Friday, 10 June 2011

My Blog has moved!

Dear reader,

my blog has moved! It can now be read at

best wishes

Jonathan Westrup
Drake Music

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A response to Toby Fox's recent Teaching Music Editorial

Dear Toby,

I really enjoyed your blog; it was honest, funny and relevant. Most importantly it's that rarest of things in music education at the moment, an authentic voice from the coal face. I echo your feelings about Music conferences being potentially awkward spaces for music teachers; I sat through a conference at the IoE late last year about the future of music education, and when the absence of teachers in the crowd was politely raised, the questioner met with a distinctly frosty response from the stage.

As a teacher who really struggled in my first job, the key thing is professional isolation. In order to reflect on things that happen, and to have a motivation to read widely and discuss contemporary issues, you need colleagues, sounding boards. I struggled just to keep going, often running the dept on my own; like you, I had no motivation, let alone time to keep up with the wider zeitgeist. I did care, it just passed me by, especially with no team to share it with. Think about nurses; they must suffer from the same kinds of issues in terms of being too busy to keep up with the latest research in the Lancet; but what they do have are colleagues, big teams of like minded, supportive staff.

I definitely benefit from being part of a small close-knit team in the music charity I work for, and I know I'm fortunate. We need wider teams of musicians from different backgrounds working together in schools throughout the week; not just one-off summer projects, e.g. the ubiquitous African drumming for two days in July. That’s why musical hubs – as recommended by Henley – are potentially a great idea. It links people in and increases the offer for all students in music. And it also goes a long way to helping classroom teachers care about keeping in the loop. Good luck with Hairspray!

NB: Toby's editorial can be found at

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Three reasons why Music must stay in the National Curriculum

Like politicians in the House of Commons, I try to avoid using particular individuals to make a point. But sometimes, that's the only way to bring home a message.

The three musicians pictured here are all unique in their own ways, as every student is. But what they have in common is that they all face physically disabling barriers to music, and they have all benefitted in the last five years from having access to formal music education, including accredited courses.

Charlotte White (top left) performed an abridged performance of Bach's Cello Suite No.1 Prelude, composed music for a festival in Norway and was recently profiled on Radio 4. Despite gaining A* in many of her other GCSE subjects, the only accreditation realistically on offer for her back in 2008 was Bronze Arts Award, which she achieved. Many accreditation boards were unable (or unwilling) back then to accommodate her performances done using assistive music technology.

Bradley Warwick (top right, seen here with Music certificate) has always been passionate about music and wanted to follow the same accreditation pathways as his non-disabled contemporaries. He was the first student to pilot Drake Music's 'Introduction To Music' Course in 2008-9, achieving Level 1 passes in all four units (GCSE equivalent D-G) He presented his work to PGCE students at Bristol University in 2010, using his VOCA (Voice Operated Communication Aid). With this qualification achieved, he has the opportunity to pursue more music courses in the future, should he choose.

Jordan Andow (above) attended a mainstream academy school in Bristol and wanted to take Music GCSE. However, the way his option blocks were organised meant that he couldn't pursue this, but the school supported him by paying for Drake Music to work with him in twilight (after school) sessions for two years. He achieved a Grade D pass in GCSE Music, and has continued to compose music for film soundtracks in his spare time since then.

My point? Disabled students like these have the most to lose if Music drops off the National Curriculum. At present, it is their main access to music every week (as it is for the majority of students) and their potential passport to follow accreditation pathways in music in the future. That said, this access and the quality of the provision is extremely patchy across the UK, with many music teachers needing more support.

But change is coming: Drake Music, alongside other organisations and individuals, have put access to formal music education for these students on the map in recent years. As part of out Curriculum Development Initiative we are currently teaching BTEC Performing Arts to seven disabled students in Bristol; a further six at a school in Stroud are halfway through the 'Introduction To Music' course. The numbers are going up and up and increasing numbers of SEN/disabled students will be looking to take a bigger part in KS3 lessons, extra curricular groups and to take GCSE, BTEC, A Level and beyond.

It would be ironic if, at the point at which the 'glass ceiling' is about to broken, Music dissapears from the NC and becomes out of reach once more to those with least access to it.

Monday, 23 May 2011

What's it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school (part 4: The Performance)

Suddenly, it's all going live...

