Power to the pupil

10th March 2000 at 00:00
The dusty music stock room; triangles, tambourines, recorders, sheet music, yellowing and dog-eared with the imprint of a thousand grubby handsI Roll over Beethoven, as the old song goes, "and tell Tchaikovsky the news." And the news is that in many well-resourced music departments you're as likely to find digital recording devices, electronic keyboards, sequencing software and an Internet link.

The specific entitlement for ICT in the national curriculum for music and the growth of the Internet has brought about a minor revolution in the classroom. Many schools have invested heavily in new equipment and with the implementation of ICT has come the growing realisation that technology itself can be a highly creative, and cost-effective tool. A small recording studio, for example, can be set up for less than the cost of a new piano or harp.

As the ICT-savvy generation of teachers move up the education hierarchy, information technology will assume a more integrated and significant role in school life. And students will respond to the enthusiasm and skills of these teachers. One such "early adopter" is Dominic Leitner. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music where he took a further degree in electro-acoustics, Leitner is now head of the music technology department at Bedford High School, an independent with 850 pupils ranging from year 3 to upper sixth.

Students are routinely learning multimedia skills that would previously have been thought beyond them. MIDI music files are exchanged with other schools and video and music editing using Apple iMovie software has become "a piece of cake."

"ICT is an enabler. Students can see a goal and the software helps them to achieve it. We've moved on from the days when, if you wanted to bring in your guitar and amp it was frowned on. Now, as teachers we can give students full credit for a much wider variety of musical expression. Someone who can craft a commercial pop song is as highly valued as someone who can play in a Haydn string quartet."

Jacquie Disney of PIN (Parents Information Network) endorses this view. "Previously, if you couldn't read music, you were labelled 'non-musical'. These days, children can demonstrate creative music skills on the computer."

Unfortunately there are only a few reasonably priced music software titles available. This is partly because, Disney suggests, "the success of curriculum software highlighting traditional areas of learning familiar and significant to parents has meant that many developers are focusing very narrowly on literacy, numeracy and reference."

So that while there is excellent software for schools - Sibelius, Logic, eMagic - students who want to use creative technology at home have a limited choice. One of the few companies offering affordable sequencing and notating software is Magix.

Mick Thomas, music curriculum support project manager at BECTA, feels that significant integration of ICT and music is yet to be realised. "There's still a long way to go, a lot of minds and hearts to change. We're at the beginning and we want to get people sharing ideas and, hopefully, resources."

One of those resources is the Virtual Teachers Centre where teachers can access relevant subject material and post questions for their colleagues. BECTA has also produced a Music IT Pack that contains helpful advice on appropriate hardware and software for music education.

The Internet has developed into a tremendous educational resource and music has been one of the chief beneficiaries. Encouragingly, some of the best music resource sites are run by teachers for teachers. Rob Jones, who hosts his own excellent Web siteand writes the Daily Telegraph virtual school's music pages is an AST (Advanced Skills Teacher) at St Mary's College, Hull.

ICT, Jones believes, should be perceived as an integral part of teaching to be used alongside more traditional tools. "I can't honestly think of any scenario where the computer isn't appropriate." At St Mary's, students understand canonic development by cutting and pasting musical motifs with sequencing software such as Logic, they use sequencers to generate mock-Renaissance backing tracks and they are able to create period sounds on synthesisers.

The discrete properties of digital sound lend themselves to creativity and experimentation. Digital is a forgiving medium; music can be copied, speeded up or slowed down or transposed. Inevitably, new teaching techniques are being developed that take advantage of these qualities. Students can listen to and play along with difficult compositions at a comfortable tempo, musical phrases can be replayed in any key and recordings can be edited and re-edited with no appreciable loss of quality.

At Bishop's Stortford high school in Hertfordshire, music technology A-level is offered alongside the "normal" A-level music course. It has established links with the Royal College of Music and the music department, in conjunction with Professor Stephen Heppell, is pursuing a number of music technology and ICT projects at several levels.

Music teacher Rebecca Suckling recognises the allure and immediacy of new technology - "if I gave the children a choice of doing a unit on sequencing or one on Mozart I know which they'd prefer" - but also emphasises the need for a sensitive integration of new and old. The department believes that music technology will never replace traditional, acoustic training but rather enhances it.

Times change, and how. The true measure of technological progress may not be in the distance travelled but in our casual acceptance of what is now possible. Home movies of near professional quality, soundtracks that could have been engineered and produced in commercial studios, the creation of a huge range of musical sounds, and collaboration that is not limited by time or distance. New technologies have given us creative tools of enormous power and subtlety whose potential is being realised by students and teachers across the country.

"It is the supreme art of the teacher," wrote a great thinker of the last century, "to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." Visit some of the websites below and listen to music performed and recorded with real skill, sensitivity and originality. That "supreme art" which Albert Einstein so cherished has never been in safer hands.

Hugh John is a freelance writer

The Bishop Stortford High School


Bedford High School


Rob Jones


Music pages for teachers at the Virtual Teachers Centre


Parents Information Network (PIN)www.pin-parents.com





Sibelius music software (see review on our website)


Compositions by students using Sibelius at Holmfirth School




Comprehensive information on the excellent Cubase software


BECTA Music IT pack


The Arts Inspected, Heinemann. ISBN 0-435-30232-9

Useful OFSTED guide to good teaching in the arts.

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