In the loop

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Desmond De Araujo sees a music-writing program that engages pupils with behavioural difficulties

For many students at New Rush Hall School, in Hainault, Essex, technology provides an incentive for attending school. New Rush Hall is for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties who have had trouble attending their previous schools.

The pupils are not without ability; it's just that they have had difficulties outside school that have affected their ability to engage. The mission of the staff at New Rush Hall is to help them continue with a fruitful education and, if possible, get them back into their original places of learning.

As head of school Maureen Smyth says in the school's prospectus: "We spend time thinking about behaviour, what it is communicating to us and how we can plan to change it in the best interests of your child."

An important matter for a lot of children at New Rush Hall is being able to express themselves and one obvious way in which they do so is with GarageBand. Headteacher John d'Abbro is convinced that the ICT and music opportunities provided by software such as GarageBand are a powerful way to re-engage them.

"Would you be in here today if it wasn't for this technology?" he teases.

Although 15-year-old Bradley Edwards replies casually, "Yeah probably", he knows that his headteacher's question isn't a silly one. John d'Abbro is only too aware that some of the pupils wouldn't be at New Rush Hall if they weren't equipped with technology that has street cred - Apple computers running GarageBand music software.

Its popularity is beyond doubt. When the question "Do you enjoy using GarageBand?" was posed in one classroom it was the teacher, Kerry Daine Blake, who unwittingly gave the first response: "Yes I do."

He was embarrassed to learn that the question was aimed at the pupils, but he needn't have been because they were even more enthusiastic. "Yeah, my mum couldn't get me out of my bedroom for my dinner - I was in there for about 10 hours on GarageBand!" said Bradley.

So why is the software such a hit for both teachers and students? Passive entertainment from computers, such as listening to music MP3s, is already popular; you have only to see the presence of iPod headphones in the high street to gauge that. GarageBand, however, offers highly active entertainment, much more interactive than listening to an MP3, playing a game or chatting online.

GarageBand, part of the iLife software bundle that comes free with new Macs, is a revolutionary music production program. It allows you to create your own music from start to finish without using or buying another piece of software, and all without having to be able to read music. Another reason it is so popular is because, compared with most other sequencers, many of which are unnecessarily complicated, it is simple and fun to use.

Simple it may be but the results are outstanding - in terms of sound and features it is right up there with top-of-the-range sequencers. You can construct something that sounds good even if you can't read music or are not particularly musically talented. Don't believe it? Just pay a visit to the website which is showcasing the students' music created in Apple's RMX '05 competition (see right for details).

It works like this. Students use a screen that is a simple grid (above). On the vertical axis are empty rows waiting for musical instruments or recorded samples to be inserted and the horizontal axis is a timeline. The musical parts, usually in the form of pre-recorded loops, are dragged and placed into the empty rows and arranged in the form of descending, parallel timelines. For example, one of the students at New Rush Hall might start a song with a drum rhythm that would be dragged to the top of the screen. A few bars along a bass line could be dropped to the next line underneath. A few bars further a vocal may be added to the next line underneath, and so on.

Students can add their own, performed music, whether a keyboard melody or a rap voice-over. Bradley reluctantly demonstrated one of his drum 'n' bass tracks to us in John D'Abbro's office. It was a tour de force until we hit a spot of turbulence, "inappropriate" language, explaining Bradley's somewhat strange reluctance to show off his work in front of visitors.

Fortunately, a mature interchange between student and head followed and (aside from the expletives) Bradley's excellent achievement was acknowledged. I watched a professional DVD, created by the LEA about the workforce reforms. The music on the DVD was produced by the students of New Rush Hall using GarageBand but you would never have guessed that it wasn't a professional element of the DVD. It was so good that it could quite easily have been used in a television documentary.

GarageBand's success at New Rush Hall has been attributed to the fact that, first and foremost, students appreciate the equipment they are allowed to use (laptops that they can take home, for example); it enables them to feel trusted, something that may well have been lacking in their outside lives.

Many of the students suffer from low self-image so giving them a chance to see themselves more positively is very important. Teacher Andrew Mclean summarises: "Apart from learning to make music, the technology helps them to learn about life through improving their self esteem." It also improves their learning capacity for other subjects.

GarageBand is used as a hook to get the students interested in their own learning. Some of the children confessed to using the internet to look up new sound samples. It is effective as a hook but it also forms an everyday part of the curriculum for both music and ICT.

Although GarageBand and ICT in general play a large part in the children's learning, the attitude and methods adopted by staff at New Rush Hall play the key role. Staff are proactive in adapting the technology to suit the needs of the children.

"For me it's not really about the IT but about the C (communications) in ICT," says headteacher John D'Abbro. "Like when people talk about EBD they focus on behaviour and difficulties but if they don't understand about the E (emotions) they miss the point. Similarly if people don't concentrate on the 'communications' part of ICT they'll lose the richness of the tools."

It's approaches such as this that provide the key to engaging the New Rush Hall students and enabling them to improve their creativity and become better communicators.


The deadline for entries is July 15 and samples are available at: www.dbass.orgrmx05 Further details are at:

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