After all the students' hard work, a performance opportunity arrives...two to be exact, on the same morning. We are invited to perform at the junior school site of our school, as part of an open day celebrating 'Hello'(the national year of communication - especially students who use VOCAs or Voice Operated Communication Aids)

None of my students will be using a VOCA on the day, but they most definitely will be communicating something: we have a 'mash-up' piece mixing pop chantuse Jessie J and doom-metal maestros 'System of a Down'; also, a 'JBs' style funk work out in the style of 'Pass the Peas'. So, music to get moody to; then music to get groovy to.

The students doing the 'JBs' number are using a multitude of instruments to perform: Tom plays bass using three coloured switches, one note on each; he has a pattern written out to play when required - my colleague Alex will hold up a large 'P' to him to signal it's time for the riff. Really it's no different from taking three notes off a keyboard and blowing them up into brightly coloured circles, rather than keys. Much more attractive to play.

Sid plays the Soundbeam with a Fender Rhodes keyboard sound; Jack plays Trumpet using two head switches, one note on each switch. I've written out a graphic score for him to play his pattern from. He understands completely what to do, and plays the pattern perfectly, in his own time.

The piece is great both times, the students show no signs of nerves. Particular standout moment is when Sid plays his solo and everyone else drops out; it's just him, me on very quiet arpeggios on my acoustic and a tambourine/ congas loop on which to hang it all. He grins at me as the notes ring out and swirl around the otherwise silent room; he has the crowd.

The Jessie J/ System of a Down track really packs a punch in comparison to the JBs piece; it begins with a moody drone played on a keyboard by Colin; hitting the two Cs (an octave apart) simultaneously and cleanly is a big achievement for him. Above this drone plays the monster 'System' riff - chopped into four sections and launched by Niall using his hand to play the switch (cyclic trigger mode - each time he presses it, it plays the next sample) It's drama of the highest order, probably equally at home in Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' at some climactic point or other.

The middle section is quite different; Sarah uses a switch to trigger samples of her singing lyrics from Jessie J's 'Price Tag'; it's in many ways a more empowering way for her to sing than using a microphone; she can place the vocal in the performance where she likes, repeat it at will, make choices about the effects used on it. Equally Sarah has been the main driver in the arrangement as a whole, showing a real flair for suggesting how the sections should fit together.

Next up in the performance, Colin does a clapping section with me, using a heavy delay (echo) on the microphone nearest him, so that the sound clatters around the room. Lastly, it's full circle back to the opening, moody drone/ monster riff. The crowd applauds, we tick some more assessment boxes in their BTEC Performing Arts folders, and as the last notes fade away, I'm left in slight awe once again about just how well young people respond to live performance. Put that in your E Bacc pipe, Mr Gove, and smoke it.

Friday, 18 March 2011

What's it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school (part 3)

I really liked the advice given in the Ofsted 'Making more of music' report for primary schools: "start with sound". It's so simple it's brilliant; don't spend the first 5 minutes talking, spend it playing. It's a bit like my first french teacher, Mrs Mack, who would enter the classroom and then speak in French for the first few minutes until the cleverest kid in the class worked out the gist of her question. You definitely knew which lesson you'd arrived at.

In fact, I do spend the first few minutes of this weeks session talking - mumbling - but only to the laptop; it's a habit of mine, as I work through the routine of getting the software up and running, instruments etc. God knows what the kids think...

Before the first class arrives, we have been asked to try and fix the school Soundbeam (update the drivers - bit like re-taking your test again); I'm not 100% certain I'll achieve it in the time I have, but happily we have a visiting Drake Associate Musician from London with us who is willing to give it a go. He duly fixes it in 10 mins (without any mumbling) This school are lucky in this instance; many more schools can't or don't fix their Soundbeam and it gathers dust in a cupboard.

