Creative control

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Tom Deveson meets an inspired teacher who uses computers to help students in the London borough of Haringey develop their talents.

White Hart Lane is home to football played with grace and skill. In the local 1,100-pupil comprehensive school, music is played with comparable virtues. Just a brisk walk from Tottenham Hotspurs' north London ground is St Thomas More school, where an inspirational music teacher, Peter Desmond, shows the same skill as legendary Spurs' manager Billy Nicholson in bringing on young talent.

For a visitor, the first sight in the classroom is that of 16 teenage heads bent purposefully over 12 work stations. From an adjacent room comes the sound of live drumming. In here, there is a productive silence as the music goes into players' headphones, giving them the opportunity to concentrate on their own compositions.

All pupils in Year 9 learn MIDI sequencing - using a computer to control a synthesiser. On my visit, a group of students are coming to the end of their first half-termly module. They have been working with keyboards and computers, learning to record and edit their music and come to a practical understanding of such terms as "looping" - making the sequencer continue to repeat a short sequence of notes, and "quantization" - making the computer round up the note values you play to the nearest beat or sub-beat. They have rapidly outgrown the more obvious temptations of plinking out bizarre sound effects or merely repeating catchy pre-set rhythms. Because the lesson involves an episode of playing back work in progress to their classmates, there is an incentive to build up their own musical ideas and share their development in a semi-public forum. After a couple of weeks, the pieces are showing a clear sense of the expressive function of formal organisation. Comments on the use of fills show how memories of live acoustic music, from earlier drum sessions, provide helpful bearings within students' aural landscapes.

A GCSE class - 40 pupils are doing music GCSE - is editing some exam pieces. Kofi Adu is going through a score, adjusting rhythms and removing ledger lines in a piano work called Hope. What he likes about work on the computer is the way that control and creativity come into fruitful conjunction. "I like being in charge of the music - and the computer lets me. I can try out a whole range of instruments and get them to do things I could not do on my own," he says. Kofi, himself a pianist who also sings in the borough choir, sits by Cliff Gay-Ya, who is going over a composition called Always and For Ever. This lengthy, rhapsodic piece for piano, vibraphone and strings has effective episodes of sudden surging modulation. Cliff's attitude to the computer is both pragmatic and respectful. "I can use it to show my talent. If I hear something I like, I can go to the computer and find ways of changing it," he says.

It is heartening to see students clamouring to be allowed to stay in school during break time. Some remain in studious communion with their headphones, while others enjoy an impromptu jam session wih guitar and keyboards. The two-way traffic between acoustic and digital music-making is again evident.

Peter Desmond reflects on these processes in his tiny office, while students work with his colleague Ian Mann. He introduced computers into what had been a traditional music department about 10 years ago. Music is a time-bound art; it has taken a decade to make things as purposeful as they are today. During an era when teachers' freedoms have been devoured by new bureaucratic demands, Peter Desmond has had to devote many precious hours of his own time to the needs of his students. Maintenance of equipment is one major factor. Music departments do not usually have technicians. No one will be able to repair working parts unless they have put in the time with screwdrivers and soldering irons themselves.

Training is even more important. Familiarisation with new software can only happen by working through it and this devours evenings, weekends, holidays and patience. When students ask, "What has happened?" teachers need to know the range of possible answers. They need to know enough themselves to make trouble-shooting not just rule-of-thumb fixing, but also a potential insight into how the computer deals with what it is told. Haringey local education authority now uses Peter Desmond's skills for three days a week at the local professional development centre, where he passes on his skills to colleagues, while Ian Mann runs the department.

Mr Desmond also works as a mentor for the Learning Schools Programme organised by Research Machines and the Open University and funded by the Lottery. Here, lessons from St Thomas More school are shown as exemplar material. In one model, little loops of blues music, taken from a CD, are recombined in many different permutations. The formal issues of beginnings and endings, phrase lengths and stylistic features, are also explored. The exemplars can be discussed via electronic conferencing with teachers on the programme throughout the country.

Twenty A-level pupils now come from all over Haringey to St Thomas More to study music technology. Exploring the instrumentation of a Mozart horn quartet or a Lionel Richie piece, the computer is an adjunct to their critical ears, a tool and not a master. Some of the students took their expertise to an education fair in Beijing, where they mounted an exhibition for Chinese teachers and students, spreading computer-assisted music from a London classroom to the world.

Georgia Thompson, age 14, likes the feeling that she can use the computer to make music say what she wants it to. "I can get things right, show the way I feel," she says. She unwittingly echoes the words of St Thomas More himself, who described music that managed to be "wonderfully expressive of natural feelings". That was not in Tottenham but Utopia. Peter Desmond is helping young people to find a real place on the aural map for new countries explored in the imagination.

St Thomas More school uses the LOGIC Audio Gold program, (Emagic, around pound;180 + VAT).

Website: www.soundtech.co.uk


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