Jam session today

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Interactive technology hits the right note with pupils as it allows them to progress at their own pace. Pete Roythorne reports

In a complex of new buildings tucked away behind Southfields Community College in south-west London, something new and exciting is happening to music after hours.

This is Wandsworth City Learning Centre. Walk into the back room and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in any other music technology suite. Look a little closer and you'll see that the guitar and bass have Midi pickups.

(Midi: musical instrument digital interface is the way you get computers and electric instruments to talk to each other.) There are laptops on each of the four desks and there are also DI (direct inject: input units) boxes and external soundcards on each desk, too. Welcome to the wonderful world of Gigajam.

Gigajam is an interactive music education system that uses a mix of lesson notes, video clips, audio and Midi to give a true multi-sensory learning experience delivered to the classroom through an internet link. But this rather dry, techy description doesn't do the system justice. The reality is that it brings more children into music and gets them playing and experimenting together incredibly quickly.

Contemporary music is not exactly well represented in schools, with musical development often hinging on the Associated Board grading system. But Gigajam is changing all that, offering structured lessons and levels for bass, guitar, drums and keyboards.

From a curriculum point of view, it's primarily aimed at key stages 2 and 3, scoring major hits on both the music and ICT curriculum; from developing ideas and making them happen (KS2 ICT), to exploring and developing ideas through improvisation (KS3 music). But the real key is that the pupils love it and it's giving them a solid bedrock from which to take instruments further and look into grading in the future.

Course director Simon Elledge says: "We ran a six-month, after-school trial, initially. The response has been fantastic, we've already had students who've moved up to secondary school phoning up and wanting to come back on the course."

One of the things Simon believes spurs children on is that they can work at their own pace. Because they are interacting individually with computers and not with a teacher they are not bound to wait for the slowest person in the class to catch up. This is not to say that the system replaces the teacher.

"We still need to be there to keep control and to direct the class," explains Simon. "But Gigajam's assessment abilities mean we can just look over a child's shoulder and see how they are doing instantly, so there's little interference from teachers, except maybe suggesting that pupils give an exercise another go before moving on."

The assessment capabilities are one of the things that makes Gigajam unique. As part of each structured lesson, students are invited to demonstrate what they have learned by playing along with the pre-recorded "click track" - this is where the Midi links come in. The system analyses the notes they are playing and displays these in standard musical notation alongside the original score, which enables the student to see instantly what they are doing wrong or right -for example, playing the wrong note, not holding it for long enough or if their timing is out. These are all colour coded so that the teacher can tell at a glance how the student is progressing. Assessment is done constantly so this is a much softer approach: there is no failure. "If, for example, they only score 60 per cent on a task, we'd encourage them to have another go so that they're ready for the next section," explains Simon. "Also, because it displays in standard musical notation, it's helping the children to learn to read music at the same time."

Each lesson lasts about 30 minutes and focuses on one song. It is self-contained and covers all the theory and technique they need to know at each stage. By the end all the students will be at the same level and can share what they have learned by playing along with each other. "Obviously we only have one band (bass, drums, guitar and keyboards) in at a time," says Simon. "Any more than that would probably be chaos."

Simon believes the computer interaction helps foster gender equality in contemporary music. He explains how one 11-year-old girl's father has already bought her a bass guitar so she's practising in her spare time.

"The video clips are a key feature for girls going through the system," he explains. "At each stage, these clips demonstrate exactly what you should be doing, so there is no need for a teacher to be in the students' space trying to show them how to hold their fingers on fret boards, for example.

It's a much less intrusive learning environment for them."

Simon also explains how they have used Gigajam for whole-class teaching:

"We ran an introduction to keyboards for a Year 7 group, we linked the laptop running Gigajam to an electronic whiteboard and, one by one, each member of the class came up to try their luck against the assessment tool.

They were dazzled by the display and it made the feedback much more impressive, relevant and useful. The impact of whole-class teaching means we can introduce instruments to large groups."

So far Simon has used Gigajam with Year 5 and Year 6, as well as Years 7 and 10, and it's been a success everywhere. "We're running sessions twice a week for Year 5 and Year 7 and putting through 24 kids or six bands," he says.

But the biggest buzz for Simon is the boost it gives students' confidence.

Within their first 30 minutes they can go from not knowing an instrument to jamming with a band - in a matter of weeks they can be performing on a stage in front of the whole school.

"One student we had wouldn't say boo to a goose when he first came in. Not long after, we had him up on stage strutting his stuff and doing Pete Townsend impressions on guitar," explains Simon. "That sort of thing is priceless."

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