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.

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