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Can electronic music revolutionise school music lessons?

In an effort to stave off the decreasing popularity of music, some secondary school teachers are swapping the traditional classical-based curriculum for Ableton hardware and YouTube tutorials.

Recalling school music classes can conjure memories of keyboard demos and messing around with maracas. But if students don’t have private lessons to learn a traditional instrument, the classical-based curriculum can be off-putting beyond year nine, so much so that between 2010 and 2015, the number of pupils continuing with music at A-level dropped by 22%. With free YouTube tutorials encouraging extracurricular education and a new scheme giving production hardware to schools, electronic music could become a way in which schools can engage a new generation of musically curious students.

Software makers Ableton say certainly believe so. In 2015, after parting ways with their previous manufacturer, the digital audio company asked DJs and producers from around the world to return their old machines in exchange for a discount on their new equipment. They received more than 6,000 of their Push 1 units back and last month, as part of a new educational initiative, send the first refurbished batch to schools that had applied for them.

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This new idea was inspired by similar projects in LA, which engaged kids from underprivileged backgrounds by teaching them about music they actually listen to, an element sorely disregarded in most mainstream education. “The idea materialised slowly, around two years ago, when we accidentally stumbled across teachers doing stuff in the classroom with our products already, and we spoke to them about it and observed some of the lessons,” says Chris Woods, director of communications at Ableton. “We started looking at what it would take for us to support this. We found that some teachers had the desire, but not the money to do it. Others don’t know how to use the technology, so we’re offering training to them.”

Melissa Parker is a secondary school music technology teacher at the Alec Reed Academy in Northolt. She makes electronic music herself and applied for the Ableton scheme last year. “Last month our school got given 15 units,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that many. One would change the way I can speak to the kids, but 15 is awesome.”

One of the main barriers to teaching electronic music in schools has been that the GCSE curriculum has always been very classically based. “This is great for some kids, but there are a lot that can’t really access this because that discipline requires getting your head around a lot of theory,” says Parker. “If we can communicate with kids via electronic music, then that could be much better. The difficulty was that I didn’t have the equipment to do it.”

As Parker found, this new stance hasn’t been immediately accepted and it became clear that schools need encouragement to broaden the appeal of the syllabus. “There’s so many great things kids can do with hardware, but I really had to push the school in an electronic music direction,” she says. “I had to convince a lot of people from the school and the department.”

Although classical music is not an exclusive club open only to the privately educated, as the winner of the BBC’s Young Musician competition Sheku Kanneh-Mason illustrated this year, learning a traditional musical instrument can be difficult to maintain. When one typical private class sets you back between £20 and £40 per hour, no wonder it is still often regarded as a preserve of the rich. Although prices for the Push units range from £170 for secondhand equipment to upwards of £500 for a new model, there are YouTube tutorials available for free online. While they lack the feedback of a hands-on tutor, there’s no limit to how long you can spend learning – and there are forums available if you get stuck.

Parker’s school, which is in an underprivileged area, has now introduced a dance music scheme to year eight pupils as a way to teach them about song structure and engage them with the subject. “These kids don’t come from the kind of backgrounds where they’re learning instruments and so they don’t have that sort of interest in music classes. Engaging them in this way is giving them a fighting chance against the kids from the rest of the country,” she says.

“They’re definitely open to learning this way. They seem to show a bit more resilience rather than instantly getting fed up, feeling like they’re not musical or talented. It’s proving that you can teach creativity without requiring the skills of years of piano lessons and they’re making something cool.”

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One criticism, however, is that children already spend too much time in front of computer screens, and perhaps schools shouldn’t be encouraging it. Jon Wozencroft, senior tutor in visual communication at the Royal College of Art, thinks that getting school children interested in sound is certainly a good thing, but instead of going through a box and making electronic music, children should also be introduced to natural sounds. “It’s interesting introducing kids to urban sounds – everything form the noise of traffic to the natural world, bird song, wildlife, all kinds of things that they generally don’t listen to,” he says.

“People have a very old-fashioned way of teaching music in schools. You have guitar lessons, you have piano lessons, and it’s about teaching kids how to read music and understand scales. But on a wider level it would be more progressive to give them a wider view on what’s going on in their environment, away from the music they listen to on their headphones.”

While Woods thinks this is a valid point to be raised, he believes that when engagement in music classes is down to below 20%, anything you can do to make arts education in schools more accessible is a positive thing. “Any minute that kids spend making music that they wouldn’t have done already is good in my book,” he says.
“At the moment, music is quite inaccessible and many have their confidence hampered at an early age,” Parker says. “The weighting of the curriculum is just so uneven, there should be a big section for technology performance. The education system needs to catch up.”

 

Via: The Guardian

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