Samples of our selves

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Two groups of teenagers share hi-tech data about their lives. Jonathan Savage explains

Music lessons for students in Years 9 and 10 at Debenham high school in Stowmarket, Suffolk, have been far from conventional this year. You could just as easily find students working with digital video cameras, iMacs, minidisc players and microphones as with traditional instruments.

Students have been recording the hustle and bustle of school life, the countryside, their hobbies. They have collected audio samples from CDs and radio programmes as well as visual images from the local skateboard park and leisure centre.

In another part of Suffolk, at the Carlford highly secure special unit at HMP Hollesley Bay, a small group of young offenders has been doing the same. Both groups have been encouraged to document, through sonic and visual digital recordings, their environment, sense of identity and community as 21st-century teenagers. The collected samples are the source material for compositions that each group has made about the other.

Reflecting Others is an innovative project with the aim of representing the self and others through music and video. The project was organised by Aldeburgh Productions' education department (tel: 01728 687128) and funded by The Monument Trust (tel: 020 7410 0330), with additional support from the J Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust (tel: 020 7486 1859).

In the autumn term, participants at the school and at the unit used different types of digital media to collect sonic and visual material related to the project's themes. This material (more than 20 gigabytes) was collected on iMac computers before being transferred to two external Firewire hard disks.

In the spring term, the school and unit exchanged these disks and began the process of manipulating the images and sounds collected by the other group, using a variety of innovative software tools.

Digital Performer (an audio-editing and sequencing program) has proved effective and easy to use in the classroom environment, while Adobe Premiere has been used to edit and arrange the visual material. Short pieces of music and film were made out of these sounds and images for an installation in the exhibition room of Snape Maltings concert hall. This insallation will be open to the public during the Aldeburgh Festival this month and the Snape Proms in August.

Central to the success of the project was the involvement of two artists: composer Mike Challis and video artist Dan Farncombe. Their approach in using new technologies was to concentrate on developing pupils' creative ideas, rather than getting weighed down with the intricacies of state-of-the-art software. With large classes at school, this has often meant pupils working out their ideas on paper before trying them on the computers. But either way creative progress is made and valuable lessons learned.

"Reflecting Others" is the latest in a series of innovative music curriculum projects run at Debenham. Last year's project, "Dunwich Revisited", involved the entire lower school in a composition on the history of the once-large port on the east coast of Suffolk. These projects have focused on the creative power of new technologies in developing a new model for composition.

"Dunwich Revisited" used the sound processor for developing ideas, and was written up in Artist and Repertoire Music Journal, "Approaches to Composition with Music Technology in the key stage 3 and 4 curriculum" (

The evaluation of the project, to appear in July in the British Journal of Music Education, shows the benefits of this approach in encouraging students to experiment with creating and manipulating sounds.

Jonathan Savage is head of music at Debenham high school, and is also studying creative uses of new technologies in the music curriculum, at the University of East Anglia. E-mail:


HardwareDigital Video Camera (Panasonic DX110)Two Sony Minidisc players (MZ-R35 and MZ-R70)Four iMac G3 computers (400 MHz processors, 192 MB RAM)Two external Firewire hard disks (30GB each)SoftwareAdobe Premiere amp; AfterEffects: digital video editing (www.adobe.comproducts)Digital Performer: for audio-editing and sequencing ( Player: freeware that allows you to play back audio files from the desktop ( graphical-based sampling software ( freeware audio-processing program (

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