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.

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