Computer music in modern education. Is it a mixed blessing?
One of the more bizarre sights on television recently was a quartet of schoolkids on Commodore 64s, under the watchful gaze of their music master, doing battle with SID chips. A sort of 'Fanfare for the Common Micro', if you like. The programme, if you hadn't already guessed, was Channel 4's remarkably inept 4 Computer Buffs. (I mean, with a title like that, what more can you possible hope to expect?) But to return to the act and its artistes. What was actually being perpetrated on the 64s' keyboards was music - courtesy of that Music Composer program and its plonk-on plastic keyboard. But even given the very obvious limitations of the Commodore 64, and the even more obvious limitations of the software, the whole charade raised the thorny question of what on earth was actually being achieved. After all, hi-tech being used for lo-tech purposes is about as interesting as a Farfisa press launch. And why Commodore 64s, rather than Casio keyboards?
Well, lest all that sound like an unjustified attack on school music-making, let me put the record straight. I see micros in the music room as one of the most encouraging things to have hit the music educational scene for a long time. The problem is that an error of judgement seems to have crept in along the line - that of using micros for the sake of using micros. And it still doesn't seem to have sunk in that any new technology demands new ways of using it, which extends not only to how music is played and composed, but also to how it's taught.
A year or so ago, Rumblings reported on a group calling themselves 'TIME' (Technology In Music Education) that had been set up with the intention of setting 'standards for the collation and dissemination of software, schemes, and hardware relating to music education'. But sad to say, there's been an ominous silence ever since. Now that may reflect a regrettable fact of life that E&MM's grapevine doesn't stretch that far into education, or it may signify a switch-off to TIME'S draconian qualities, but my own gut feeling is that it may simply be symptomatic of a general feeling of confusion amongst the teaching profession, which has been obliged to take on new 'instruments' that are beyond its ken.
Certainly, judging by my own experience of question and answer sessions after talks I've given to teachers, it's all far from clear as to how and where the combination of computers and music fits into the curriculum. Of course, they might feel more comfortable if there were Associated Board exams in computer music, and 'O' and 'A' levels in computer music analysis and performance. But who wants a hundred-and-one ghastly attempts at turning what should be fun and mind-expanding into yet another offshoot of the academic rat-race?
In the States, they've got it much more nearly right (and so they should - they've had the technology for a good bit longer). Programs abound for teaching the rudiments of music, composition, and even instrumental technique, leaving the teacher to concentrate on the more human side of music education. On top of that, there's a flourishing inter-school communication link for sending around new individual and class pieces by modem, and regular vacation get-togethers for all and sundry to experience each other's ideas.
So why not the same in the UK? Take Prestel, for instance - it's simply itching to dig deeper into the educational training ground. And what about replacing some of those holiday orchestra, classics-bashing sessions with something new and vibrant in the computer music field? Let me know what you think - perhaps we can even get something going ourselves...
Editorial by David Ellis
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