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 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.
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.
When I was invited to take up this role, my first thoughts were about how to offer young people with learning needs a meaningful musical experience. It seemed important to create a sophisticated musical experience that would support their well-being, invite active participation, and offer them ways to develop and explore their musical interests.
workshops stretched me:
– to expanded my understanding of what it means to have different learning needs, how wide those range of needs can be, and the best ways to support them
– to develop new musical resources which would suit a variety of needs and ages. In the same workshop, there would be participants ranging from those with limited mobility to those with ADHD. It was quite a challenge to produce an activity pack which could 1.) be posted out easily 2.) be safe to handle 3.) would interest both a 3 year old as well as an 18 year old
– to sustain engagement and promote musical exploratory play in online sessions. Pacing of the 60 min sessions was important – should I move on to the next activity, or allow more time for exploration? In participant-led sessions, what happens if one group wanted to move on and another group wanted to explore?
Being able to address the same core group of young people and their families repeatedly became a highlight of the programme.
there was time to get to know the families who showed me how they adapted my ideas to better address their young person’s needs.
repeated engagement with the IYAP families enabled me to recognise meaningful responses: in inclusive sessions, it is not uncommon to get what looks like a lukewarm response from an attendee. In actual fact, this could turn out to be quite a profound response from the young person in question. Unless you knew how they normally responded, this could easily have been dismissed as disinterest.
these sessions were ideal to fine-tune new resources and approaches. A young person who might offer indifferent response to an activity, might become quite animated and responsive when the same activity is presented in a different way – instant feedback about what methods worked and what didn’t.
All good online experiences tend to come with good support. Having had to deliver other workshops entirely on my own, I was very lucky to have the support of Hannah Pillai (IYAP Project Coordinator). Her insights, experience and enthusiasm underpinned successful deliveries of every Sound Play workshop. It was especially useful to have another pair of eyes and ears on board to keep things on track. Thank you, Hannah!
Other areas of my work were enriched by my IYAP experience:
I headed a team on the Digital Games Project to create online musical games for neurodiverse young people. The IYAP residency gave me early first- hand experience of addressing this audience remotely. I was able to test out some of the resources created during IYAP workshops –the playdough video and activity to explore musical tempo was especially popular. We also tried out a 3D version of Dynamic Dots activity using big /small pom-poms to represent loud/quiet sounds (hint: if you do try this at home, really big glue dots work best to stop the pom-poms from flying off your worktop).
Most of my piano students are fairly happy learning with ‘mainstream’ teaching approaches. Others have specific learning needs and learn best in their own unique ways. But all of them were far more engaged in their musical learning when I incorporated lessons learnt from the IYAP residency.
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 teachingmethods – 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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.