Technology tempo

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Are you up to speed with the computer age in music? Hilary Wilce looks at ways in which ICT can be particularly effective in raising levels of motivation and involvement among GCSE and A-level students

Does bringing technology into music lessons open up the subject to students who might not normally be interested in it, or who assume that because they do not play or sing, they cannot be good at it?

Absolutely, says David Elliott, director of music at the Latymer School in north London, who has been using computers in teaching for the past three years and has been "bowled over" by the results.

"I would say to anyone 'just try it'. No one could have been more sceptical than I was. I'm a very traditional musician. I'm over 40 and I thought I'd probably never need to touch a computer in my life. But the results are so much better than I ever could have anticipated. They are amazing."

At Latymer, as in a still small but now steadily growing number of schools, music software programs have been added to the school's information and communications technology repertoire, to allow students to create, edit and manipulate their own arrangements and compositions.

The school - a selective, mixed-foundation grammar school - has a computer room where all 30 PCs have been equipped with Cakewalk music software which allows whole classes to create individual pieces of music using the normal mouse and keyboard. About half the computers are also equipped with keyboards, which the GCSE students tend to use.

"We have devised schemes of work with Years 7, 8 and 9 which use all the normal things you do in music classes, but which then let us take students into the computer room to work on their own arrangements," says David Elliott. "The enormous advantage is that students can instantly hear what they have written, something that's otherwise very difficult to do unless you're a skilled keyboard player. They can trust their ears to hear what they are doing and get it right."

The school became involved in working with this system when a new ICT teacher with an interest in music arrived and soon discovered that the students love it.

"One of the problems with students today is that they have very sophisticated ears and know what they want to hear, but don't always have the performance skills to achieve it," says David Elliott. "With computers they can. We have seen fabulous results, and not necessarily from the best musicians. We tend to have a lot of very able musicians in school, but it's certainly not always the students with the best performance skills who are best at this."

Year 10 pupil Robert Jones says: "It's encouraging. You can write songs easily and hear them as soon as you have made them."

Pupils may be also able to access technology via the Internet, at least in demo form, which they may find better than software that their schools can offer. Cubase software is more versatile than Cakewalk and more user-friendly, says Robert. It has a greater range of sound, offers slicker switching and different sound textures, but costs up t pound;400 as opposed to pound;80.

Still, the school now has increasing numbers of music GCSE candidates selecting the technology option as part of their course and is considering offering a discrete music technology AS-level. Music technology is also now growing fast as a separate subject from other music qualifications. "It's much more exciting," says Robert.

Aylward School, also in Enfield local education authority, an 11-18 comprehensive with a high level of special needs, is currently the only school in this area to offer the full music technology A-level, and as a result draws its handful of students from across the borough and beyond.

"I was thinking about taking regular music A-level, but I knew I'd be chronically bored if I did," says 17-year-old Adrian Roye, from Winchmore School, who comes to Aylward for his lessons. "I aspire to be a singer, songwriter, producer, and I think this will be useful if I want to get a job in a studio, or something like that, after I finish."

Students learn about using sequencing and recording skills, how to use technology to compose and arrange music, and how to listen and analyse recordings. Far from a traditional A-level, it takes students out of the classroom and gets them down among the snaking cables of the recording studio.

Perhaps not surprisingly, "there are absolutely no discipline problems whatsoever when you teach this", says Aylward music teacher Colin Drake. On the other hand, he points out, the subject makes a lot of technological demands on students "and can be dry". Students, who are often self-taught guitarists and keyboard players, have to buckle down to learn how to play scales and read musical scores.

The subject is expensive to provide, and technology changes fast. "And if your equipment isn't reliable, you can often spend half the lesson trouble- shooting," says Colin Drake.

Even so, the school thinks it worthwhile. The students, all versatile players and performers, put on concerts in school and go out and win external prizes. "Hearing them play attracts the attention of younger students," says Colin Drake. "And seeing something done at this level gives them something to aspire to."

Steve Lewis, performing arts subject leader at the exam board Edexcel, who has just written the A and AS-level music technology specifications for September 2000, says the music technology A-level is growing fast. "The only real growth in music in schools is likely to be in this area," he believes.

The new syllabus no longer requires students to perform, but they do have to look at music from the Western classical tradition, as well as being able to choose options such as world music and film music. In-service courses are available to teachers wanting to teach such courses, and some equipment manufacturers offer educational support.

Music technology websites also offer a gateway into the subject for teachers wanting to explore possible options. You could start off by visiting:

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