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Are you ready to rock?

Rockschool wants to gain recognition for popular music in education. Nigel Williamson looks at its development and latest plans.

Teaching pop music is still such a new thing," says Norton York, the chief executive of Rockschool. "We don't want to pretend we are the fount of all wisdom." Maybe not, but there is no doubt that Rockschool is currently the market leader in pop music education. Many music teachers may be unaware that there are now recognised formal grade exams in rock guitar, drums and bass and a structured syllabus to suit, all devised by Rockschool and recognised by the examinations board at Trinity College London."Why shouldn't kids get the same kind of qualifications for playing electric guitar as playing classical violin?"he asks.

Rockschool is not an actual educational establishment such as the Brits School in Croydon, which takes pupils talented in music and the arts. It is a charity that examines and promotes the teaching of pop music in schools. It offers workshops in schools, but with a tiny staff (just one of its tutors is full time), this side of Rockschool's work is still limited. "It's not part of our core activity, it's more of a side line," Norton York admits. "But if schools come to us we are keen to help them. When schools want to get into teaching pop music, we can send people in to show them how to do it." Last term Rockschool ran workshops in eight schools in the London Borough of Harrow. "The local music service asked us to work with disaffected kids outside the school timetable," he says. "We sent in some of our tutors and at the end of term we were holding pop concerts in schools where that had never happened before."

In a similar project Rockschool has worked in another 18 schools spread across the London boroughs of Greenwich, Newham, Waltham Forest, Bexley, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham. Most of the tutors have day jobs as session players and performing musicians. Some, such as drum tutor Steve Washington, have played with huge pop bands such as Take That and Wet Wet Wet. Others have had more modest careers as performers but the standard of musicianship is uniformly outstanding.

"They have to be great players so there is respect from the pupils," Norton York says. "Then they have to be good communicators. And third, they have to be good team players. Rock and pop music requires people to play together and that's very important."

Mr York comes from a family of musicians and is a classically-trained trombone player. While studying at Sussex University in the mid 1980s he started supplementing his meagre student resources by playing sessions for pop bands.

"Other students started asking how I made money and it struck me then that there weren't really places or methods by which people could learn about how to make a living playing music," he recalls. "At the same time I was being hired to play for people who had never had a chance to study music. That prompted my thinking that we really ought to try to do something."

The Rockschool concept began in a small way when he launched a pop music summer school at Sussex University in 1988, backed by the Musicians Union. Ed Bicknell, the manager of Dire Straits, also lent considerable support and BBC Radio One came on board. "Brighton Rock", as it was inevitably known, ran for six years, during which time Norton York's career also took him to Brunel University, where he undertook further innovative work in promoting pop music education. At Brunel he turned "a conventional classical music department that wasn't doing very well" into "a pop music department that was a raging success". He made an immediate impact when in the first year of the course he secured employment for several students backing Chesney Hawkes, who had a number one hit with "The One and Only" in 1991. "Suddenly they were on Top Of The Pops and everywhere," York says. "It got the course off to a flying start." By the mid 1990s he had moved on again to Westminster University, where he founded a commercial music degree. Around the same time he first had the idea of creating formally structured examination grades for instrumental players in a popular idiom.

"Britain is fantastic at pop music," he says. "The whole world knows that and looks to us to provide great pop musicians. I felt we should build on that. But it was also important that it should be based on equal access. And I felt guitar players and drummers should have the same formal recognition of their skills as cellists and flautists."

Mr York went to Trinity College with a detailed proposal. It validated the exams, Faber amp; Faber agreed to publish the syllabuses and by 1994 the first-ever recognised graded exams in rock guitar, bass and drums were in place. The scheme has since grown steadily. Then two years ago, he decided to increase the profile of Rockschool and the exams and syllabus were radically revamped. "We found that a lot of guitar and drum teachers were using our materials and a lot of pupils and parents and schools liked it because it was giving them a structured way of learning. It had helped many young people but we felt it was time to move it on to the next stage," he says.

In 1999, an entirely new syllabus was published, not by Faber but by Rockschool itself. The new materials are more sophisticated and each grade book comes with a CD. Within the first year of the new courses, Norton York says, the numbers studying through Rockschool doubled. There are now about 3,000 pupils taking Rockschool exams every year. Rockschool is also about to receive the ultimate stamp of academic approval, with accreditation of its exams by the QCA. The marking system is now highly nuanced and a percentage of the exams are recorded and videoed to monitor consistency.

"Just like the Associated Board, Trinity and the Guildhall, we've been through the process of working out whether our exams are equivalent and uniform. They've come back to us with several additional requirements, all of which we are able to meet," he says.

Several new developments are on the horizon in 2001. In April Rockschool will add "popular piano" as a fourth instrument to its syllabus, covering "Scott Joplin to Elton John and everything in between". There are also plans to develop a diploma in conjunction with Trinity for teachers in pop music. "The mission is to bring pop music into the mainstream of music education," Mr York says. "For years school music education has tried to teach young people about music that isn't part of their everyday experience and there's a lot of research going back almost 40 years which shows that most kids don't find music teaching relevant or useful. If we can integrate pop music more and use it to help young people express their emotions and their cultural and personal identity, that has to be good for developing interest in music across the board.

"There's a change of emphasis in teaching music all over the world. There's an interesting future ahead of us. It's all a bit of an adventure."

* ROCK SCHOOL ROCKSCHOOL runs courses with graded exams in three instruments - rock guitar, bass and drums. A fourth course, "Popular Piano", will be added in April. The syllabus identifies 12 areas of competence and offers a structured progress through grades. Grades are grouped in pairs - debut and grade one comprise "The Entry Zone", grades two and three are known as "The Player Zone", grades four and five constitute "The Performer Zone" and grades six and eight are known as "The Pro Zone". There is no grade seven.

The music is printed but accompanied by CDs and courses are structured to allow flexibility. The set pieces are specially written for the courses by well-known contemporary composers. If students wish to interpret and alter the set pieces they are encouraged to do so providing it remains stylistically coherent and is not merely a simplification of the piece. A broad knowledge of different popular styles is encouraged.

The six pieces in the guitar debut pack, for example, are described variously as "Britpop", "acid jazz", "techno", "country", "rock" and "rock'n'roll". Exams generally consist of performing three pieces, technical exercises, ear tests and sight reading and interpretational elements. One, and in some cases two, of the performance pieces may be the student's own composition. A separate performance certificate requires the preparation of five pieces.

Rockschool, Broomfield House, Broomfield Road, Kew Gardens, Surrey TW9 3HS.

Rockschool teachers network tel: 0208 332 6303 Web: Valuing School Music, send an SAE A4 envelope with a cheque payable to Rockschool Ltd for pound;2 to RockschoolNational Rock amp; Pop Education Forum contact Music for Youth, 102 Point Pleasant, London SW18 1PP. Tel: 020 8870 9624.Fax: 020 8870 9935. E-mail:

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