Rhythm without blues

5th September 2003 at 01:00
A teacher's award-winning approach uses computer technology to make composition accessible to all. Douglas Blane reports

Being a pioneer has its drawbacks. The music department at King's Park Secondary School, Glasgow, which is headed by award-winning teacher Aileen Monaghan, rarely has to contend with hungry crocodiles or rivers in flood, but it is beset by a steady stream of requests for guidance through the jungle of information and communication technology.

Aileen, who won an ICT in Practice award from Becta (the British Educational Communications Agency), has a simple philosophy: "I get help from everybody. Our teachers are tremendous, the management is very supportive and the kids are so confident that I'm happy to delegate." A couple of boys carrying hammers and a handful of nails demonstrate that this can include carpentry as well as computing: "That's us finished Mrs Monaghan, so we're off to lunch."

"Thanks lads, you've done a grand job." She opens the door to reveal a smallish room with a set of drums in one corner and a collection of shiny guitars hanging from the brackets the boys have put up on the wall: "This place was a mess a couple of weeks ago, but it's going to be our recording studio. What we'll do next is knock a hole in this wall and put a window in, so the recording engineer can see the performers."

Even when more specialist skills are called for, Aileen doesn't hesitate to delegate to her pupils. In the room next door, Scott and Gillian are reviewing a piece of software, Kar2ouche. "When new programs come in you can wait until you have time to study them, which probably means next term now, but that would be silly. Instead we ask pupils who are well ahead with their work to review it."

While pupils are given a lot of autonomy at King's Park, there is no doubt who is conducting the orchestra. The Becta judges say the main requirements of music teaching are "intensive preparation and vast reserves of energy".

Pointing out that exam results have improved across the board and numbers studying music have increased dramatically in the two years since Aileen's appointment, the judges say: "She uses ICT and music to reach out to children who love music but would not be able to access composition in the traditional wayI we have never seen ICT impact so intensively on a subject."

On this particular afternoon, ICT is impacting not just on Scott and Gillian, but on three other students working at computers and on a group of senior girls sitting at electronic keyboards. Having set the computer users tasks ranging from working with a guitar tutor to researching a trumpet concerto, Aileen addresses the keyboard group:

"Invention will be a big part of your exam and I know some of you are not yet confident writing your own music. It is the most creative thing you can do and it's not really difficult, so I'm going to give you a few ideas to get started. A piece of music needs an introduction. But you will write this last. So don't worry about that now, just get in there and play something - like this."

On the keyboard in front of her she plays a few notes and as the music fills the room, the notes appear on the whiteboard. "That could be a beginning to your main theme. Now what could you do next? Well you might turn the notes around, like this." Again the musical notation appears on the board to match the sounds in the air. "Then you could play the whole thing an octave higher and before you know it you've got four bars of your own composition. The computer saves it all, so you can play it back, listen to it, and see what else you can come up with."

She shares more tips with the students about how to grab the attention of an audience and an examiner, and on the repetition essential to a good composition: "If you hear something a few times you start to enjoy it, and it's so easy on the computer. Watch." She hits a key, moves the mouse, and four bars of music on the whiteboard turn into eight.

As a teacher, Aileen Monaghan is fluent, confident and animated, her words enlivened by gestures and peppered with colourful references to popular culture, which the students readily connect with. She dispenses praise liberally and her class is clearly absorbed in the subject.

Having set the keyboard group to work, she makes the rounds of the computer users, checking progress and offering encouragement. "What have you learned, Jamie? Techniques for blues guitar? Show me... very good. What have you discovered about this new program, Gillian? Would it be suitable for younger kids? Let's see what you've got on Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, Stuart. All that? Good Heavens!"

She explains later that invention is one area of the music curriculum that has been totally transformed by computer technology. It lets students who have plenty of music listening skills but none in notation "express the sounds they can hear in their heads". By saving work on the computer, listening to it and playing around with it, notation skills can be developed naturally and without pressure. "We're often delighted by the quality of composition from pupils with few of the traditionally recognised music skills. These pupils can be among the most creative in the classroom."

This inclusiveness is one of the features that most impressed the Becta judges, who said that ICT is used at King's Park to: "reach out to children who love music but would not be able to access composition in the traditional way."

The department's philosophy, Aileen explains, is that every pupil can enjoy music and be creative, but aptitudes and interests will vary and progress can be at different speeds and in differing directions.

Teachers are also individuals and some will embrace technology faster than others. "Teachers need time to develop their own ICT skills. It is important as a head of department that you don't intimidate people or force them into using technology."


Some 15 pieces of software are used in the music department at King's Park, where the syllabus has been rewritten in the past two years to embed ICT into every part of the curriculum. Three packages form the backbone of learning and teaching: Sibelius 2 is used by teachers to devise lessons and courses, while Logic Audio and Cubase bring musical performance and composition within reach of every child.

Software such as Guitar Coach from Charanga provides tuition for pupils between specialist lessons. Jump!'s Piano Discovery Software on the whiteboard allows the teacher's hand on a keyboard to be seen by 20 pupils at a time.

Packages such as Granada Learning's Listen Hear and Voyetra Turtle Beach's Music Conservatory are used to devise differentiated listening courses.

Pupils use Microsoft Publisher to produce scores, tickets, programmes and posters for school concerts and performances.


Aileen Monaghan recommends:www.sibelius.com

Outlines ways ICT can enhance music teaching.


Huge bank of information on classical composers.


Confusing site guide, but worth the effort. Contains an online tutorial for ICT-in-music newcomers: click on "creative tools" on home page then "Tutorial: Music and Computers" in the right-hand panel.


A reduced subscription rate of pound;200 a year is currently offered to schools and a free 30-day trial is available.


New site from Spain offering online drumming lessons from experts.

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