Testers take steps to move with the times;Music and the Arts

12th February 1999 at 00:00
As Beethoven never got to use a sampler, nor Mozart a mouse, A-level music studies today must go beyond the classical. Maureen O'Connor reports.

It has been 60 years since Benny Goodman shocked America by playing jazz at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall. But despite imaginative teaching in some schools, the gulf between the classical tradition and the rest - jazz, rock, pop, reggae, drum and bass, you name it - seems in some quarters as deep as ever.

Many young musicians see the academic examination system as still too dominated by Western classical music. A-level in particular emphasises classical performance and theory. GCSE is more inclusive, and a growing number of higher education courses focus on popular music and the technology that makes it possible.

But until the London Board (now Edexel) launched its A and AS-level courses, post-16 students who wanted to pursue careers in non-traditional music and recording technologies could choose from only the BTEC national diplomas in performing arts or popular music.

But things are changing. At the BRIT Performing Arts and Technology School in Croydon, Surrey, six students last year took a London Board AS-level in music technology - a fresh departure for the school and a relatively new one for the exam board.

As with any new subject, the school had teething troubles. But in the event the six came up with an A, two Bs and three Ds - which pleased John Williams, director of studies for music.

He says: "For the sort of students we have here, the music technology A and AS-level has filled a genuine gap. Some of the traditional universities will not look at a BTEC on its own, so we have always encouraged students to take an A-level as well. But we have found problems with the traditional music A-level. Even people who have gained an A or A* at GCSE are not always well prepared for the traditional exam. They may be highly creative and musical but uninterested in a course that essentially prepares people for a traditional degree in music or for the conservatoire."

Pupils who take A-level music, he says, tend to be those who have learned an orchestral instrument and who have had theory lessons, probably privately. He says the new music technology courses follow on much more logically from GCSE.

His students have voted with their feet: the number of entries for next summer's music A-level is down to three from 12 two years ago, while 13 students will take AS music technology. John Williams says the new course will encourage more students to go on to the A-level.

Which takes us back to a familiar question: is the new exam easier or simply different? It is certainly different, although in ways the academic system is familiar with. Exam boards have accepted that the technology offers a new creative tool, and GCSE boards have begun to recognise computer-based synthesisers and sequencers, as a first instrument, says Declan Cunningham, who teaches recording techniques and music technology.

The music technology A-level includes written papers on aspects of music technology, a performance element, assessment of composition and arrangement and course-work elements of studio-based recording and sequencing.

On paper, nothing in the new exam should cause particular difficulty in a system already used to assessing performance and coursework in music and other creative subjects.

In practice, as with any new exam, the BRIT School has minor worries. Two particular problems stand out. The first concerns fair marking between schools that may have differing levels of technology. The BRIT School, funded partly - and generously - by the music industry, has few problems on this score. It has a 24-track, industry-standard recording studio as well as related technology for video, television and radio production. Digital equipment will also soon be available.

Less well-endowed schools may be limited to four-track recording with a single microphone. In these circumstances, the examiners have to consider which student is showing greater skill.

Performance and composition can be a problem too, says Declan Cunningham. AS music technologyJstudentsJare expected to offer a performance at Grade 6 level, but this raises difficulties in a field where music is rarely written down, and improvisation and collaboration are the norm. A pupil who passed the exam last year, Mark Thompson, says students face pressure to take a "safe" route through performance. He finds that the sheer complication of a pop performance - setting up amplifiers, backing tapes and so on - detracts from his own instrumental efforts.

But the BRIT School is happy with last year's results and intends to continue at A-level.

John Williams says: "The board seems totally committed to getting this right. It is giving a lot of practical guidance to teachers moving into this area. And this is already a very musical exam. If you are going to work in the recording industry you have to be, above everything, musical and in command of the technology."

Nomusfaut Kevin Hayter likes toJbreakJnew groundJ-Jlast yearJheJtookJeight teenagers on a trek to the North Pole. But I find him in the more temperate climes of East Sussex, leading pupils on a journey of discovery at Robertsbridge Community College.

I sit in on three of his lessons - one each for Years 7 to 9 who have three compulsory 50-minute music periods a fortnight. Every student looks as if he or she wants to be there.

One reason, I imagine, is that technology features in such a big way. They've spent a lot of money on it here - "as in hell of a lot," says headteacher Brian Hartley, although he still doesn't think it enough and hopes to invest a further pound;60,000 on sound and light for the hall. (It already has quadrophonic sound.) Hayter believes music technology grabs children's attention, which is why the music room has 30 Yamaha and Casio keyboards,JdigitalJsound, widescreen TV, laser discs and Dolby surround cinema sound.

Most music today uses technology in some way, yet many teachers are still terrified of it. This results in children being brought up with two styles of music: music outside the school and an entirely different type inside.

"I think that's so sad," says Hayter. "Some children have a different brand of music thrust upon them. They will always see this gulf. I will play everything; Indie, Mozart, the lot."

Minutes into the Year 7 lesson, students of all abilities are playing "In My Dreams" by dance music maestro Robert Miles.

"Music to me is everything to do with sound," says Hayter. To illustrate this, he shows a clip from Star Wars - minus the sound wizardry: no effects, no sweeping orchestral music and all the characters with normal voices. This approach is extended for Year 8 with the opening sequence of another, supposedly scary, film. First, it is shown without music. Pretty tame. But just a few seconds after the soundtrack is added, the first startled shriek is heard from the class.

The lesson comes to an electrifying end with the whole class accompanying the soundtrack on keyboards.

Year 9, meanwhile, are learning about the hearing process by recording their own voices and transforming them into cartoon chipmunk voices. "Kevin glories in the success of music and the success of the school," says Brian Hartley.

The teacher himself modestly puts this success down to approaching the subject from the children's own culture. "I like finding new ways of doing things," says Hayter. "I don't use anybody else's material for lesson plans."

He adds that, being dyslexic, he tends to think differently from other people. "The gift of dyslexia," he calls it.

A Year 8 student tells me: "He's a cool teacher. He's up to date in the music world. He does music in a fun way." That's why she nominated him for the Disney Channel Teacher of the Year award in 1998. From 2,000 entrants he was one of the eight short-listed finalists. For that achievement, he won pound;2,000 - and spent it on Brazilian percussion instruments and surround screen cinema for the hall.

His GCSE students - violin, saxophone, trumpet, piano and flute players among them - are just as enthusiastic. "He gives you the drive to learn," says one. They then demonstrate how by playing "Dance of the Hours" - on drainpipes.

Having deliberately gone for popular music, Hayter has, says Hartley, introduced a different feel for the subject within the school. "There are some seniors now who two years ago wouldn't have dreamed of doing music. They are now thinking 'This is for me'."

Which is why, I suspect, a quarter of the school is in the choir.

At the same time, what Hartley calls the "workaday" brand of music is maintained for serious musicians. "Children who excel on the more traditional instruments still get that as part of their coaching."

And this is just the beginning. "I want some type of big jazz band," says Hayter. "I've got the sound system, now I'm building up Years 7, 8 and 9. They're the future. I want to make it a community band as well. That's the whole remit. Teaching children how to mix properly."

Stravinsky once commented, "People are taught to have too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it instead."

He would surely applaud the approach here.

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