Music In Our Schools
Choosing The Technology
Stephanie Sobey-Jones tackles the tricky subject of selecting appropriate hardware when setting up a school music lab.
Stephanie Sobey-Jones underlines the importance of choosing the right equipment as the basis of a music teaching system.
Is the use of technology in music teaching an expensive gimmick, or does it perform a genuinely valuable function? In the depths of school Music departments all over the country, there is even more frantic activity than usual — meetings, courses, schemes of work — will it all fall into place ready for September? I am, of course, referring to the implementation of National Curriculum Music, and once more that 't' word is rearing its controversial head. While it is generally agreed that the incorporation of technology into Music and other subjects is an excellent idea, the actual role of the technology in the Music class still seems to be something of a grey area. This would appear to be due, in part at least, to the fact that the National Curriculum guidelines seem to contain fewer specific references to types of equipment, and suggestions for its use than perhaps were originally anticipated by many teachers. Do I detect sighs of relief all round? Perhaps not! Ironically, the new guidelines (and it must be stressed that the examples given in the document for use of various instruments/equipment are ideas rather than compulsory activities) would seem to have inadvertently opened up one or two new cans of worms. "How do I justify buying all this expensive equipment in the light of the new guidelines?" I have been asked on more than one occasion. "What good is one computer and a Portastudio to a class of 25?"
Obviously the question of funding is one with which we are all familiar. In most schools, a well-equipped room which can provide technology and recording facilities for a class of 25 is still something of a dream rather than a reality. So, is the concept of music technology in school still to be considered as a luxury 'gimmick' to be enjoyed by only a few pupils? And does its seemingly disproportionate representation possibly imply that musical skill is still likely to be measured in terms of the ability to master what we could term the more 'conventional' performance activities?
There are those who would argue that playing the violin demands a greater level of technical and musical expertise than the 'button pushing' which is associated with technology-based activities. Speaking as a classically-trained cellist turned music technology lecturer and studio owner, I cannot deny that the 'button pushing' and the violin playing demand somewhat different types of skill, but is it fair to imply that the end product of one activity is more or less musically valid than the other? Both activities demand a high degree of co-ordination and aural perception, and we must not forget that at the end of the day, enjoyment of our favourite recording, live broadcast, or concert performance is due as much to the technical and aural skills of the engineer and producer as it is to those of the performer.
Button pushing or not, the advent of technology in the Music class opens up the possibilities of music making for everyone, and interestingly enough, there are many more people involved in the recording, production and manipulation of music and sound than there are earning their living as performers. Education supposedly provides training for life, therefore if our pupils emerge with an interest in music and a desire to be involved with its production in any way and on any level, does it really matter how that interest has been stimulated? I believe that if the use of technology in the Music class opens up that subject to everyone, then those new resources are well justified. I have not yet encountered a student who could not use a keyboard and a small multitracker to achieve something tangible, whereas I have met more than a few who have experienced difficulty mastering even the basic rudiments of an instrument. It perhaps begs the question: which resource is actually the luxury 'gimmick'?
The justification of the resources is, however, only the tip of the iceberg. Is it not perhaps the use and integration of those resources which is more likely to cause the grief? Several teachers have commented to me that, on the surface, those National Curriculum programmes of study would seem to provide little scope for the integration of technology within some of the various tasks. Here, I tend to disagree. I think there is a good deal of scope, but it requires an understanding of what your equipment will do and how it can be combined and integrated with other more conventional resources.
There is still a tendency to treat the larger, more expensive items, such as computers, multitrackers and multi-effects units, as an end in themselves, designed to do more isolated and specialised tasks — for example, printing band parts and recording GCSE compositions. Although these tasks often more than justify the purchase of the equipment in the first place, it should not be forgotten that these pieces of equipment are in themselves tools of composition and sound manipulation in much the same way that more conventional resources are. This is certainly how they are regarded by the people who use them every day in the music industry.
Perhaps one of the problems with the use of technology in the classroom is the way in which we are taught to handle it in the first place as students. In actual fact, those of us who qualified as teachers more than ten years ago (in the pre-MIDI era!) were very lucky even to have sight of an electronic keyboard of any description. Nowadays, more recently qualified teachers will most likely have had an opportunity to work with a variety of technology resources at some point during their training. But does the exposure to technology necessarily give us the expertise needed to handle those resources in a busy classroom situation?
The average music teacher rarely has a technician on hand to sort out those little running problems which tend to occur when there are enthusiastic and enquiring little minds about (and I am not talking about the ability to perform actual repairs and other feats of technical wizardry). I can honestly say that when working with students of all ages, a greater proportion of time is often spent sorting out what has gone wrong with a recording or a sequence, rather than getting down to the straightforward business of creating the material in the first place! This really boils down to gaining a gradual understanding of how things work, and you do not need to become an expert in order to master enough basic concepts to successfully integrate technology into the music lesson.
It is generally best to introduce new equipment gradually and then use it to perform simple tasks. When you feel you have mastered one hurdle, then move onto the next. Don't feel you have to bring out every item in your new classroom technology system in a big blaze of glory right at the beginning of term!
"In most schools, a well-equipped room which can provide technology and recording facilities for a class of 25 is still something of a dream rather than a reality."
In the first place, however, successful integration stems from having the right kind of equipment — fundamental problems often arise when equipment is purchased which may not be entirely suitable for the job it is required to do. Worse still, certain pieces of equipment may be quite incompatible with others. Setting up a music technology system in a classroom is one of the most difficult tasks a music teacher may be required to do and, ironically, practice in using and understanding the equipment often cannot take place until the equipment itself has been purchased — a potential 'Catch 22' situation. And in any event, equipping a department from scratch is a luxury afforded to few of us.
As is more often the case, we are trying to extend our resources, taking into account the potential compatibility or non-compatibility of what is already there, and that is where the conflicts start to occur. Imagine the case of the newly-appointed Head of Music who, keen to get into the exciting world of using a computer program to '...store, alter and replay a composition' (National Curriculum Key Stage 3), finds that among the two dozen or so fairly elderly keyboards he or she is about to inherit in the new department, there is not a single MIDI socket in sight! "Why do you need another keyboard as well as this expensive computer, I thought you already had at least two dozen?" asks the holder of the purse strings (who is probably not a musician). "Surely there must be some sort of gadget you can buy which will fit on the back of one of your keyboards to make it work with the computer. Can't you have the keyboard altered in some way? Anyway, why do you want this sort of computer in the first place, it's different from any of the others we have in the school, go and see if the Computer Studies department will lend you one of theirs for the odd lesson." This hypothetical case quite often has its parallels in real school situations. Why spend more money when there are resources which surely will do? They may 'do', but will they become the root of other problems when you start to expand your facilities?
Next month, I'll put together a typical system from scratch, which might be suitable for use by pupils in the 11-18 age range, including both GCSE and 'A' Level classes. The features of the various pieces of equipment will be discussed, and I'll consider how each piece can integrate with other resources. The system will primarily be based around types of equipment which are highlighted in the National Curriculum Guidelines, but will also include some interesting additional items to help give every pupil maximum accessibility to the equipment, and enjoyment from the lesson.