Your school of rock

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Pop goes the music lesson with a novel idea that gets pupils to form their own bands and learn to play by ear. James Cross sings its praises

Pop goes the music lesson with a novel idea that gets pupils to form their own bands and learn to play by ear. James Cross sings its praises

Musical Futures is a set of ideas and resources based on the way that musicians learn in the real world. Pop musicians, the theory goes, learn in a much more haphazard and ambitious way than musicians who are educated in music formally, but they still reach high levels of musical skill.

Based on this principle, pupils can also be thrown in at the deep end, choosing and rehearsing a cover version of a song from scratch, as opposed to learning through simple, progressive steps.

After reading about this approach, I was eager to try it. It's mainly aimed at Year 9 pupils, often about the time when interest in music making can wane. At the start, pupils divide themselves into small "bands" and work in friendship groups throughout the project.

While this might sound like a nightmare at first (cue the cries of "I'm not working with him, Sir"), it works well once they've settled into the project.

The bands then spend some time choosing their song from CDs and iPods. For me, this was the point where the panic set in. While some groups will decide on a song during the first lesson, others will take a few weeks. The sight of five kids sitting in a practice room listening to music and not much else can be frightening, but once they've decided on their song, it is usually full steam ahead.

The pupils then select the instruments that they'll use and start rehearsing, using the original version for reference and learning by ear.

The teacher acts as an observer, offering advice when pupils ask for it, and only intervening in matters of behaviour; another leap of faith that takes getting used to.

Resources and space need forethought. One non-negotiable is a separate area for each group during each lesson, and this may necessitate some creativity on the teacher's part.

Practice rooms and classrooms are perfect if you're one of the lucky few who have enough, but storerooms, offices and corridors are fair game.

Although you can run the project well using classroom instruments, allowing the pupils access to guitars, bass and drums will add to the authenticity and excitement.

Setting up and packing away so much kit can be a nightmare for the teacher, so it's important to build this into the structure of the lesson, and drill the necessary routines into pupils from lesson one. A laminated "pack-away" list for each group can be useful.

Although the initial stages can be nerve-racking as a teacher, the project will eventually lead to that warm fuzzy feeling that crops up when something magical is happening in the classroom.

Pupils amazed me during every lesson with the progress they made from week to week, their enthusiasm and the way that they listened to and helped each other musically.

To me, the most important function of music education is to send pupils into the world with a love of the excitement and magic of music making. This is exactly what Musical Futures has done for my pupils

James Cross teaches at High Storrs School in Sheffield.

You can do it too .

- Allow and record frequent performances, even if they're just works in progress. You can upload them for free on Then pupils can listen to them and download at home.

- Get management on board. To the uninitiated, the lessons can appear unstructured and unconventional, so it's important colleagues know what you're up to. There's a guide specifically for senior management, plus an Ofsted appraisal of the project on the official website.

- Have faith during the early stages, and share your pupils' enjoyment in the progress they make.

- Visit

Popular song choices

"Fake Tales of San Francisco" by Arctic Monkeys

"Valerie" by Amy Winehouse

"Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes

"Clocks" by Coldplay


Two books by Lucy Green, whose ideas founded the project:

Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy and

How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for School Music.

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