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Digital music: the waves of change
It was end of term when teachers at All Hallows Catholic School in Preston introduced their students to two songs for a forthcoming school production of Les Miserables. They wanted to sow the seeds early but were resigned to repeating the lesson after the holiday had dimmed memories. But they were astonished, at the start of the new term, to find that their students knew the whole show.
That’s the power of YouTube. “They found that the children had learnt the whole show just by listening to YouTube clips of Les Miserables,” explains music consultant David Ashworth. “The teachers were wrong-footed by that. Students can learn almost everything they want to learn about music from YouTube.”
The very elements of social networking that so many schools are most anxious about – YouTube and Facebook in particular – are proving invaluable resources for learning, both in and out of schools. And music is one of the subjects best placed to take advantage of them. But it’s much more than that...
It is as if there has been a digital ‘big bang’ for learning and teaching music. Within a short number of years, this explosion has brought services like MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Spotify and Blip.fm - and new ones by the week - along with computer gaming and a huge range of affordable digital devices like mobile phones, video cameras and MP3 players for recording and sharing. A range of materials and tools is now out there on the web, leaving teachers to concentrate on the pedagogy and learning.
"STUDENTS CAN LEARN ALMOST EVERYTHING THEY WANT TO LEARN ABOUT MUSIC FROM YOUTUBE"
Ashworth has enjoyed a unique position to witness and take part in huge changes in music education over recent years. He worked closely with NAME (the National Association of Music Educators) when it first took advantage of government support for subject associations to use technology in education. NAME probably took that initiative further than any other UK subject organisation with its work with Synergy TV – creator of the Radiowaves and NUMU social networking sites - in developing the groundbreaking Teaching Music website to bring social networking to teachers, offering an online community that supports continuing professional development (CPD). As its project leader, Ashworth identifies the influence of YouTube as massive. “Some teachers have twigged on to this now,” he explains. “You don’t have to teach kids everything; you can point them to the right YouTube clips. And it’s not just the performance clips that are useful; there are so many tuition clips now. A guitarist who wants to learn a Beatles song will find two sorts of clips: one is archive footage of the Beatles playing it, and then they’ll find some guitar tutor in slow-motion, step-by-step, showing you how to play the licks and riffs as well.”
He continues: “We have just done a large-scale performance of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is a hugely ambitious undertaking. But you know it wasn’t difficult at all because the students just went on YouTube and learnt the stuff themselves. And all we did was help bring it together and sort out the arrangements and the performance. It was amazing, and with relatively little work to do. It was the power of the internet that did it all for us. And teachers are latching on to that because it can take a huge burden off their shoulders in terms of kids personalising their own learning.” (Some schools are now building their own ‘how to’ collections, like Forest Hill, in Lewisham, London - music. foresthill.lewisham.sch.uk/MusicBank/MusicBank.html.)
Musical Futures - the initiative for 11 to 18 year-olds started by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2003 – has also had an important part to play in supporting this cultural change in UK schools. This project has effectively switched the priority to young people playing music and learning through doing. For example, innovative use of the online Gigajam music service and digital instruments allowed the Head of Music at Tiverton High School, Ian Wright, to enable every single Key Stage 3 student to learn music; a huge achievement.
“THERE’S A LOT OF LEARNING WHILE YOU ARE DOING. SO THE OUTPUTS AREN’T ALWAYS IMPRESSIVE BUT THE PROCESS IS.”
Ashworth believes that Musical Futures has reached “critical mass”, with the majority of secondary schools taking part. “The old approach was that you would have a two-tier system in a school,” he explains. “You would have an elite who were having instrument lessons and playing in the orchestras and the bands, and the rest would be taking part in much more passive lessons. It means that when you get a whole class doing it – and of course standards vary widely – there’s a lot of learning while you are doing. So the outputs aren’t always impressive but the process is.”
The evidence of these changes is there for all to see on the Teaching Music website, where teachers freely share their experiences and expertise. It’s a welcoming, collaborative community that includes a significant slice of secondary teachers. But it is now making inroads among primary teachers who don’t have the curriculum restrictions that their secondary colleagues face, but are likely to lack expertise and confidence. There is plenty of inspiration and it’s freely shared. For example, if you want to know about using computer gaming for music, this site contains a forum thread on that subject and a range of others, from the everyday to the cutting-edge.
