Using iPads to play ‘Seven-Nation Army’ by the White Stripes

Year 10 students at Great Oaks SEN School in Southampton use iPads to great effect in this rehearsal performance. Jonathan Westrup talks to their inspirational music teacher Kellyjo Peters.

MORE GREAT iPAD CONTENT>>> Top 5 iPad apps for accessible music making

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Kellyjo Peters is speaking into the microphone of her iPad in a manner reminiscent of the way candidates use their Amstrad phones in the BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’.

However, the resulting sounds drifting out of the speakers above the plasma screen bear no resemblance to her natural voice as the Vio app she is using transforms her voice into an eerie, robot breath-esque drone. Quite useful, as it turns out, for encouraging non-verbal children to use their voices in a music session.

This is just a normal day for Kellyjo, who works as the music teacher at Great Oaks Special School in Southampton and who is passionate about iPads and the creative power of apps.

Just a short time spent with her leads most people to scurry around in their bags for a pen and paper to jot down the list of unusual, fun and often out-there music apps she is busy discussing or using in her music sessions.

My personal favourite from today was the Radiohead app PolyFauna.

As soon as the children enter the room for their session, it’s down to the business of using iPads and apps.

Young people – many of whom have mild learning difficulties and/ or Autistic Spectrum Condition – are sat round in a circle, heads studiously hovering over their iPads as they manipulate their screens in any manner of ways to produce textures, tunes, loops and riffs.

In the background, a student powers away at a drum kit to ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes, a perennial favourite in schools, but surely never yet re-imagined as an iPad Orchestra.

The teaching and learning in her sessions are characterized by three key elements:

  1. the students clearly ‘own’ the tool of production i.e. iPads are part of the fabric of youth culture and, as such, instantly familiar
  2. the material – pop songs with strong hooks – are again easy for young people to assimilate and understand
  3. the act of getting together in a room to simply get playing and work a tune out is pure Musical Futures.

Not any old app will do – Kellyjo stresses the ongoing relationship between the learning styles of different children and individual apps.

The bar can gradually be raised for each child by thoughtful use of each app’s preferences and potential. iPads are complex musical tools, as well as transient vehicles for surfing the web.

Assessment is valued, but crucially doesn’t get in the way of the music making.

Kellyjo points out that just by being in the room she can instantly clock which children are, for example, playing in time, with apps such as Garageband affording a very visual way of playing any instrument.

Students at KS3 work through a series of projects learning popular songs using the iPad Orchestra method (and non-iPad activities) and are graded in their music folders using stickers: (my paraphrasing) Green = Excellent; Blue = Good/ satisfactory; Red = needs improvement.

Kelly translates this into the B Squared assessment framework twice a year for formal reporting.

At KS4 students follow the Bronze Arts Award and collate their work using Book Creator (yes, you’ve guessed it, another useful app)

This has been Kellyjo’s pet project since she first started at the school four years ago although she is the first to admit it has taken her three years to get to this point.

The local music hub has taken notice of her passion and experience and plans are now in motion to utilize her skills in the training of other music teachers in the area. Crucially she is also supported by a creative Head Teacher who recognizes the value and unique nature of music making at Great Oaks.

Later on I ask her if I can interview her on camera. Although her answers are lively and thoughtful she seems less comfortable than when she has an iPad in her hands.

A few minutes into the interview, my batteries run out and Kellyjo is immediately on her feet and opening up another app to demonstrate…