A new kid on the block

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Technology is offering fresh musical heights to scale. Hugh John reports

It wasn't so long ago that the stock cupboards of most music departments were racked with shelves of percussion instruments and, more commonly in primary schools, recorders. Gradually, with the increased use of tape recorders. cassette and CD players, the electronic world has encroached on what was formerly a purely instrumental domain.

But there's a new kid in the class, and this one's quite a handful. It plugs into the wall and, if not supervised, can be very noisy. It's a big strong kid but it lacks confidence and, dare it be said, some teachers just don't trust it. Those who have managed to integrate it into their classrooms have been enthusiastic; others have just given up.

A growing awareness of the potential for technology in music, and the specific requirements of the national curriculum, has given IT a much higher profile in music departments throughout the country. At key stages 1, 2, and 3 pupils must be given the opportunity to "make use of IT to record sounds", and at key stage 3 that requirement is extended to making appropriate use of IT to "explore, create and record sounds". Reference is also made to exploring the different ways in which timbre is changed and one of these ways is by use of electronics.

As schools invest more heavily in music technology there is understandable concern among music teachers who have had, until now, little experience of IT. How do they integrate this new technology into music syllabuses? What level of support and advice will they get in setting up the required equipment? Will they be able to operate it?

Andy Murray. the music project officer of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) is enthusiastic about the increasing use of IT in classes but stresses that technology is only one of a number of important tools in the learning process. He is concerned that IT should not be seen as an end in itself but should facilitate more general musical processes.

According to Mr Murray, "The ability to realise the limitations of a particular IT tool is as much of a virtue as insight into its potential strengths." attempting to show children the correlation between dynamic touch and volume, he says, would be totally unsuccessful on an electronic keyboard that wasn't touch sensitive. By the same token, the particular tactile and emotional needs of some pupils are sometimes better served by traditional instruments. Children with an uncertain grasp of rhythm might be more sympathetically supported by a "real life" drummer or percussionist than by a drum machine whose idea of a fermata (pause) is a glitch in the power supply A wide range of music software is now available, from programs which provide interactive rudimentary ear training and an introduction to pitch and rhythm right up to the powerful MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencing and notation programs which are used by professional musicians. Programs such as Sibelius, EMagic Logic and Cubase offer a plethora of sophisticated digital tools which call for a high level of operating skill. They also require, as Dave Marshall the marketing manager for EMagic concedes, "a steep, but not long, initial learning process".

The choice of appropriate software is therefore crucial. Mr Murray believes teachers go for high-end sequencers because they want a multi-functional package to perform a wide variety of tasks. Unfortunately, icon laden screens can be confusing and inimical to creativity. Add to that the design limitations of computer monitors that can't display all the information required, and are a small focal point for a class of lively children, and it's not too difficult to see why some teachers entomb their IT equipment in the stock cupboard with nary a burial prayer. Clearly, teachers need strategies to incorporate this new technology but, used imaginatively, the rewards can be great.

As a provider of sound sources that can be modified and manipulated by students, the electronic keyboard, sound module or computer is unrivalled. Where previously a child's only experience of more esoteric instrumental sounds would have been on record, they are now able to compose and play using an extremely varied sound palette. Kevin Rogers, county music adviser for Dorset, feels that "sound modules and guitar and wind synthesisers make possible a whole sound world that couldn't be accessed otherwise".

CD-Roms that cater specifically for music are another rich resource for teachers. Programs such as Microsoft's Musical Instruments and Encarta come with high fidelity sound clips of instruments and music from all over the world. There are also CD-Roms which allow more advanced students to explore, say, a string quartet while the score scrolls by on screen. American company Voyager which pioneered this multimedia approach to music has a catalogue which includes works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

MIDI sound files are very versatile and contain a wide range of noises that can be loaded into a sequencer. A sophisticated one would be able to add phrasing and dynamic shading. The ability to deconstruct a section of music or assign a different musical sound to a sequence of notes gives students added insight into compositional techniques.

MIDI sequencers are also being increasingly used to support and enhance performances in assemblies and school plays, where pre-programmed sound effects can be triggered on cue. Music teachers who do not feel comfortable in a MIDI environment can achieve similar results with a small, portable multi-track recorder. And, of course, it's possible to enter a pattern of notes into a computer-based sequencer by using a mouse to, "point and click".

Non Davies, head of music at Gryphon Secondary School in Sherbourne, Dorset, is convinced that music technology can support children in many positive ways. If pupils' compositional skills are more advanced than their performance skills, the computer or sequencer will be able to play back a section of music which is beyond a student's capability. If a group of children are performing a particular composition the computer can be programmed to play one or more of the parts. On-board tempo controls mean that once children become familiar with sequencers they can learn and play compositions at their own pace.

Introducing music technology to a school need not be a nightmare. Dawson's Music has been supplying traditional instruments to the education market for many years and in the last 10 providing musical hardware and software. Keith HalliganKeith Halligan, the manager of the Education department, has put together many IT packages for schools. How would his company respond to a request for music technology equipment? "You mean if there was a school inspection coming up?" he asks. Mr Halligan suggests that any reputable supplier would provide a total package for the school which included installation of software and hardware, "up to the point where the teacher clicked the button which opened the program". Many suppliers will also include in the price of the package a hands-on training programme.

The requirement for music technology now enshrined in the educational constitution means that music teachers now have to invite that new kid into the classroom. The irony is, many will wonder why they weren't more welcoming in the first place.

And wouldn't it be worth becoming adept in these new skills, if only to be able to turn up at school one day, clap your hands and declare: "Children, pay attention please. Here's something I preparedearlier. It's a symphony."

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