Tap into energy and talent

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Teachers must embrace the music technology and start using it in all areas of creative school life, says David Ashworth

A 10-year-old Glasgow girl recently composed a work using a computer program, and it has been performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Beatles produced their album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, using state-of-the-art computer technology, which required all the resources of Abbey Road Studios and a team of technicians.

Today, schools have the resources to reproduce Sgt Pepper's, and to enable students to produce original music for orchestras, or anything else that takes their fancy. And yet, in most schools, the extraordinary potential of the technology that music departments have is massively underused. Too many teachers are unskilled in exploiting it or are not even aware it exists.

For many with a background in classical music, their subject has expanded in recent years to areas with which they are not (or were not) familiar - for example, world music and pop are now huge. But it is the latest music technology, another major component, that is often the straw that breaks the camel's back. The time when technology meant a few tape recorders and an Atari computer is long gone, but much of the powerful equipment now installed in schools is being asked to perform the same old tricks - to play back, transpose, or emulate a multitrack tape recorder.

Even where it is used more effectively, the technology is often cut off from all other music-making. In music technology rooms you can still see rows of computers and students wearing headphones, facing the wall and shuffling their mice, completely isolated. Nothing gets in and, as a consequence, little gets out. There are no ideas flying around. Technology is also, perversely, seen as an extra hurdle for children to overcome, and the challenges they are set are sometimes so simple as to be patronising.

The opposite should be happening. As technology makes music-making easier, the bar can be set much higher, and the work made far more inspiring and challenging. To underestimate students' ability to use technology is daft, as they are often more adept with it than their teachers. In music, more than any other subject, there is a huge dichotomy between what goes on inside and outside school. On the outside, there has always been a lot of rock and pop music being created and performed. The big growth now is in bedroom music, with kids working at home with their computers, creating, layering and structuring music and then sharing it with their friends.

There is a huge amount of energy, talent and expertise there that schools should be tapping into. And, with the computer resources now available, there is no reason for music-making in school and at home to be separate.

We have to look at ways to open out the use of technology so it is integrated with the world around it.

Music technology can come out, not just to join the rest of the department, but to embrace all the arts - drama, dance and everything creative. It should also appear on the stage, something which is still rare. Whatever may happen in music departments, school concerts are still run along traditional lines.

There is a growing number of software packages for understanding and creating music, and for using computers as instruments, with each keystroke giving a different musical (and visual) response. Complex works can be created by manipulating images on screen. The component parts of existing works can be explored and isolated.

The interactive whiteboard is an incredible tool. It enables you to listen to a piece of music, demonstrate it visually and see how it develops and changes. To be most effective, technology needs to not only be understood, but used well.

As the government presses for ICT to be fully deployed in schools, a new organisation, the National Music Management Group, has been set up to help and support music teachers in its use. It will identify good resources and show how they can be used, give advice, and encourage the use of ICT in music teaching and in performance.

Sgt Pepper's came out in 1967. By making full use of all the instrumental and ICT skills they now have available, schools should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary by doing something the Beatles could never do - perform Sgt Pepper's live on stage.

* David Ashworth is lead consultant of the National Music Management Group.

He was talking to Tim Homfray, who will visit schools that have been successfully using ICT in music performance for next term's music focus pages

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