicians and parents to see the musical attributes of young children and to offer ideas as to how they can support and nurture children’s musical development by offering broad musical experiences.”

Over the course of a day, Nicola guided us through discussions on:

  • awareness about how babies and young children learn
  • good practice when working musically with very young children
  • examples of how we as parents, teachers and educators can help and support their musical journeys

The course was such a timely reminder that children are capable of so much creativity and musicality from a very,very young age. We adults would do well to respect that and support that ability on our well-meaning quest quest to give them a musical education.

Life is always so busy . Work, school run, laundry, swimming classes, drama class, dance class, feed the kids a good meal, homework, more laundry …….but I’d like to think that we can always find the time to learn how to do meaningful things which help our children thrive.

B’Opera – Alice and the Library Tree

Team B’Opera singers Zoë Challenor (The Librarian) and Samantha Oxborough (Alice) accompanied on the piano by Phil Ypres-Smith (Mr Fox)

If you have a young child and want  top-quality musical experiences for them, then let me introduce you to B’Opera.

Rhythm Circle was invited to the press preview of their latest production Alice and the Library Tree . So…. son and spouse in tow, I went along last Saturday 8 June 2019 to Sutton Library where the event was being held . after-hours.

I had not come across B’Opera before and was deeply curious about their work on a couple of levels. Firstly, as a mum to a rumbunctious 3 year old I was keen to find good quality music / theatre experiences which were produced by people who understood how to work with very young children. There is a distinct lack of top-rate musical/theatrical/art experiences by actual music/theatre/art specialists who understand how to deliver the best possible experience to very young children. Secondly, as a professional musician, I wanted to see what other people in my industry were actually doing to fill this niche.

Well…. I loved the whole production, from choice of music (Handel, Mozart, Beethoven,  and Wagner amongst others) to length of show (perfect length for a restless toddler), inventive costumes  and set (loved the Zimmer frame tortoise, and the tree).  It was  a bespoke mini-opera for little ones and the whole experience was simply wonderful! 

As a mum:

My 3 year old son really enjoyed it. He was really tired due to the late hour (it finished at 6pm when he usually has dinner and bedtime) but he just kept on being caught up in the show. The children were invited to join in at various points throughout the show, but could opt-out if they didn’t feel like it. Now this is a REALLY important thing for my deeply-suspicious son. He watched the sing-along from the safety of Daddy’s arms, regretted not joining in,  and straightaway jumped in the next time the audience were invited to participate. There were themes and ideas which he could follow, emotions he could identify with, and each segment was perfectly timed in terms of length. The whole family had a great time and I would definitely look out and go for the next B’Opera show.

As a musician:

It was so satisfying to see a musical production that was specially created for very young children. We had real musicians performing, and as a trained musician I am happy to vouch for the quality of prep and performance.  B’Opera prepared the whole thing as they would normally have done for an opera onstage. Serious musical expertise was on display here, folks! This was bespoke art with a capital B. It all looked so simple, but the musical score could not have been put together by anyone other than seriously experienced musicians with good taste and artistry. The songs could not have been sung by anyone other than experienced singers with good technique, great communication, and stage presence. Not forgetting all the supporting people who made the magic happened, like costume and set designers (apologies to anyone at B’Opera whom I missed out) 

Last but not least, huge thanks to the fabulous Zoe Toft and team FOLIO (Friends of our Library ) Sutton Coldfield for your endless energy, enthusiasm and fore-sight in bringing B’Opera and Alice to Sutton Coldfield.

Birmingham people, how lucky are we to have B’Opera and FOLIO Sutton Coldfield right here in our city?!