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.

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.

Artist in Residence

Reflections on online workshops delivered to young people with special needs.

A pivotal moment in my inclusive work came along recently in the form of a residency  at the Attenborough Arts Centre’s BBC Children in Need’s Inclusive Youth Arts Programme (IYAP). I led a monthly multi-sensory online music workshop called Sound Play for young people with special needs.

Challenges

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.

The IYAP 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?

Cardboard Guiro
Cardboard Guiro – a multi-sensory way to explore timbre and rhythm. Tracing different lines and shapes result in different rhythms

Building bridges

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.

Support from the AAC

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!

Beyond IYAP

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).
A graphic score made using pom-poms
Dynamic Dots graphic score made with pom-poms
  • 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.

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.