What’s it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school? (Part 1)


Invisibility is a common problem in our work. Loads of people – including many in the music sector – simply haven’t heard of us; and if they have, their knowledge is sketchy at best. This is no criticism – just try me on a ‘starter for 10’ on the finer details of workings of the ISM or the MEC, and I’d struggle. In my experience, because a lot of what we do involves non-mainstream technology/ gadgets/ gizmos…it’s often difficult for people to ‘get’ what we do, it just seems too ‘out there’ and specialised.

I want to help demistify Drake Music. And the best way to do that is to simply describe what an average day is like – if such a thing exists – for an Associate Tutor like me, making music with music students who also happen to be disabled. Better still, describe my work week-on-week, the highs, the lows, the inbetweens. Many of the approaches and equipment we use can be assimilated successfully by other music educators, both in mainstream and special schools; but I hope that this bridging of a gap can be helped along by unpacking what happens in a Drake Music session – in this case, BTEC Entry Level Music.

So, this week…

We arrive and unpack the van – about 4-5 cases, 3 rucksacks, mic stands…guitar, saxophone, keyboards…it is a lot of stuff, but we need/ use it all. Wherever possible, we do use the equipment the school has – it’s better for them in the long-term, so they can run their own sessions independently (as long as they can hang onto the non music-specialist staff who learn to use it…)

The session is run in a decent sized room, and well equipped in terms of computers/ projector etc. More than often, we’re put into rooms resembling shoeboxes, and that’s before you try to fit three wheelchairs into them. We get set-up quickly; hardware, software, wires etc. Many people’s reaction on entering the room is that we are about to launch the next Apollo 11 mission (and it’s true that we have more computing power in one laptop than they did on the entire craft)

You may have noticed I say ‘we’ – it’s nearly always two tutors. It works best this way e.g. one person to run the computer, one to be ‘front of house’ talking and playing music with the kids. LAs often want to do this kind of work with one tutor. It rarely works, stressful for the tutor trying to do it all, a unsatisfactory experience for the kids. All music classrooms should ideally have two adults e.g. a teacher and a freelance musician, especially if they’re using a lot of technology.

Back to the session…we open the software (Ableton Live/ Reason) and check everything is working. We use switches to launch audio clips; set up keyboards with gaffer tape blocking off many of the keys, to help the students focus on one particular scale; get the mic working; test the Soundbeam; check, check and check again. Mainstream teachers would need extra time and another person helping to get to this stage of preparedness (I know this, having been a classroom teacher in a mainstream secondary school previously)

Then, the TA who accompanies the first BTEC group (three physically disabled students, all with varying access needs) arrives to say that none of the kids are in, mainly due to illness. It’s disappointing – we hoped to perform a piece today to an audience. Frequent absences is a key barrier to disabled students gaining accredited outcomes in Music (and other subjects). This group is full of strong personalities, and we have a lot of fun just jamming – but of course, we film the whole session as it is all potential evidence.

The second group are also depleted due to illness, again, a shame as we plan to perform our version of Pachelbel’s Canon: eight switches, each with a single note on it…when played in the right order, we get the basic Canon. Instead we have a ‘scratch’ group consisting of other students who have come along to make up the numbers. We give everyone a switch, including the TAs. The floor looks like a sea of spaghetti with extension cables allowing the switches to stretch further (watch your feet, health and safety applies). Some students hold the switches on their laps, others press their switches mounted on an angle arm.

We do a sound check, with everyone playing their note in turn. They all work. We try playing the cycle of notes; I add Harpsichord, my colleague plays the ground bass notes on drum pads, borrowed from the school. The piece works, a beautiful sound emerges, participants are taken aback, until that is, one of the switches fails. We try swapping switches…no good. Check the cables…no; check the adaptor? Still no. Then we realise the order of the last two notes is also wrong…what’s the solution? Try to back track through the MIDI assignments…my brain is hanging out as I try to suss what needs to be done.

When this happened in the old days, when I first started doing this work, I felt the attendant silence in the room very keenly; seconds feel like minutes. In reality, it takes us 90 seconds or so to get things sorted; from the audiences point of view, it’s no big deal, just a pause in events. In a classroom situation, with a mixed group of 30 students, I realise this would be a much bigger problem. But then, I wouldn’t suggest using the equipment we have today, but instead try it with gear that teachers are confident with.

The piece continues, and again, it really works, has momentum, a sense of timing, people taking turns…staff stick their heads round the door to see where it’s coming from. It could have been different, had we not been able to sort out the glitch midaway, and we have had to abandon sessions where we just couldn’t save the situation (“computer says no”) That’s when the humble guitar comes in handy, as my other colleague attempts to get the ‘engines restarted’.

So, a good outcome musically…a close call when it nearly all went down…absent students…’spaghetti’ on the floor…Pachelbel done our way, accessibly.

More in two weeks…

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