Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project – Part 3

Digitizing Rhythm Circle – a long and twisty road from analogue to digital

‘I want big buttons and no clutter’ was the quick / panicked answer I gave to my long-suffering digital consultant who asked what I wanted in the digital versions of my RC games.

Before we began this project , I was already using digital ‘quick wins’ – simple ways of digitising my teaching resources e.g. downloadable pdfs, audio and video explainers. These digitised resources helped me reach out to my students in remote lessons, and circumvented the vagaries of dodgy internet connections. But I still delivered the lessons live and in-person albeit remotely.

The Digital Games project forced me to contemplate digitising my business processes. As a music educator, this meant digitising my teaching methods – an important consideration for this project because I, the teacher would not be with the students to guide them through the games or check their answers.

How would I introduce a musical concept? How would I provoke thought and experimentation? Make corrections?

A fun way to familiarise students with musical symbols .

In Musical Sudoku, the processes we wrestled with involved pedagogical choices: should players be allowed to put down wrong answers? Should the programme make auto-corrections to wrong answers or should the player analyse and correct their own mistakes?

The teacher in me valued the process of self-correction and so Wayne, our digital consultant designed the game programme to allow the player to fill in the game board with any symbols chosen from the menu. The programme would automatically highlight wrong answers – this made it easy to take note of where the wrong answers were. But the programme will not tell a player what the correct answer should be.

In Dynamic Dots the process is much simpler: the game programme was designed to prompt players step-by-step to create a simple graphic score.

Big or Small? A Dynamic Dots ‘game board’ prompting the player to choose a size to make a pattern .

Digitising working processes can be expensive: Trifort Solutions advised me on the best value-for-money digitisation I could achieve with a tiny pot of funds:

  • Automation was necessary to allow users to generate new and different game boards for Musical Sudoku – something thing which raised a cheer amongst my Sudoku-fiend students . LOTS and LOTS of new Musical Sudoku boards to be had at the press of a button!
  • Good digital design was always a priority so we spent lots of time in this area: to support users with visual processing disorders, the game ‘boards’ were designed with an emphasis on clean, clutter-free displays and large buttons (I did mean it!). Only small amounts of information are shown in an organised fashion.   High-contrast visuals are used and backgrounds are lightly tinted to remove the usual glare from stark white screens.

For other digitisation options, I used open-sourced software which was either free or very affordable:

  • Audacity to edit sound samples
  • Inkscape to create better pdfs using vector graphics which scaled beautifully without losing their sharpness (instead of enlarging picture files)
  • Animaker to edit and produce live capture / cartoon video explainers

We are now nearing the end of the project and my thought to share with anyone looking to digitise their work is this:

  • think about the whole user’s experience from beginning to end and beyond. Not just the person who is your average Jane, but also users who have different needs.
  • think about your working processes and define it: how and why do you do things? Digitising your working processes will most certainly help you work with more efficiency and clarity.

More importantly ….. just have a go! It could be anything from live capture of audio samples, creating your first pdf worksheet / video explainer, signing up for your first CRM (customer relationship management) system.

Whatever you choose to digitise and however you choose to do it , your first attempts at digitisation might not be perfect but it is so worthwhile to try. I thought I’d learn loads about digital working – and I have, but I also far more about Wai Sum Chong – the teacher, the musician and the person.

Graphic Scores

Accessible and inclusive music notation

What do you do when you have time on your hands and a glut of tomatoes? Make a tomato graphic score, of course!

Last summer during the 2020 Covid pandemic, my little veg patch produced an abundance of 3 different varieties of tomatoes, little Sungold cherry tomatoes, big fat Mallorcan ones, and some random ones which self-seeded from previous years’ crops.

I laid the semi-ripe tomatoes out in the sun to hasten ripening and amused myself making little impromptu graphic scores. Musical doodling using fruit.

Graphic scores  are a way of ‘writing down’ sounds .

They are a very accessible, creative and intuitive way to record and share ideas about sound: a non-conventional form of music notation. Different musical meanings can be assigned to shapes, colours, and lines or simply left to the interpretation of the player.

You can use anything to create graphic scores. I have tried sand (real, kinetic, edible), cardboard, bottle caps, vegetables, sticks and stones, leaves, flowers, pasta shapes, shells, even scrunched up balls of paper.

Runner beans are very useful vegetables. Different lengths represent different durations of sound
Pumpkin pulse! 3 beats in a bar represented in pumpkin form.

Graphic scores are very useful to children with special needs because we can tailor a graphic score to meet the needs of that individual.  You can make ones which can be contained within reach for people with restricted mobility or spread out over a wide area to promote movement for those who crave kinaesthetic input. Those who find deep pressure calming may like graphic scores made out of playdough which they can knead and form into shapes.

