Birtenshaw is a day and residential, non-maintained special school in Bolton, which has recently been awarded funding to purchase some music equipment.
I was responsible for advising them regarding the best equipment to purchase, based on my initial assessments of the students’ needs after visiting the school on a couple of occasions.
The school already had a good collection of percussion equipment, so I advised that they purchase a variety of electronic equipment.
Most of the students have learning disabilities, rather than physical impairments, so I felt that they would be better served with high quality portable microphones and amplification, along with some equipment that facilitated immediate music making, with the potential for the more advanced students to compose and record some of their performances.
Most popular instrument
The most popular item that the school purchased was a Korg Kaossilator Pro+.
This instrument has a tactile touch interface and produces lots of modern dance music sounds.
It sounds great straight out of the box, and also a more advanced user can use it to record and perform complex layered compositions triggering loops and using their voices via the microphone input.
We paired it with an i-Loud Bluetooth speaker and it was kept as a self-contained kit, with the speaker and the necessary leads in a box so that students could take it to play with in their free time.
We used the Kaossilator in each of our ten sessions and found that all the students enjoyed playing with it.
One student became a master of the instrument over the ten weeks. He read the manual after the first week and learned to use all its features.
His demonstration in the final session showed that he could create a layered dance track in a couple of minutes and he was simultaneously triggering parts and playing live sounds on the top.
He has made music for a school play and is due to perform that live in the next few weeks. He has so taken to the instrument that he was asking to use it in lots of his spare time and took it into a meeting to show one of his social workers. They are now buying him one of his own with his pupil premium.
The other students also benefited greatly from the music sessions.
On two different occasions, we had students singing when presented with a microphone and their carers told us that they never normally vocalized.
It is amazing how much difference amplification and a microphone can make to someone’s confidence.
Through the course of the project we saw many of the students singing or rapping in the microphone, having been quiet and shy just beforehand.
Setting up a microphone is easy to do and we encouraged staff to do this when making music with their students, as it can have surprising results.
Communicating through music
We tried to put as much focus as possible on communicating through music.
We did lots of call and response work and made students work in pairs, taking turns playing melodies on different instruments.
Students who do not communicate verbally can find this really rewarding as they are stimulating responses in their classmates with their music.
This was an important part of the sessions and we stressed to carers and teachers that it was a great way for students to explore instruments.
Listening to other musicians is just as important as playing.
Staff training legacy
The purpose of Ramp It Up projects is to provide high quality music sessions, whilst training the staff, thus leaving a legacy when we have finished.
Many of the staff at Birtenshaw were already familiar with technology, so Jonathan and I focused on filling in specific gaps in their knowledge.
We used iPads throughout the sessions and they were very popular with the students and staff.
Though staff were competent iPad users, many had not yet recognised the potential of iPads in a musical setting and few considered them to be musical instruments.
We focused on a small number of apps so that the staff and students could get comfortable using them and setting them up.
These were BeBot, Thumbjam and Garage Band.
BeBot is a simple app that works brilliantly as an introductory instrument on the iPad.
It gives the user visual feedback in the form of an animated robot. We found it to be particularly good for the younger students who often found it to be quite hilarious.
In the later sessions, we showed the more advanced students how to record layers of instruments using Garage Band, and how to set it up so that they could play chords along to lyric and chord sheets from the internet.
We managed to jam a variety of pop songs and some nursery rhymes, with the students providing the chords in the background.
It is always sad when the sessions end, as though we have made incredible progress with the students, there are still so many things that we could do.
The staff were keen to have us around next year, but I feel that we have left them with a great legacy to build upon.
They have learned how to set all the equipment up and we demonstrated best practices when working in music lessons.
The staff worked alongside us throughout the project and we gradually gave them extra responsibilities in the later sessions to build their experience and confidence while we were present.
The equipment was always spread around the school when we arrived on Fridays as they were regularly being used by students and staff through the week.
This is great as it demonstrates that music is becoming a big part of school life for many of the students, as it should be.
It tells me that this has been a successful project.