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.