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Music for all teacher hits the right notes
Every Key Stage 3 student at Tiverton High School, a specialist arts college in Devon, is now learning a musical instrument - guitar, bass, keyboards, drums - thanks to an imaginative implementation of teaching, resources and online digital services by Head of Music Ian Wright.
Each learner gets one hour a week with teacher-supported online learning for their instrument. Once their skills are at the requisite level they simply move into the next classroom and start using what they have learnt on their own to play in bands with their friends. As a result, the take-up for both GCSE Music and Rock School Music Practitioner course (NQF Level 2) has increased.
The motivation behind it was that we are in a school where we have a lot of children who do not have the opportunities to learn an instrument, explains Ian Wright. Unless they have some skills they are not going to embrace the curriculum and they are not going to make the most of the short period of time we have - an hour a week. I had achieved some funding from business to support instrumental tuition, but when that was withdrawn take-up fell dramatically because the students simply couldnt afford to learn an instrument.
The search for an effective solution led Ian to the online music service Gigajam, which became the digital glue to hold together the learning and teaching and to make the resources PCs and instruments and rooms go further. I looked at Gigajam for all sorts of reasons but particularly the personalisation, says Ian. In reality this is the first time children in our music lessons have genuinely had the opportunity to work at their own pace, at their own level.
I am very pro the new curriculum practical ensemble work is vital. I wanted to give youngsters some skills and that is what we have done. Our work embraces the new National Curriculum and the new national strategy, which talks a lot about having a broad base of experience, with different styles and genres of music helping to further a childs musical understanding. Embracing practical music making is all well and good but its not going to happen if they dont have the skills at the level that I think children want to be involved in.
Ian points out that Gigajam in itself is not a complete answer. Its narrative introductions, video explanations and Xtractor play-along technology give performance assessments that are extremely powerful learning tools, but it also requires teachers to be proactive. My own feeling is that this is an excellent resource to use but its not the only resource and its not the only way in. The more tools we have in our toolbox the more equipped we are. I think teachers need to be selective and use their experience - its all about tailoring the curriculum to the needs of the children.
My pupils here need teacher-led support. In terms of using the software their skills are sometimes a little low, and they dont always have the patience - so they need to be a little more teacher-led and directed. Its not enough to say, OK guys, here is lesson one, and hope that after 10 lessons theyll turn into musicians. Its much more interactive than that.
The work has to have a goal beyond just learning the instrument, he says. And that is the ensemble work they embark on once they have the skills. Particularly helpful here is Gigajams Xtractor feature, which allows children to learn to play selected parts at a chosen tempo that suits their own skill level. This they do in time with a backing track that they control and then speed up to an appropriate tempo when their skills develop and they become more confident.
They work with what is essentially a midi play-along where they can record their performance, says Ian. They can slow it down, record it and then open and analyse it and see how theyve done. It produces a printed recording of their performance underneath the exercise printed above, and, looking at the two they can work out what they did right and what they need to develop. Because it gives a percentage score of their performance, students absolutely love it, it becomes competitive. It identifies areas where they are competent and areas that need to be improved. The teacher can also see it and support the student.
To me the strongest element of this program is that by using the Xtractor they gradually learn to play in time, with a backing track. The backing track will eventually be performed by their friends, when they move next door and start working as a band. Students want to do well, students want to succeed. At the heart of it we all do, and what this does is give them that opportunity because it is truly differentiated, allowing them to work at their pace and at their level.
Another strength of this digital work is that it is the medium the children already use and understand. They download and share songs and music files on their own MP3 players and Bluetooth them to each other using their mobile phones. So they are now becoming much more engaged with the work going on in the classroom.
Were like many schools, says Ian. We are not particularly privileged and we do have our fair share of disaffected students who struggle to engage with the traditional curriculum. But if we can tailor the curriculum to meet their needs and really help them to achieve something, we get rid of these problems. I am getting students coming in now in Year 9 who are excited and buzzing to be here and I think that its not just because of Gigajam but because of what it enables.
Youngsters are producing work of a higher standard and quality. When you ask a child whats a good standard of music, they will identify songs on their mobile phones or MP3 players. They listen to them all the time and what we have to do is reach out and bring that into the classroom. What I am trying to do with Gigajam and other services is to raise the game so the students feel really proud of what they are producing. I dont want them sitting there carrying out an academic exercise or learning to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on a keyboard when they are 13 and theyve got all the latest downloads and a strong musical understanding already in place, of specific styles and genres of music.
Tiverton introduced Rock School courses for students this year, something that Ian Wright has always wanted because the school doesnt have a sixth form. I have some great musicians who do the GCSE course and struggle a bit they are often very natural musicians who just want to play, says Ian. It was fantastic to start a course like this. Its been really successful, a vocational course they do for four hours a week and they leave with good healthy qualifications. Its brilliant to be able to offer that alongside GCSE music.
Now Ian Wright and his students are starting to use NUMU, a free music service provided by the Radiowaves service that is already popular with schools. NUMU, short for new music, is a safe online environment where young people can post and share their own music. They can collaborate and work together over the internet.
What excites Ian Wright is the fact that curriculum changes are coinciding with the kinds of advances in technology that can support them. A lot of children like to learn to learn and they are starting to take ownership of what they are doing. It is exciting and there is a change in the air. In the average state school weve always had the problem of capturing and keeping students engagement, particularly when they hit 13 years old because they are getting turned off.
I absolutely believe that giving kids the opportunities to develop skills and embark on good practical music making keeps them engaged. If you want evidence I would say that it lies in the fact that the uptake of music at KS4 has hugely improved. If I could get the options sorted out, I think I could get even more. I have more children doing GCSE Music and Rock School than before, and we have kids doing both courses who formerly wouldnt have been.
I am excited about the future. If we get it right, along with things like Musical Futures, there will be a real impact. There is a real buzz in the air and a massive sea change in the way that teaching and learning is developing in the music classroom. Weve got to do that because students are so far ahead, and they move at such a pace, we have to keep up with them and give them the opportunity to make that connection between the real world and what they do in the classroom. Embracing music technology and practical music making is the really exciting way to go.
Tiverton High School is a specialist arts college in Devon.
All Key Stage 3 pupils are learning musical instruments guitar, bass guitar, keyboards and drums.
The music department purchased a Gigajam Essential Skills Course unlimited licence for musical instrument tuition and increased the number of PCs available to deliver the lessons. It is supported by the South West Grid for Learning and is a mentor school for other schools in the area. All schools in the South West Grid for Learning area have free online access to the ﬁrst ﬁve lessons of the Gigajam Essential Skills Courses.
Students use Gigajam in Year 7 as a specific introduction and a way of developing some instrumental work. Then they use it in Year 8. Towards the end of Year 8 they are taken through a carousel of instruments to explore. At the end of Year 8 and beginning of Year 9 they are introduced to a programme of tailor-made Gigajam lessons, leading into stylised performance work in bands in the second stage.
Two classrooms have been adapted for Gigajam lessons. One is set up with 15 computers to accommodate ﬁve guitars, ﬁve bass guitars and 15 keyboards, with an adjoining room set up with five drum synths and computers. Another music classroom and practise rooms allow space for ensemble playing, providing space for ﬁve working rock bands.
A total of around 500 children across the two year groups are learning instrumental skills on one of four instruments as part of their music curriculum.
The school is now starting to use the free NUMU service for the students to share their work and collaborate in a safe online environment created for them.
Merlin John is a freelance editor and writer who also runs his own website at www.merlinjohnonline.net .
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