The hills are alive with the sound of music...

7th July 2006 at 01:00
From a college high above Brighton, students are getting the chance to be a DJ, among other things. Hugh John reports

There can't be many classes that have the opportunity to explore new educational software with one of the program's developers team but that's what's happening at Varndean School.

Designated as both a Leading Edge School and Specialist Technology College, Varndean sits above the city of Brighton. In one of the computer suites on the huge campus, 30 music students are working with class teacher Robbie Mitchell - also the school's head of music and performing arts - and Leon Cych, editor of Music Suite, a set of teaching modules designed for key stage 3 music.

Developed by a team that includes Chris Hiscock, music adviser to Cambridgeshire but probably better known to music teachers as the co-author of the "Heinemann Music Matters" series, and the late Robert Kwami, professor at the Department of Music at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, Music Suite is a series of graded inter-related activities mapped to the QCA music schemes of work.

Robbie reminds the students that in the past two years they've worked through most of the previous seven modules. Two completed work schemes, he points out, have particular significance for today's lesson; "Spice it Up", an in-depth analysis of Paganini's Caprice Variations, and "Music for Dance", the Gota African Rhythms presented and explored by Robert Kwami.

The new module, "Dance Music and DJing", will, he says, form an important part of class activities in the next two terms when they will be exploring music composition using loops.

After a brief introduction, Leon steps up to the front. A former school ICT co-ordinator with more than 20 years of inner city teaching experience, he's not phased by lively 14-year-olds.

Leon cues up the module on the whiteboard. We start with a brief background history of disc-jockeying and then work through team and individual exercises.

The program's narrator, Eleanor Whitworth-Jones, has taught DJing in schools and colleges for the past five years and the featured on-disc DJ is Sophie Sugar, at 26 a veteran on the international club scene. The Music Suite team, says Leon, "wanted a girl as a role model because it's always guys up there doing the DJing". Over the course of the lesson it's clear why the maletechnology stereotype needs to be challenged. In a class evenly divided between boys and girls not one female - despite the strenuous and subtle encouragements of both teachers - comes to the front of the class to attempt any of the exercises.

The boys do, of course, and their self-confidence is soon confounded. What looks remarkably easy as demonstrated by the talented Sophie Sugar in a QuickTime video, proves far more difficult to accomplish in real time. The first challenge is to create a simple drum pattern for dance music. The on-screen grid represents a bar of music, four beats forming the horizontal axis, three percussion sounds, bass drum, snare and hi-hat, the vertical.

To the right of the grid, is a button clearly marked HINT. Press this and a window appears with a template that includes suggested beat placement on the grid and appropriate BPM (beats per minute) for each genre.

On the interactive whiteboard Eleanor and Sophie lead us through the different genres and sub-genres of dance music, how to identify them, which styles are complementary and which don't go together. DJs, we learn, always mix records from the same family.

The next exercise, Cueing and Beatmatching two records on the virtual mixing desk, captures the class's imagination. After all, being a dance DJ must be right up there on the post-school wish list. And, again, as demonstrated by Sophie, it all looks so easy.

Student one approaches the front. "Trust me, I'll give it a go." There's plenty of advice from his mates, but it soon becomes apparent, yet again, that successful DJ-ing requires practice, dedication and a range of techniques that, interestingly, draws on the same skill set used by "traditional" musicians; handeye co-ordination, listening, interacting and counting.

Four attempts later, Robbie goes up to the front. It's a brave move as, like his students, he's not familiar with this module. And guess what? Teacher really does know best; his cueing is spot on.

Valuable lessons have been learned. When it comes to creating a distinctive beat, for example, less is emphatically more. And being able to accurately count bars of music is as important as ever. The contemporary musical idioms and technology used in the classroom today has enthused these students; equally, the techniques couldn't be more traditional.

It's a point not lost on Robbie who, as a former Rudolph Steiner teacher and an adept of new technologies, has a unique perspective. "These are exciting times", he says, "and the technology is changing so fast. But for me, it's important to keep in perspective where real education is going to happen, and that is in the interaction between human beings. Everything else should be about finding ways of enhancing that process."


Music Suite (annual site licence pound;300) is used for KS3 students and now comprises eight modules and uses examples from a wide variety of genres and composers including Beethoven, Mahler, Purcell, Paganini, Britten and Reich to demonstrate commonly used musical devices such as variation, cyclical form and melodic structure. Each module has its own glossary and index, with printable lesson plans and links to other teaching materials.

Varndean music classes have access to a computer suite equipped with PCs.

The music department runs Roland EM15 keyboards and iMac computers which run Sibelius 3 software and MicroLogic. Students can also use both programs online on the PCs. Yamaha keyboards are used in class and eSaams, a performance evaluation system is being introduced as is SamLearning.

Varndean now has music as a second specialism. From September, a BTec in Music Technology will run alongside GCSE at KS4.

Email: Leon Cych,

Email: Robbie Mitchell,, tel: 01273 545242

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