Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project

Part 1: 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’.  

What is neurodiversity?

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 approaches…digitally?

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.

A live inclusive music session (picture courtesy of the Attenborough Arts Centre)

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


(source: British Dyslexia Association)

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

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)