Sounds nice and technical;Curriculum

28th May 1999 at 01:00
With more opportunities to work in advertising, television and film, young musicians are taking advantage of Bellahouston Academy's high-tech teaching, says Julie Morrice

There is a piano in the music department of Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, but you would hardly notice it in the sea of electronic keyboards and computer terminals that fill the studio.

Over the past eight years, this department has plugged willingly into new technology, and has experienced tremendous feedback in terms of pupil enthusiasm and achievement.

"We have no discipline problems," says senior teacher Aileen Monaghan, and the third year class in the studio backs up her claim by working away throughout the session with barely a murmur. The only sound is the tinny whisper of 20 pairs of leaky headphones as the pupils work on their keyboards, composing sound pictures for an imaginary film sequence, evoking a rocket launch, outer space, a fight, and finally a schmaltzy return to a waiting family.

Part of the reason for the universal concentration may be that while they are working, the teacher can listen in to any of them without their knowledge, from the console at the front of the classroom. "It's a tremendous system," says Monaghan, referring to the pound;7,000 SKALE System from Baker Sound. "It allows six things to go on at once. The kids can work at their own level, and good pupils can have individualised learning."

For any musician brought up with nothing more technological than a metronome, the modern world of music teaching comes as a bit of a shock. But Monaghan emphasises the democratic advantages of the new technology.

"There's a tremendous amount of snobbery in music that we have to get away from," she says. "Why should writing music be only for those who know about crochets and quavers? For me, this is the same change as when the harpsichord became the piano. Technology in music is not going to go away. You have to move on or die."

Monaghan confesses to being hooked on the new methods. She shows off the capabilities of the department's computer equipment like a proud parent. First up is Rave eJay, a kind of software which allows a pupil to piece together an eight-track score from a choice of 1,500 samples. Bellahouston uses this sort of software for less able pupils; it is a bit like using a calculator to get answers without having to show working, "but it's not simple to get good results," points out Monaghan.

At the other end of the scale is the sort of technology being used in modern music production studios - Logic Audio Gold from E Magic, and Cubase from Steinberg, both of which cost less than pound;300 for schools.

Principal teacher Gordon Millar brings up a complete orchestral piece of about two minutes' duration composed by a fifth-year pupil over a period of three months. As the music plays, the screen displays the score in a series of coloured lines. Finding the clarinet entry was never this easy before. "It's amazing for a pupil to be able to hear what his own composition sounds like performed by a full symphony orchestra," says Monaghan. "This piece is 190 bars long. When I was at school, for Higher you had to write 16 bars modulating to the dominant half way through, and that was the end of the story."

All this technology is still pretty new, and for the most part classical composers fight a little shy of it. "I don't really understand why they don't use it, as a listening tool as well as a scoring tool," says Monaghan. "It is tremendous for deciding if a line is going to sound better in, say, the clarinets rather than the flutes."

It seems that composers, like authors in the very early days of word-processors, are frightened of abandoning the process of composing that they are used to. But Monaghan predicts it is only a matter of time.

"At the moment a lot of the music you hear on television is technically accomplished, but musically uninteresting. That's because it's being controlled by sound engineers. What we need to do is get musicians trained in the technology so that we can have good music as well as good technology. That's what we're doing here."

The numbers of pupils taking music at Bellahouston have risen steadily over the past decade. "Music used to be a subject we had to apologise for," says Monaghan. "No longer." The school has around 60 pupils taking a Standard grade this year, and eight sitting a Higher. "In the past you would only have had those learning an instrument privately outside the school."

Live performance is still an important part of the music course at Bellahouston. "The computer is a composing tool," says Monaghan. "Ultimately you want the music to be played live at the end. You need the human touch."

Pupils spend about one third of their time working on the computer, and the same on electronic keyboards and on live group performance. The computer can be a godsend as a back-up to live performance: producing recorded piano accompaniments to help Higher pupils practising their instrumental pieces; and allowing department staff and pupils to produce original music for school productions, modulated into a suitable key at the touch of a button.

Professional quality scores can be sent off to examiners, and pupils can design and print their own tape covers for a really polished result.

"I tell them there are going to be a lot more chances for people in Scotland to write music, in television and advertising and films," says Monaghan. "With more leisure time, music is going to be a larger part of our lives, and writing your own music is one of the most pleasurable aspects." Several pupils at Bellahouston have persuaded their parents to invest in music technology for their home computers. Composition, whether inspired by Beethoven or B*witched, is fast becoming a craze.

The introduction of technology into music departments across Scotland presents a patchy picture. "Quite a small percentage have embraced it as wholeheartedly as Bellahouston," says Carol Gillespie, business executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. "There is a lot of potential for the use of ICT in music, and in terms of finance this is the time to go for it. There is money available. But it is important that the use of ICT is curriculum-led. That is the only way teachers will be persuaded by it."

For further information on ICT contact SCET, tel: 0141 337 5000. Aileen Monaghan can assist in setting up an ICT music system and in using music software, tel: 0141 334 8760

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