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.
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.
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.
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.
Creating digital musical resources for young people with special educational needs
We listen to music with our ears but I like to think that
we perceive music with all of our other senses, intellect and emotions.
For several years now, I have been using multi-sensory
methods to teach music to young children. Originally conceived as a way to help
children gain confidence with music notation, my ‘Rhythm Circle approach’ rapidly
developed from just using a few musical games and activities into my personal
music education approach.
It is magical to engage ALL the senses (touch, movement,
hearing, sight, smells and tastes) in the learning of music.
Take for example the concept of musical tempo – a child
might listen to examples of fast and slow music and be taught the words allegro
and lento for fast and slow. How much more profound that learning would
be if they could also respond to tempo by:
– movement (moving to the speed of the music)
– choosing visual shapes (NO ONE ever chooses to paint blobs on the side of a Nissan Micra to promote speed but an aspiring speedster might opt for some go-faster stripes)
– by using scents which support a particular level of activity (the aroma of zingy lemons is said to energise whilst lavender calms).
Because multi-sensory learning activates and strengthens
connections between different areas of the brain, learning is more deeply
embedded in the mind of a learner. Hence its wide-spread use amongst educators working
with children with special educational needs.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ is increasingly used instead of ‘special educational needs’ as it focuses on the positive qualities of thinking and learning differently. It encourages us to consider people who have neurological differences as ‘different’ not ‘disabled’.
Earlier on in May 2020, I heard from colleagues interested
in good quality digital resources which could support artistic work in schools
and communities. The pandemic has wiped
out most of the support which special needs communities relied on (in-school
sessions with teachers and visiting specialists, community support groups).
What could we do to help?
The whole world had gone online in a mad rush to survive and
music was no exception. Everything has to be digitized including delivery of my
Rhythm Circle sessions. But how? Was it still possible to use multi-sensory
Feedback from busy families indicated that printed-off worksheets were not always welcome or helpful. Guided live sessions were more appropriate. There had to be some way of making all these resources link up in a more sophisticated way.
I happen to be married to a software programmer. As our
lockdown family project, my long-suffering husband had been persuaded to try
his hand at turning some Rhythm Circle games into online games. Maybe we could
go further and create some online musical games and activities to help neurodiverse
children learn music?
But digital games are expensive to produce. The Arts Council of England Project Grants programme had just re-opened so I hurriedly put together an application. Cue much excited screaming when my project was actually accepted!
Presently, my team and I are three weeks into the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project. We hope to complete all of our musical games before Christmas 2020: Musical Sudoku, ‘Run Faster’ (a Jack and the Beanstalk – inspired game teaching musical tempo), and ……a yet-to-be-decided graphic score activity.
All this will be trialled in January 2021 by target groups representing primary-aged children, pre-schoolers and neurodiverse young people.
We have almost completed the initial consultation stage,
taking on board advice from consultants (special educational needs, Early Years
and digital specialists) and feedback from neurodiverse communities.
Burning question: how DO you actually go about making a resource suitable for neurodiverse people? Which type of neurodiversity should we address? Consultant play therapist Andrew Kay provided a starting point with his advice “It is very likely that someone who has one type of learning difference also has another. For example, an autistic person can also be dyslexic.”
Co-occurence of Specific Learning Difficulties
So, we started to research characteristics common to many neurodiverse people e.g. poor working memory, problems with sensory processing.
Online games are primarily visual so we need to ensure our games would be visually supportive for people who have problems with reading (dyslexia) or who use eye gaze technology (users are those who have limited mobility or who are locked-in due to a variety of conditions ranging from cerebral palsy and strokes to muscular dystrophy). The British Dyslexia Association has a ‘Dyslexia friendly style guide’ which lists useful adaptations which one can use for written texts.
Digital consultant Wayne Smyth (Trifort Solutions) suggested creating a ‘filter’. This would enable the user to experience the games via a specific route tailored to their learning age and needs, and create a more personalised experience.
Presentation of information in the games and the accompanying explainer videos would need to be paced to allow for more ‘thinking time’. The videos themselves would be better done in the form of high-contrast simple cartoons instead of live-capture – as one school told us ‘The children are tired of looking at people all the time!’.
I am very lucky to be supported by the wonderful Attenborough Arts Centre on this project. They are supporting Rhythm Circle’s inclusive work by facilitating conversations with teachers and families of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. “We’re really interested in how the artists involved are developing resources and workshops and are always keen to promote artist development as part of a collaborative process with young people. The project findings will feed into our wider work as part of our 4-year SENsory Atelier programme, and as ever we’re delighted to support a project that encourages sharing of best practice amongst a wide team of expert artists and educators.”
In Part 2 of this blog, I would like to share an account of how we borrowed from best practices in Early Years teaching approaches.
Find out more about the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project and its trials here
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
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).
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)
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.
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.