A 3D graphic score made from building blocks. Each knob is 1 count and blank spaces represent musical silences.

It allows children who have limited mobility, are non-verbal / speech-delayed / pre-literate  to express and share their ideas about sound and music. Visually-impaired learners are able to feel textures in 3D graphic scores and ‘read’ musical ideas much like they do with Braille text.

Pitch sirening activity - if you're handy with a hot glue gun, these coloured glue squiggles are very satisfying to trace and vocalise.
Tactile coloured squiggles (made with a hot glue gun) are very satisfying to trace whilst using vocal pitch to match the rise and fall of the line.

Although they are primarily visual and/or tactile, enticing possibilities are there to develop associations  with scent or taste as part of a more multi-sensory experience. For example:

            a spiral shape + lemon scent = fast music (whirlwind)

            a blobby shape + cinnamon = slow, chilled-out music

I can just feel a baking session coming on… flavoured cookie dough for making edible graphic scores, anyone?

Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project – Part 2

Helpful ideas from Early Years.

“Children should copy first and understand later”.

This statement from a well-meaning but pushy parent was one of the big factors which drove me to start Rhythm Circle.

About 5 years ago, I was struggling to engage with a new transfer student – a 5 year old boy who had a very poor understanding of musical elements despite having had a year’s worth of piano lesson.

I explained to his mother that I would like to spend some time helping her son gain had a better understanding of musical elements and notation instead of pushing on with pure pianistic skills. However, she disagreed strongly, and insisted that I taught him the piano by rote, saying “Children should copy first and understand later”.

This was immediately abhorrent to me as a teacher and as a parent: how could we hope to raise a new generation of critical thinkers if we began by bludgeoning and disrespecting the natural intellect and learning capacity of a child?

She was not entirely wrong, however. Children ARE natural and curious parrots – I suppose it is part of their survival instinct to copy the actions of their grown-ups. 

But educators and parents can do so much more to channel that natural instinct whilst nurturing the child’s intellectual faculties at the same time. The learning journey does NOT need to be dumbed down just because the learner is a child. This sentiment is felt strongly by Zoë Challenor , the founder director or B’Opera and a working partner on the Digital Games Project.

Zoë Challenor , in a performance of A Winter’s Tale, an opera specially created for babies and toddlers.

It was really a lucky accident that brought me and Zoë together in June 2019, and we have since found a shared ethos of bringing sophisticated and high-quality musical experiences to young children.

The incident with the pushy parent drove me to think about how I could encourage children to engage more with music: not just as operators of an instrument, but as curious explorers who WANTED to understand every aspect of sound.

Music is organised sound. There are several different elements which work together to create music. A small child experiencing the world is constantly bombarded with a constant influx of information. He/she learns gradually how to filter out less interesting or less important bits and to focus on specific elements.

To promote concentration amongst my youngest students, I embraced some commonly used concepts in Early Years education. One of the most useful was the Montessori practice of ‘isolation of quality’. This meant eliminating all other elements apart from the one which you wanted the child to learn. Very useful for children who are easily distracted as it promotes focus.

This idea was incredibly helpful in my work with neurodiverse children: one of the common characteristics shared by those who have learning differences is that they experience sensory overload, and do not have the ability to filter out less important information.

Isolation of quality : only blue plastic milk bottle caps which are identical in size and shape have been used. The only different element present is visual: the note value symbols

Whilst recording musical examples for the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project, this meant recording the same piece of music played in different ways to demonstrate the difference between loud and quiet instead of two different pieces of music which demonstrated the same thing. This was particularly important as chords are often mistakenly associated with loud music and single notes with quietness.

When choosing shapes to use in Dynamic Dots, a graphic score activity , this meant using different sizes of a single shape , colour and material.   The size of that shape is the single changing element which corresponded to the ‘size’ of a sound.

Learning by exploratory play was also another idea from Early Years education which was particularly useful. For me, this concept kicked of the creation of many musical games and activities (e.g musical versions of Bingo, Tic Tac Toe, Bowling).

Scientists tell us that when knowledge or skills have recently been learnt, new neural pathways are created in the brain. Repetition of that knowledge strengthens the pathways and aids long term retention. Since, children find games and activities fun they will want to keep repeating those games. So musical games REALLY help learners retain music knowledge !

B’Opera’s presence and support in this project has been a strong reminder about respecting the learning journeys of our youngest members of society – both in the depth and breadth of experiences offered to them. So many neurodiverse children have delayed learning and it is crucial that the Digital Games Project understands how to leverage good Early Childhood working practices to support their learning.

In the next blog, I will be charting my digital working partnership with Trifort Solutions.