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No holds barred

Collaborative projects stretch all the boundaries of creativity, says Jonathan Savage.

There seems to be a general acceptance that music education within schools is not what it ought to be. For many pupils, there continues to be a widening gap between their musical experiences inside and outside school.

Recent research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Arts Education in Secondary Schools: Effects and Effectiveness, 2000) has highlighted the problem, suggesting that "pupil enjoyment, relevance, skill development, creativity and expressive dimensions" are often absent from our classrooms. Music, it adds, is the most "problematic and vulnerable art form" within schools.

How can we improve? One solution may lie in extending the boundaries of music education beyond the school's walls into local communities. Artistic collaborations can motivate and inspire pupils to imaginative and creative work. When I was teaching at Debenham High School in Stowmarket, Suffolk, last year, our project, "Reflecting Others", was a collaboration organised by a local arts agency in which our pupils joined with young offenders of a similar age at Hollesley Bay prison to produce a video and sound installation at local galleries.

Reflecting Others worked because:

* It was built on a wealth of formal and informal knowledge and experience of participants' lives, both inside and outside the classroom. The project's central themes of identity, community and environment enabled pupils and young offenders to structure authentic musical and visual responses that depicted interpretations of their own and others' lives.

* Personal responses, not focused explicitly on national curriculum ideals of "music education" were the basis for this work. After all, authentic artistic practice is not solely bound by the curriculum requirements.

* The simple opportunities offered to pupils to establish direct links between sonic and visual ideas through digital media encouraged a range of truly creative, rather than re-creative, ideas.

Pupils really want to know about the how and why of professional artistic practice. We were able to adopt simple compositional processes used by musicians and artists. Through observing the working practices of composers using computers and other technologies, useful lessons were applied within our classroom for sound educational benefits. Hence production values were high.

Artists and teachers work with pupils in different ways. Artists bring the excitement of adults who model processes, act as mediators between technologies and pupils, let ideas run without interference, and allow pupils' artistic ideas out to stand the test of public scrutiny and this fired up both the young offenders and the pupils. The process of working with an artist-in-residence provides a wonderful stimulus for pup-ils. Similarly, their ideas for final artistic products arechallenging. The innovative installation which housed pupils and young offenders' ideas drew much public acclaim, as well as causing quite a stir when it visited the school and the prison.

Most importantly, at the heart of the project, the process of reflecting on another group of young people through sound and image captured their imaginations, as did the use of digital media. It led to pupils and young offenders having a greater understanding and appreciation of each other, despite there never having been any direct contact between the two groups.

The National Foundation for Educational Research is keen on artistic collaborations with schools, suggesting that they may be one way of reversing the downward trend in classroom music, as well as providing external support for classroom music teachers.

But Professor Saville Kushner of the University of the West of England warns of the dangers of placing new wine in old wineskins: "The more we talk with children and teachers the more music becomes entangled in lives and the more its significance fades in the light of experience. The closer we look at music events in schools the more we see that music is the pretext, 'life is the text'.

"In other words, we need to redefine music education for the 21st century, to transform it within the digital age and draw on individuals and groups to work alongside us in our classrooms. And, most importantly, to build a model of music education that engages our pupils in a more meaningful way, not just with music but with life itself."

* See "Samples of ourselves" in the Arts Curriculum Special, TES June 1, 2001.

Jonathan Savage was involved in this project while teaching at Debenham High School, Stowmarket, Suffolk and is now senior lecturer in music education, Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University. E-mail: j.savage@mmu.ac.uk

COLLABORATIONS

* Take risks and stretch the boundaries of the curriculum in the search for new artistic practices.

* Go for the extraordinary and make unusual links between curriculum areas and with other artists.

* Allow opportunities for creative, not just re-creative, tasks, using new technologies to transform musical composition within the classroom in a way fit for the 21st century.

* Encourage creativity, empowering and encouraging pupils to make imaginative and personal responses to innovative and challenging project themes.

* Adopt authentic compositional practices and procedures in the classroom though watching how other artists work.

* Give pupils time for self-reflection and evaluation.

* Ensure equal access to resources and ideas.

* Let pupils' work stand for what it is. Its value will stand alongside the work of professional artists without embarrassment.

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