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A Resources special: Music - Give music the kiss of life

Want to jazz up your lessons? Then don't be afraid to rock out, says Anthony Anderson

Want to jazz up your lessons? Then don't be afraid to rock out, says Anthony Anderson

Musical legacies can become musical legends. Every musician - and many music teachers - may have hoped, one day, to be celebrated in a hall of fame. And, indeed, many music stars never leave the limelight - think The Who, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, who after 10 years in "retirement" has released a number one album, The Next Day. An exhibition about his life and work has just opened at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

The closing ceremony of last summer's Olympic Games was like a who's who of the great and the good of the world of rock and pop. And there is no doubt of the enduring appeal of rockers who are no longer in their first flush of youth.

Making a connection between rock stage and classroom, the film School of Rock explores the idea that rock music could be a subject on the curriculum. Jack Black plays an enthusiastic accidental substitute teacher redirecting his energy from performing to teaching.

And Gene Simmons, bassist and co-vocalist of Kiss, had a television hit back in 2005-06 with the series Rock School, which was also based around the idea of bringing rock music into a school environment. Its two series focused on very different schools, and the musical showmanship of Simmons and the impressive performances made for compulsive viewing.

But it is only now that we can finally accept the role of rock music in real classrooms as well as fictional ones. Music in schools today is almost unrecognisable compared with what was on offer in the 1950s, or even the 1970s. When describing aspects of GCSE music to prospective students, parents often tell me how much they would like to do the course.

Rock music has even been embraced by exam boards. Jeff Buckley and Oasis appear in Edexcel specifications and rock is a topic in its own right for AQA. A recently published textbook from Rhinegold, Rock Your GCSE Music (bit.ly13W950v), bases its whole approach to key stage 4 on the medium of rock music. And the organisation Rockschool ( offers exams on electric guitar, bass, drums, vocals and band-based keyboards from grades 1 to 8, as well as more advanced diplomas.

It is a far cry from my own experience as a student in 1988, the first year of music GCSEs. Queen's album The Works was on the syllabus then - a radical decision for its time - but alternative music is now an accepted part of a diverse musical education. Rock sessions make up a regular part of extra-curricular programmes and rock bands perform alongside classical ensembles, jazz combos and choirs in school concerts. The longevity of rock music in school is assured - you may even be forgiven for thinking that rock has become the new classical. But perhaps this is not so surprising: rock offers much that can be used to teach other genres of music.

Lucy Green's 2002 book How Popular Musicians Learn: a way ahead for music education (bit.lyZIzdWQ) has been influential in this field. Based on interviews with 14 popular musicians, it considers the place of formal, non-formal and informal learning. The learning style explored can best be described as self-directed and self-motivating, and these ideas have had a huge impact on music education in the past decade.

Musical Futures (, established by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, has given these ideas legs. Based on the idea of learning music aurally, using improvisation and practical music-making, teachers act as facilitators, guiding students through modelling rather than instructing. Such a dynamic approach encourages young people to find their own route through the musical landscape.

I would be lost without rock music in my classroom. Every day my students explore music using rock instruments; without them, I simply would not be able to do my job. But perhaps the longevity of today's rock musicians is really not so unique. Mozart, for example, was still composing from his deathbed, and by the time Beethoven died in his fifties his music had undergone radical changes of tonality compared with his earlier output.

The desire to create until the end can be seen across the world of music. Jazz legend Dave Brubeck gave his last performance at 90 and Johnny Dankworth, the jazz composer and musician married to singer Cleo Laine, was still performing months before his death at the age of 82.

Is there really such a chasm between rock performers and jazz or classical musicians, or between the teaching of these musical genres in the classroom? An effective music education needs to be a wide and varied one - just like the experience of learning, or indeed life itself.

Students can just as easily learn about the structure of sonata form by composing in a rock style rather than a classical one. Nor is there any reason why the skills of arranging and appreciating timbre and texture have to have their origins in a classical score. In the same way, students can learn about riffs, power chords and pentatonic solos on the violin and piano, not just from the thumping beats of the rock arena.

Perhaps those old rockers still selling out the world's biggest concert venues share the secret of longevity of music maestros past: that music captures the nature of art and is a language of its own. As music teachers, it is not only a pleasure but also our duty to share it well beyond the classroom.

We may never be legendary, but music from our classrooms can reach out and leave a legacy all its own.

Anthony Anderson is head of music and performing arts, a coach and a mentor at Beauchamp College, Leicestershire. He is an accredited outstanding facilitator and a member of the editorial board for the British Journal of Music Education.


Key stage 1: Three songs

This Teachers TV video offers simple vocal warm-ups and three easy-to-learn songs from around the world.


Key stage 2: Call and response

Listen to this selection of call and response and echo songs, some traditional and others by contemporary composers.


Key stage 3: Gospel singing

A presentation with music from lizep7 takes students through a potted history of gospel music.


Key stage 4: History of reggae

This introduction to reggae, with an information sheet and questions, would make an ideal homework activity.


Key stage 5: World music

Get lost in music and discover the world through song in an activity shared by TES partner ChristianAid.


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