Tech Column: Sequential learning
Friday, April 1, 2022
How can music teachers better support those students who want to use technology as their ‘instrument’ at GCSE? Liz Dunbar gives us some pointers
Many students assume that they can't access GCSE Music without being an experienced instrumentalist or vocalist. This is not true. Exam boards offer a range of imaginative and creative performance pathways that enable all kinds of musicians, many of whom use music technology as their instrument, to excel as performers.
Alongside turntablism and DJing, most exam boards have a ‘sequenced realised performance’ (SRP) or ‘production via technology’ option. It's the SRP pathway that we have found most useful in broadening the range of performing routes open to our students at Huntington School in York.
Where to begin?
First of all, make it common knowledge that there's more than one route for students as performers at GCSE. People have all manner of preconceived ideas about what they think a ‘real’ musician is. Explain and illustrate examples of different ways in which professional musicians create material. Bring the idea of this pathway to life by modelling examples live in the lesson, and if you're not yet confident enough to do this, invite former students or other local professionals who work in studio and sound design settings to demonstrate their craft first-hand.
Enlighten parents, staff involved in careers guidance, and Year 8 and 9 form tutors – sometimes, you have to put these things right under people's noses. If you have examples of past students’ work in the archives, use these to show students what's possible and how diverse the outcomes can be.
If you're not doing it already, start weaving elements of sequencing into your schemes from Year 7. If it's there from the start, alongside live vocal and instrumental work, then students are more likely to accept that music technology is as valid a performance route as playing or singing live. Create units of work that need both live and sequenced elements to highlight how one can benefit the other; explore improvisation and composition through sequencing; model and discuss the differences between the spontaneous and ephemeral and the reworked and edited approaches musicians take; and use interactive SRPs for listening and analysis tasks that give students the ability to solo or mute tracks in order to examine individual lines more closely.
If you're only just starting to introduce sequencing at KS3, the last thing you need is a three-year wait until that cohort begins GCSE. Plug the gap by offering taster sessions and extracurricular opportunities to Year 8 and 9, but don't try and do it all yourself – you will know KS4 and 5 students with a passion for technology who will be delighted to run this for you. You could also write an SRP unit that has sufficient flexibility to be used across all years at KS3. Here's an example from our website.
Integrate the SRP from the start
After many years of thinking and working on this at Huntington, we've settled on an approach that sees all students following both live and sequenced pathways simultaneously for the first half term of the GCSE course. Everyone works on a four to seven track sequenced recording, and everyone plays and/or sings in a live ensemble.
The benefits of working like this
Teamwork and collaboration
All performance routes require an element of live performance, no matter how simple. Listening and responding to others in the moment trains students to think and react as musicians. Everyone is part of the team, so when students need a second pair of ears and a second way of thinking to troubleshoot a technical issue, they have critical and supportive friends around to help.
Dot reading, ear training and independence
The sequencing task we set in Year 10 requires an element of score reading as well as verbal and written analysis – it encourages students to collaborate in finding solutions. Once we're a few weeks into the work, we present students with a completed version that is littered with pitch, rhythm, tessitura, timbre, and balance, which they work in pairs to fix. Simultaneously digging around in the edit screens and the score helps students make aural and visual connections. It encourages them to experiment with different tools, make poor decisions, stumble through laborious solutions, and discover time-saving remedies.
As students develop these hands-on making and mending, manipulating and reshaping skills, they are equipping themselves with the tools of the craft they will need as they become increasingly independent composers. When the time comes for students to craft compositions under controlled conditions, they aren't in any way modifying and simplifying their creativity because of the constraints of technology.
Accessibility and creativity
Students tend to compose for things that their fingers and voices can manage comfortably, and while that's really valuable in terms of idiomatic writing, it can be limiting for those who might have the ideas in sound in their heads but can't get it out through their fingertips. Sequencing can be immensely freeing both physically and creatively.
Keeping musicianship in the foreground
With any performance route, most exam boards still require a live, unedited performance element. At Huntington, we use piano keyboards as our primary classwork tool at KS3 in order to equip all students with a degree of proficiency that in turn facilitates a viable performance pathway to GCSE.
Musicianship doesn't disappear when following the SRP performance route. In addition to the obvious live input, there's a wealth of musical thinking and listening taking place as students edit and shape their work. Exam mark schemes require students to discern, refine and shape a line. In addition to accuracy, students need to consider expression, balance, timbral choices, timbral combinations, panning, use of effects and overall sense of style. Rhythm and articulation need careful attention. Students can't just ‘bleach’ a line with quantize. It needs thought and subtlety, in the same way that a skilled soloist and their accompanist adjust as they exchange a melodic line or approach a tempo change.
Choosing the right material to sequence
The ‘difficulty level’ found in performance mark schemes applies to both live and sequenced material. We've found that the best approach is to make bespoke arrangements that are familiar and well loved. Students are, after all, going to be spending a lot of time working on this.
- Between four and six individual parts.
- A range in the complexity of individual lines – to provide choice when it comes to selecting which line to play live.
- At least one repeating element (bass riff, drum pattern, chord sequence) that students can cut and paste early doors and get a sense of having got somewhere quite quickly.
- Material that sounds good when reproduced in synthesised timbres.
If I can do it, you can do it. I'm a classically trained musician, but bit by bit, I have expanded my skill set so that I'm now in a place where I can guide students along either a live or SRP pathway and be confident that the full range of marks is available to everyone, whichever route they choose.
Follow Liz's music department on Twitter @HuntSchoolMusic.