What’s it like teaching BTEC Music in a special school (part 4: The Performance)



Suddenly, it’s all going live…

After all the students’ hard work, a performance opportunity arrives…two to be exact, on the same morning. We are invited to perform at the junior school site of our school, as part of an open day celebrating ‘Hello'(the national year of communication – especially students who use VOCAs or Voice Operated Communication Aids)

None of my students will be using a VOCA on the day, but they most definitely will be communicating something: we have a ‘mash-up’ piece mixing pop chantuse Jessie J and doom-metal maestros ‘System of a Down’; also, a ‘JBs’ style funk work out in the style of ‘Pass the Peas’. So, music to get moody to; then music to get groovy to.

The students doing the ‘JBs’ number are using a multitude of instruments to perform: Tom plays bass using three coloured switches, one note on each; he has a pattern written out to play when required – my colleague Alex will hold up a large ‘P’ to him to signal it’s time for the riff. Really it’s no different from taking three notes off a keyboard and blowing them up into brightly coloured circles, rather than keys. Much more attractive to play.

Sid plays the Soundbeam with a Fender Rhodes keyboard sound; Jack plays Trumpet using two head switches, one note on each switch. I’ve written out a graphic score for him to play his pattern from. He understands completely what to do, and plays the pattern perfectly, in his own time.

The piece is great both times, the students show no signs of nerves. Particular standout moment is when Sid plays his solo and everyone else drops out; it’s just him, me on very quiet arpeggios on my acoustic and a tambourine/ congas loop on which to hang it all. He grins at me as the notes ring out and swirl around the otherwise silent room; he has the crowd.

The Jessie J/ System of a Down track really packs a punch in comparison to the JBs piece; it begins with a moody drone played on a keyboard by Colin; hitting the two Cs (an octave apart) simultaneously and cleanly is a big achievement for him. Above this drone plays the monster ‘System’ riff – chopped into four sections and launched by Niall using his hand to play the switch (cyclic trigger mode – each time he presses it, it plays the next sample) It’s drama of the highest order, probably equally at home in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ at some climactic point or other.

The middle section is quite different; Sarah uses a switch to trigger samples of her singing lyrics from Jessie J’s ‘Price Tag’; it’s in many ways a more empowering way for her to sing than using a microphone; she can place the vocal in the performance where she likes, repeat it at will, make choices about the effects used on it. Equally Sarah has been the main driver in the arrangement as a whole, showing a real flair for suggesting how the sections should fit together.

Next up in the performance, Colin does a clapping section with me, using a heavy delay (echo) on the microphone nearest him, so that the sound clatters around the room. Lastly, it’s full circle back to the opening, moody drone/ monster riff. The crowd applauds, we tick some more assessment boxes in their BTEC Performing Arts folders, and as the last notes fade away, I’m left in slight awe once again about just how well young people respond to live performance. Put that in your E Bacc pipe, Mr Gove, and smoke it.

Leave a Reply