Class 1 arrive (three students): one of the students (call him 'Sid') has returned after a few weeks absence; he's another fantastic student, full of laughs, and a thoughtful player of Soundbeam; he plays the beam with his left hand and can control his movements enough to play steady sequences of notes within the scale he is in. At the same time, he can use his right thumb to press a switch and control effects. In recent sessions he was using it to turn a filter effect on and off. With the filter on, it gives the impression of the instrument sound (in this instance a dulcimer...look it up...) being played quietly and softly. Then, when he turns it off, we're suddenly louder again. It's a trick of sorts - the volume isn't actually going down or up - but it's very effective and Sid understands what he's hearing i.e. playing louder/ quiter and can respond accordingly to changes in the music. Today he uses a Rhodes keyboard sound which fits in just nicely with the 70s funk sound (see below)

In the spirit of improvising, I invite him and the rest if the group to just make random choices: Sid can play any of the notes in his scale in any order; Tom (see last blog entry) can choose any combination of his bass switches; Jack (also back after an absence) is playing two switches: one with his head and one with his right hand - both switches have a single trumpet note on it, a high C on the head switch, the lower G on the other (makes sense to have the highest note on the highest switch) I add reverb and delay to the trumpet notes to give them oomph; if it takes you a fair time to position yourself and then to press a switch, you normally want something more than a paltry xylophone 'plonk' at the end of it all.

The piece we play is basically a funk jam in C, bit like the JBs doing 'Pass the Peas'. It's a good tempo, and has a swing to it. We play together, and then leave gaps for individual students to solo - and to hear themselves without the others. It's an effective piece, but we have to unpack the topic of improvisation further than this. It's not just playing randomly; it's playing randomly and then picking out individual bits that work, and then repeating/ developing these. So next week, I explain to the students, your aim is to pick out some patterns; nothing major, maybe just a 2-3 note riff you can find and then recall and repeat. But you've got to just play to reach this point in the first place ("start with sound")

Class 2 are doing the same session as Class 1 at the moment; the only girl in the group (call her 'Sarah') gives a perfect answer to the question: "What does improvisation mean?" ("it means making it up on the spot") Of all the students I worry that she is enjoying the sessions; sometimes - and this affects all music teachers I suspect - you're so busy dashing around setting up instruments, giving advice, demonstrating a technique, that we don't ask students often enough for their feedback. In the 'white heat' of setting up the BTEC course for the first time and running it, I feel like I've neglected this a bit. I don't mean simply asking "are you enjoying this?" but more "what are you enjoying, and for what reasons" (currently in the process of setting up tutorials to rebalance this)

One of the other students, Colin, is really starting to show flair in the way he plays the keyboard; even though we have taped off the rest of the keys - to help him focus on one C major scale - he duly ignores this and proceeds to range across the entire set of keys, up and down scales, two-noted chords played in thirds - with both hands at the same time; I notice also that he is quietly singing to himself as he does this; I ask him what he is singing and he replies that it is from a Vimto advert, his favourite drink. I quickly get a microphone set up so we can capture this; Colin has the natural flair of a showman, he loves improvising.

On the other side of the room, Sarah is playing Soundbeam with increasing confidence, using her right arm/ hand. Although we started off with a trumpet sound, I can sense she is unimpressed and so enquire if she'd like a different sound; "yes" comes the reply, "guitar". After trying some sounds out, she settles on a nice, pingy, stratocaster with a tremolo effect. She responds much better to this sound and I know how she feels; getting the right sound makes all the difference to your motivation to play, like having good quality colours to paint with.

We jam along and after half an hour, the session draws to a close; I make a mental note to look up Vimto adverts on YouTube, so I might sing along with Colin; I promise not to mumble.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

What's it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school? (Part 2)

First week back after half-term; Class 1 is still down on numbers - only one student present today (I'll call him 'Tom') but he's a fantastic musician. We want to start looking at improvisation today, traditionally a potential vipers nest to teach; I explain it as 'planned Vs made up on the spot'. This isn't strictly true - John Coltrane usually had some idea what might be about to happen - but this is the challenge of teaching Entry Level, that is, making concepts accessible. Music is a generous mistress in this point; even the most seemingly prosaic ideas can be understood on a sliding scale of difficulty, without losing any integrity.

Our take is to begin with a game of 'Just a Minute' i.e. having to make up stuff on the spot about a subject you've just been given. We take it in turns to talk, whilst the others form an audience, each holding a switch with a buzzer sound. It really is difficult to do and we find ourselves buzzing in with glee.

Next step is to ask Ben, my Drake colleague to play two short pieces on his sax, one improvised, one an actual tune (by Courtney Pine as it turns out). I ask Tom if he can tell which one was improvised, which is not an easy question. He looks unsure until I point out that you can often spot the 'planned' piece because it has a melody, which usually repeats.

