A sound investment: Computing technology is finally proving its mettle in music lessons

Musicians, creative lot that they are, long ago perceived the creative possibilities afforded by new computing technology. But it has taken a little longer for the technology to infiltrate the typical music classroom. This isn't down to the reluctance of music teachers but rather to the limitations of the hardware. That is, until now.

"When computers were first introduced into music departments, they generated a considerable degree of excitement as teachers could see the potential for using ICT in their teaching," says education consultant David Ashworth, editor of www.teachingmusic.org.uk. "Yet, affordable computers, powerful enough to realise some of this potential, have only been available relatively recently."

This is certainly the experience of many music teachers. Adrian Knowles, music teacher at Crawshaw School in Leeds, repeatedly asked the school to invest in a Mac in order to access the kind of processing power to support sophisticated music software.

"A simple PC might be fine for Word processing and Excel spreadsheets, but it does not have the RAM to handle the big music packages," says Knowles, who as well as teaching at the specialist humanities college plays the double bass professionally, most recently supporting jazz singer Sarah Mitchell on her debut album. "As a teacher, there's nothing more frustrating than a computer not doing what it's supposed to, particularly when you've got your lesson all planned out. It really switches the kids off."

The new Mac is already earning its keep, says Knowles. The free GarageBand software that came with the computer has proved a real hit, helping the students develop their skills and express their creativity. "For a free package, it's excellent," says Knowles, adding that some of the Sarah Mitchell album was also recorded using GarageBand. "There's enough to it to keep the students interested all the way up to KS4."

Crawshaw students also use the near-ubiquitous Sibelius notation software package, which Knowles says has had a positive impact on GCSE results by improving students' composition and score-writing skills. Indeed, Sibelius is popular across the secondary sector (it is used by over 75 per cent of UK secondary schools), opening up the world of composition to students who may have limited or no notation skills.

ICT expert Juliet Joy of RM, the leading technology supplier to schools, says Sibelius is like the Microsoft Word of the music world. She stresses, however, that music theory still has its place.

"You can't escape the theory of music, nor should you," says Joy, who works with schools across the Dudley area in the west Midlands. "Even very gifted musicians need theory. They need to internalise it in order to enhance their understanding and help with composition."

Sibelius Software also produces a range of software packages for primaries – Groovy Shapes (ages 5 to 7), Groovy Jungle (7-9) and Groovy City (9-11). These animated music programs look more like computer games than the music sequencers and editors they really are, enabling children to explore musical sounds and rhythms, and create their own original music.

Topologika's Music Box package also lets children make music on a classroom computer without knowing anything about notation. Pupils can explore sounds, chords and percussion, and create single- or multi-part compositions using more than 200 instruments. It provides colourful "paper strips" that they can slide up and down to change pitch, and stretch, shrink, split and join to make different notes. The company's Words & Music package allows learners to add lyrics so that compositions can start with words, music or both. It auto-writes the notation alongside the creation of the song.

"Learning notation can put off a lot of children from getting into music, particularly composition," says Roger Broadie of Frog, the learning platform supplier. "These software packages make composition much more accessible. It keeps their enthusiasm for creativity going until their skills level catches up."

He believes ICT can really open up the world of music to children who might otherwise lack the skills or confidence to engage with the subject. Schools that have invested in learning platforms that span the whole school community are seeing the benefit as students' out-of-school enthusiasm for music creeps online.

"You can get a lot of music stuff on to the platform," says Broadie. "Anything the children have created, whether it's their own performance displayed on YouTube or just their own playlists of music they like, can go up there, reach an audience and get a debate going."

At Attleborough high school in Norfolk, for example, a group of Btech music students used the Frog learning platform to promote a gig. "They got 200 people to come and then streamed it live to the whole school," says assistant head Harry French, who says the learning platform is taking the school by storm with around 1,000 people logging on every day. "It creates a really wide audience for their performances."

Another useful tool for young musicians seeking an audience is the www.radiowaves.co.uk website, which allows students to create radio programmes, videos, podcasts and blogs. Yet this wonderful world of internet radio stations, online tuition, electronic recording studios and automated score-writing packages needs to sit within a traditional music department with old-fashioned pianos, metronomes and flesh-and-blood teachers. "This isn't an alternative to music teachers," says RM's Juliet Joy. "It's complementary and adds an extra dimension."

'We use handsets to quiz the children about music'

Terrace Road primary school in inner-city Swansea uses an unusual tool to get pupils engaged in music. Qwizdom is a hand-held voting system, like the ask-the-audience handset used in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which lets the whole class respond to questions, with their answers shown on a graph on an interactive PowerPoint slide.

Teacher Peter Owen explains: "The children in this area don't tend to have the advantages of music tuition, so there are quite low skills and some reluctance, particularly among some of the boys, towards learning music. But ICT helps to get them engaged. We haven't got the money for computers in every classroom, so sometimes we take the music class to the IT suite to have a play with music software, but with the Qwizdom handsets we can use them alongside the instruments.

"In music, you're desperate for them to use their ears so we use the Qwizdoms to play a little 'name-that-tune' quiz. It's a nice warm-up activity that gets them listening. We also use the handsets to listen to sound clips or look at pictures of instruments on the screen and then ask questions. Is the instrument woodwind or percussion? Can they name the instrument? With choir practice, we use it to see if the children can remember the next line in a piece of music. The idea is that by predicting what comes next, they can learn the words much more quickly.

"In recorder class, we can play a note and show a picture of the recorder with the fingering and ask them is this right? You can really get them to think about it. It's the anonymity that makes it so powerful because it helps grow their confidence."

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