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.