On to the practical: I explain to Tom that he will have three switches, each a different colour (see picture above). Each switch plays a different bass note. You can hold the switch down to produce long notes, or use short presses for shorter notes. It's a lovely, gloopy sub bass sound. I tell Tom that he can choose any combination of switches to play in any order he sees fit - improvisation in it's simplest form. At first he plays the switches with his elbow, resting his chin on his hand as he does in very comical fashion, as if he is about to snooze off. As he endlessly holds down the note, a deep resonant bass note hums out of the speakers until it becomes slightly unnerving.

His (excellent) teacher, who always sits in with the class, suggests he employ a more sophisticated approach, using his fingers. Tom looks bemused, but lifts his elbow off the switch and begins pressing different switches. In turn, a multitude of different notes begins to filter out of the speakers. He quickly begins to connect with the music he is making and we all join in: me on guitar, Ben on Sax, his teacher on keyboard (a rhodes sound) He starts to find patterns in his playing - first the red and yellow switches, then the yellow and blue; he discovers a technique whereby you can rest your hand on both switches and blend the notes.

The entire piece sounds unmistakably like 1970's era Miles Davis i.e. 'In a Silent Way' which is not to say we aimed for this, but it's where we've arrived at by chance. We play for the next ten minutes without stopping - no words, no analysis, just music. It's what we call a 'magic moment' whereby 'stuff' just 'clicks'. My only concern is that the technology we are using to give Tom access to playing - Soundbeam - is not a common instrument (although it is more commonly found in special schools) and so the school would struggle to replicate the performance without us there.

This is the biggest challenge of all, to come up with lo-tech equivalents of what we do using 'hi-tech' equipment, and not lose the accessibility or the quality. It's what mainstream teachers struggle with every day and I can't ask them to try harder if I myself am not using the same equipment. So it's the equivalent of the 'recession buster' idea - trying to do the same kinds of things you usually do, but with less resources.

Class 2's piece is a case in point - a version of 'Pachelbel's Canon' using 6 switches, MIDI drum pads which use a bass sound from Reason - via our macbook laptop, a very nice harpsichord sound on a USB keyboard (again sourced from Reason software) . Today is the re-run of the cancelled performance before half-term. All the students are here this time plus invited friends from the mainstream secondary school next door, a very supportive crowd.

The warm up goes well; Student 1 (call him 'Niall') uses a chin switch to play which, as it suggests, involves him pressing a choice of three switches using his chin (the switches being attached to head) It gives him more control and speed than trying to play it with his hand (which can take him anything up to a minute to press). When he presses his switch, it triggers a drum fill, and then plays the first note of the sequence. The drum fill lets everyone else know we're back to note '1' again, plus it sounds great - completely at odds with the seriousness of the Canon. Then it's onto the next player (note 2, note 3 and so on), all attempting to be played with a sense of a steady pulse, and in the correct order.

Our drum pad player (call him 'Colin') is a really hands on musician; not for him to be using drum sticks to play the pads, but his fists. He must play one pad for each note of the sequence. We've put photographs of the other players on each drum pad to help him match his notes to the right person. He can play the sequence perfectly, but his attention can wander and he is bursting with energy. We need to get a performance in quick...

In the end it goes smoothly; the students are alert to when it's their tun to play in the sequence - especially Niall who has the heavy responsibility of being note no. 1. These students work incredibly hard on what is a tricky piece for any KS3 age student, disabled or not. But I get the strong sense they enjoy being challenged, even though it is last period on a Wednesday. These are intelligent students who love Music. It's a professional privilege to try and give them the access to performing that they so richly deserve, are entitled to. Even in his wildest dreams, Pachelbel couldn't have imagined this particular gig but I'll wager that he would have loved it.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

What's it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school? (Part 1)

Invisibility is a common problem in our work. Loads of people - including many in the music sector - simply haven't heard of us; and if they have, their knowledge is sketchy at best. This is no criticism - just try me on a 'starter for 10' on the finer details of workings of the ISM or the MEC, and I'd struggle. In my experience, because a lot of what we do involves non-mainstream technology/ gadgets/'s often difficult for people to 'get' what we do, it just seems too 'out there' and specialised.