James Cross, a music teacher and e-learning coordinator at High Storrs School in Sheffield, uses Teaching Music to share a range of insights with colleagues. But he also posts videos to the site such as footage of a TeachMeet, the emerging wave of ‘un-conferences’ which focus on short presentations from teachers sharing their practice. He presented in Doncaster to show how teachers, confident with their pedagogy, can use a range of digital services and devices in their work.
“One of the key things for me is trying to close the gap between what students are doing outside of school and what we are able to offer them inside of school,” he says. “A lot of children are learning to play instruments using services like YouTube and we’re trying to bring that into school and incorporate that kind of informal learning. We’re definitely seeing a lot of that, particularly with children who haven’t had proper lessons or who have had a few early on but they’ve quit and can’t read notation. They are able to learn pieces visually through YouTube. A lot of them are doing it at home, particularly on the guitar.”
His school is going through the government’s Building Schools for the Future school rebuild programme and he, like David Ashworth, identifies school capital projects as having huge potential for changing practice and supporting work across the curriculum: a major challenge in secondary schools (High Storrs has already dispensed with old-style heads of department). He adds: “We are going to have a lot more computers in the classroom so we are looking at using video as a learning tool, maybe putting in a bank of videos that pupils can access at school.”
Cross identifies Synergy TV’s free NUMU online service - where young people can James Cross share their music and collaborate - as an important step forward. Music tracks are ranked by their listeners and this is proving popular among both students and teachers. The statistics are impressive, with 43,000 users, 1,300 member schools and 36,000 tracks. Cliff Manning, Communications Director at Radiowaves and NUMU, says that no one should underestimate the importance of Facebook going mainstream on our acceptance of using social software to support learning: “We have all, including teachers, become more open to social networking. I used to teach people about NUMU and ask whether they had a MySpace account. Maybe one or two teachers would put their hands up. Now, when I ask who has got a Facebook account, a forest of hands goes up. So now they understand the concept of sharing online and things like podcasting.”
Manning continues in this vein: “That has created a shift in understanding so that when you talk about NUMU teachers think, ‘Ah, this is like music and Facebook for schools’, something they can get on with and use. And with Teaching Music they understand that this is a music area where they can share resources, and they can connect with other practitioners. They can discuss their work, the latest music education topic, and the latest music ICT. The web is not seen as technology so much now, so they are starting to see the benefits of using the web for publishing their work to a global audience, peer reviewing their work, reviewing their work through blogs, and being able to connect with other teachers to find out what they are thinking and to discuss the latest things.”
“When we started out with Radiowaves, young people were excited that they could post their work online because they knew it was going to a global audience. Now we have created a level playing field for them with NUMU.”
So the digital music ‘big bang’ has been and gone and, as the ramifications spread across the education galaxy, teachers are the ones who have to come to terms with the new landscape. It may be daunting but teachers like James Cross and his collaborators on Teaching Music, Twitter and other such digital resources are confident: “When you think of music technology you think of keyboards and sequencing and alike, but it’s gone far beyond that now because music is online in the real world and it needs to be online in the music classroom too. Music technology now isn’t just about keyboards; it’s about getting online and sharing. It’s all out there for students to access. They just need to learn that it’s out there and that the teacher is not the fount of knowledge anymore; the teacher is there to connect and facilitate rather than impart information.”
BLIP.fm - blip.fm
Gigajam music service - www.gigajam.com
Musical Futures - www.musicalfutures.org
National Association of Music Educators - www.name.org.uk
NUMU - www.numu.org.uk
Spotify - www.spotify.com/uk
FREE resource for young people
Infocow is a FREE online resource that is made for, and managed by, young people aged 14-19. It links to sites, stories, information and inspiration on topics as varied as ‘I want to do more with my music’ and ‘I want to change something about the world’. Infocow also offers specific information about rights and entitlements to help young people get what they want out of life.