Musical flair

5th March 2004 at 00:00
In one Suffolk school, a teacher has found that some inexpensive music software can reap benefits in a number of subjects. Dorothy Walker reports.

Give Andrew Trythall's class a few phrases of Spanish or Swahili, and the inspired young pupils will translate them into the international language of music. They learned their techniques last autumn in World Voice, a creativity project that used ICT to introduce Year 34 children to the world of abstract music. The results were so impressive that he has run follow-on projects in literacy and the visual arts.

Andrew Trythall is Year 34 teacher and ICT co-ordinator at Sir Robert Hitcham's Primary School in Framlingham, Suffolk, a beacon school which has made creativity its focus for this year. World Voice (designed to be run for six hour-long sessions) used as its starting point a collection of voice clips which he gathered from the internet, and which feature people speaking languages ranging from Japanese to Russian.

The idea was to use one of the clips as the basis for an abstract composition, employing music software to manipulate and add to the original sound. Andrew Trythall says: "Abstract art can be very accessible, because it is all about visual patterns such as blocks of colour, and children link into that really well. But when it comes to abstract music - using real sounds in a composition - people tend to say: where's the melody in that? It is much harder for children to get into."

The school's three Year 34 classes took part. Pupils worked in pairs in the ICT suite, which has been specially designed for the application of ICT in music and art, two of the school's specialities.

The first lesson began with the children listening to the sound clips, taking time to appreciate how various languages and voices differed in rhythm and tone, before selecting one clip to use. "I wanted them to focus on one sound," Andrew Trythall says, "otherwise there is a tendency to just mish-mash everything together. This way, they could discover how much variety they could get from one sound, by reversing or chopping it up, for example, and adding effects."

He then showed how they could manipulate the sounds on the computer, using Music Maker 2003 software. "It is just so easy to use, and you can add video to your compositions," he says, after rejecting other software options during a long process of experimentation. The children arranged their sounds, cutting, copying and pasting small portions of sound with the mouse until they were satisfied.

In lesson two they learned how to layer another of the sound clips on top, with Andrew Trythall stressing the importance of listening critically to their work. He says: "It is easy to get carried away by the software, and lose the point of the exercise, which is to create a composition that is exciting and entertaining for an audience. Working in pairs helps them to focus and listen: does it sound good, does it work?"

The next three lessons were spent using the software to add effects such as reverb and echo, followed by more traditional sounds such as drum beats and bass, which made a link to the kind of music the children were already familiar with. Andrew Trythall says: "I had to emphasise how important it was to get the balance right, as sounds such as drums could have drowned out the fantastic work they had already done." At this point the whole class came together to review the compositions, discussing how each piece of music made them feel, and what they felt the composers were trying to say.

In the last lesson, pupils illustrated their work, choosing from still pictures of faces which their teacher had gathered from the internet. They incorporated the faces in a video, using visual effects such as fade-ins to work the images in with the sound. The final task was to come up with a theme for the composition. Andrew Trythall says: "We talked about words with a 'world' flavour, and I asked: 'which world word would you like to fit into your work?' They could have started with the theme, but I think that would have constrained them."

The pieces were published on the school website, and are notable for their sophistication. "If you give children the tools, they are able to extend their experience and their learning enormously," he says.

Learning objectives for the exercise included exploring, choosing, combining and organising musical ideas in musical structures; analysing and comparing sounds, and understanding how music is produced in different ways. Andrew Trythall says that the project helped enthuse: "There was something for everyone. Rather than simply getting out the xylophone or glockenspiel, they had an enormous range of tonalities they could use. If you bring a traditional instrument like a keyboard out of the cupboard, some children will be able to play chords or scales right away, while others will have had no experience. This kind of composition puts them all on an equal footing - even children with no musical background can compose really well," he says.

Andrew Trythall was runner-up in the Primary Teaching category of this year's ICT in Practice Awards, which recognise good practice in the application of ICT, and is well-known for sharing his practice through training courses and projects. This term he shared the experience gained from World Voice with Suffolk colleagues by running Alien8, a collaborative music and art project done by Year 6 pupils from Sir Robert Hitcham's and Easton Primary School, Woodbridge. In a one-day session, children composed music and created digital pictures on an alien theme, bringing them together in videos which were later shown at the local Snape music festival for schools.

He also used the ideas from World Voice in a Year 34 poetry project, done over four weeks during literacy hour: "Usually pupils base their poems on one work we have all read and discussed. This time, I wanted it to be more open-ended and creative."

The World Voice faces were displayed on the walls of the classroom, together with 30 globally-themed poems. Pupils were free to wander round their new gallery, chatting and selecting pictures and phrases they liked as inspiration for their own poems. After a class discussion about the ideas they wanted to convey, they took their places at the computers and worked in pairs on their poetry, later exchanging partners to bring a fresh perspective to the work. Andrew Trythall was bowled over by the results.

"They were just so inspired - the poetry poured out, and it was one of those magical moments." Pupils went on to accompany the poems with the photos and some of their own World Voice music, pulling the whole creative package together with the help of Microsoft's Moviemaker software.

Software and website ideasAndrew Trythall's top tip: "Take time to try out software - take it home and play with it. I spent ages just playing with Music Maker, and I don't believe the pupils would have done so much with it if I hadn't been so enthusiastic myself. The software is powerful, but not too complex for younger children to use. There are a lot of basic composition packages on the market, including junior versions aimed at children. We wanted to take things a million miles further than that."

Music Maker 2003 by MagixPrice: pound;8.85 to schools, while stocks last, from FastTrak SoftwareTel: 01923 Trythall has put together a fund of information at the Sir Robert Hitcham's website.

It includes ideas and advice, together with links to software and examples of pupils' workwww.hitchams.suffolk.sch.ukAndrew Trythall runs courses in music and ICT for teachers

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