I want to help demistify Drake Music. And the best way to do that is to simply describe what an average day is like - if such a thing exists - for an Associate Tutor like me, making music with music students who also happen to be disabled. Better still, describe my work week-on-week, the highs, the lows, the inbetweens. Many of the approaches and equipment we use can be assimilated successfully by other music educators, both in mainstream and special schools; but I hope that this bridging of a gap can be helped along by unpacking what happens in a Drake Music session - in this case, BTEC Entry Level Music.

So, this week...

We arrive and unpack the van - about 4-5 cases, 3 rucksacks, mic stands...guitar, saxophone, is a lot of stuff, but we need/ use it all. Wherever possible, we do use the equipment the school has - it's better for them in the long-term, so they can run their own sessions independently (as long as they can hang onto the non music-specialist staff who learn to use it...)

The session is run in a decent sized room, and well equipped in terms of computers/ projector etc. More than often, we're put into rooms resembling shoeboxes, and that's before you try to fit three wheelchairs into them. We get set-up quickly; hardware, software, wires etc. Many people's reaction on entering the room is that we are about to launch the next Apollo 11 mission (and it's true that we have more computing power in one laptop than they did on the entire craft)

You may have noticed I say 'we' - it's nearly always two tutors. It works best this way e.g. one person to run the computer, one to be 'front of house' talking and playing music with the kids. LAs often want to do this kind of work with one tutor. It rarely works, stressful for the tutor trying to do it all, a unsatisfactory experience for the kids. All music classrooms should ideally have two adults e.g. a teacher and a freelance musician, especially if they're using a lot of technology.

Back to the session...we open the software (Ableton Live/ Reason) and check everything is working. We use switches to launch audio clips; set up keyboards with gaffer tape blocking off many of the keys, to help the students focus on one particular scale; get the mic working; test the Soundbeam; check, check and check again. Mainstream teachers would need extra time and another person helping to get to this stage of preparedness (I know this, having been a classroom teacher in a mainstream secondary school previously)

Then, the TA who accompanies the first BTEC group (three physically disabled students, all with varying access needs) arrives to say that none of the kids are in, mainly due to illness. It's disappointing - we hoped to perform a piece today to an audience. Frequent absences is a key barrier to disabled students gaining accredited outcomes in Music (and other subjects). This group is full of strong personalities, and we have a lot of fun just jamming - but of course, we film the whole session as it is all potential evidence.

The second group are also depleted due to illness, again, a shame as we plan to perform our version of Pachelbel's Canon: eight switches, each with a single note on it...when played in the right order, we get the basic Canon. Instead we have a 'scratch' group consisting of other students who have come along to make up the numbers. We give everyone a switch, including the TAs. The floor looks like a sea of spaghetti with extension cables allowing the switches to stretch further (watch your feet, health and safety applies). Some students hold the switches on their laps, others press their switches mounted on an angle arm.

We do a sound check, with everyone playing their note in turn. They all work. We try playing the cycle of notes; I add Harpsichord, my colleague plays the ground bass notes on drum pads, borrowed from the school. The piece works, a beautiful sound emerges, participants are taken aback, until that is, one of the switches fails. We try swapping good. Check the; check the adaptor? Still no. Then we realise the order of the last two notes is also wrong...what's the solution? Try to back track through the MIDI brain is hanging out as I try to suss what needs to be done.

When this happened in the old days, when I first started doing this work, I felt the attendant silence in the room very keenly; seconds feel like minutes. In reality, it takes us 90 seconds or so to get things sorted; from the audiences point of view, it's no big deal, just a pause in events. In a classroom situation, with a mixed group of 30 students, I realise this would be a much bigger problem. But then, I wouldn't suggest using the equipment we have today, but instead try it with gear that teachers are confident with.

The piece continues, and again, it really works, has momentum, a sense of timing, people taking turns...staff stick their heads round the door to see where it's coming from. It could have been different, had we not been able to sort out the glitch midaway, and we have had to abandon sessions where we just couldn't save the situation ("computer says no") That's when the humble guitar comes in handy, as my other colleague attempts to get the 'engines restarted'.

So, a good outcome musically...a close call when it nearly all went down...absent students...'spaghetti' on the floor...Pachelbel done our way, accessibly.

More in two weeks...