Songs in the key of IT

Programs which help sequence and score music enable students to concentrate on being creative
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The Independent Online

"When the fear goes, and when composing ceases to be merely mechanistic, I begin to see pupils become purely creative," says music teacher Andrew Jones. "Computers allow this to happen."

"When the fear goes, and when composing ceases to be merely mechanistic, I begin to see pupils become purely creative," says music teacher Andrew Jones. "Computers allow this to happen."

Music lessons at Great Sankey High School in Warrington encourage pupils to use compositional software to see beyond the often laborious process of making music. "We encourage them to lay down as many sounds as possible - they become quite intrepid - and then they set about refining the sound. We get outstanding results," says Jones.

This enthusiasm for music technology is mirrored in schools nationwide and teachers credit it with inspiring pupils who might otherwise be turned off by music lessons. In the past year a host of new products and upgrades have emerged, many targeted at schools in the wake of the Government's music manifesto championing greater access to music education. This year's BETT awards for educational technology reported a surge in entries for music products and rewarded notation software creator Sibelius and interactive music education system Gigajam for design excellence.

"Without using ICT, pupils other than the classical musicians among them can find music stuffy," says David Shoukri, assistant director of music at Bedford Modern School. "The non-specialist technology makes it so much more accessible for them."

The sheer variety of tools available can be overwhelming. Compositional software is probably the most widely used in classrooms - both sequencing and score writing technologies. Sibelius and Cubase products are favourites and Sibelius has brought out an education suite of six products geared to the curriculum, which has been well received by teachers. This covers ear training, compositional software and detailed information on instruments, and can be used in groups, one to one or with an interactive whiteboard. Compass, its new award winning interactive creative tool is already in some schools.

"Good composing software is incredibly helpful - sequences and score writing are the things that teachers want as they realise the potential to improve attainment," says Duncan Mackrill, PGCE music curriculum tutor at Sussex University and senior education adviser at Counterpoint MTC.

Sequencing software - the updated Cubase and Mac-based Logic to name some educational favourites - can be more accessible to non-classically trained musicians and are available from beginner to professional level. Many teachers favour the traditional sequencer Reason for its user-friendly presentation. "Everything is in the box," says David Shoukri. "It's seamless, you can explain how to use it in 10 minutes and you get fast and good results." At a more specialist level, Shoukri introduces pupils to the more complex industry standard sequencer Logic.

For music and media, an extremely popular option at Key Stage 3, Magix Music Maker and the Mac-based GarageBand are helpful and inexpensive. Sequencers can also be used for greater flexibility. Dance Ejay is another good cheap contemporary music making product used in education.

For easy, mobile recording, mini disc recorders prove very popular, although Sony is about the only company to now produce a model with a microphone input. Edirol has brought out a new portable audio recorder, the R1, which allows you to transfer to computer or write to CD - "nice and easy to use," says Duncan Mackrill.

While music departments may not have had the opportunity to use interactive whiteboards, these are winning over hearts of teachers nationwide. "They're good tools for focusing attention, for demonstrating - you can display a score for example and drag and drop notes - and it's so much more engaging for a class to work on some activities as a group rather than stare at individual computers," says Mackrill. Any PC-compatible software will run on whiteboards. Even the introduction of a data-projector can make a big difference for those without the budget for dedicated suites and studios.

Although the industry acclaimed interactive education system Gigajam isn't yet widespread in mainstream schools, makers hope it will be soon, given its success in city learning centres and specialist schools. Professional musicians and educators have collaborated to produce courses to introduce pupils to instruments and improve performance aimed at key stages 2 and 3. Modules for guitar, bass, keyboard and drums can prepare the beginner for GCSE studies.

"It's contemporary - it brings music alive for children," says Gigajam commercial director John Hillier. Pupils can play along to virtual bands, and receive graphic feedback on their performance and timing and make a record of their improvement. And obviously, it introduces instrumental tuition to pupils who wouldn't otherwise have any instruction at all. "A computer could never teach posture or expression - this doesn't replace teachers - but it does make instruments more accessible to children who would have been excluded," he says.

While aspects of the assessment of music pupils have been criticised by Ofsted, the new eSAAMS video and audio capture tool from Counterpoint MTC will allow teachers a user-friendly means of reviewing and reporting on students' progress - pupils can also see and assess how they are learning. Likewise Counterpoint's keyboard and audio network, Kaan allows a teacher to control settings for simultaneous use by two pupils and record students' performance onto a database among many other functions.

Few teachers would question the benefits of technology, although critics have thought computers remove the skill and craftsmanship from music training. "This technology doesn't make composing any easier," counteracts Andrew Jones. "It just simplifies the process of writing it down."

The spread and cost of music technology can be daunting for pupils and teachers alike, and education would benefit more school-friendly technology, says Duncan Mackrill. "There's no doubt technology has revolutionised the way music is taught and what pupils can achieve. But amongst teachers there's often a lack of training and the very real fear of what to do when something goes wrong or you or your students press the wrong button. Music software used in secondary schools is frequently very complex, but teachers' skills are developing."

'When I have my own ideas, nothing is limiting me'

Rachel Lockwood, 18, is studying A-level music, music technology, maths and physics at Egglescliffe School, Cleveland

I'm hoping to study music at Oxford next year if I get my grades. I play the violin and piano. I use Sibelius [notation software] for all my arranging and composition and produce scores for music technology course work. It's a fantastic music programme - I've been playing around with it for 9-10 years. I started using it properly at secondary school. The more composition you do, the closer you get to what you want. I've produced music I would never have been able to produce if I didnt have access.

Some of my work has been performed. You can just produce parts and hand them out. I also use a Yamaha digital mixing disc with 32 tracks. It's a good amateur recording studio.

When I have my own ideas, nothing is limiting me. I would never have got to the standard I am at in composition if I didn't have access to technology. It's such a new field and expanding quickly. Computers are as important in music as in everything else. It's essential everyone gets exposure to them.

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