Memories of school music lessons for anyone educated before the 1990s tend to be be reassuringly similar. Fading wall posters from Boosey & Hawkes, ancient string instruments groaning their last as bored, sullen pupils sawed away the hours, regularly disinfected, recycled recorders. A dusty environment for what, for most, was a dusty subject. Of course, it has all changed now. Gleaming classrooms are filled with PCs running compositional and sequencing software and even traditional instruments are taught with the use of the latest interactive technology. And, in some cases, that is actually true - but only in some, and there's the rub. The takeup of music technology in our schools seems, in some cases, to have lagged far behind that in other subjects.
Steve Cooper (no relation), is Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at Wolverhampton University, teaching theory and techonology to students who are recent products of our school music system. 'Over the years I've taught in all sorts of different environments and at different levels, so I've got a fairly good feel for how technology is being used,' he says. 'Obviously, if you're teaching a technology-based subject, then the two things have to go hand in hand. So if you're teaching a module on, say, MIDI Sequencing or digital audio ProTools, then you're going to use the programmes to do it. But in other areas, instrumental tuition or songwriting, where you're actually learning a skill, it's still at quite an early stage. The idea that you can learn an instrument from a techonlogy based setting, on-line, for example, is still relatively new and there aren't many people who have got into it yet'.
One exception is Berklee School of Music in Boston USA, which Cooper visited last year. 'They've invested in excess of £1 million to set up an online school where students are able to download backing tracks, record themselves and then send that back to the tutor who can interact with them. That's a vision for the future which they're already doing, but it costs an enormous amount of money - and not just from their perspective. It's also very costly for the students. For example a ten week guitar course costs in excess of $1,000.'
The likelihood of a similar programme in the UK, seems remoteat present, for costs reasons, if no other, but Cooper says Wolverhampton is already using podcasting for tuition purposes as well as for programme materials and he finds his students very keen to use it.
At the real chalk face, in secondary schools, the situation is more mixed. Specific instrument teaching is often in the hands of peripatetic teachers for whom the resources offered are as one put it, 'a room and a chair'.
Richard Rogers is head of music at a typical inner-city secondary school, Hamstead Hall, in Birmingham. His task is to teach music to pupils coming from a whole range of different cultures and to do so, he makes considerable use of technology. 'We use computers a lot; starting in year seven, going all the way through to the upper sixth. That means we use them at Key Stage Three and extensively at GCSE for composition work. I teach also A level Music Techonology, where we do a lot of sequencing and multitrack recording. At Key Stage Three at the moment we use Cubasis and in year nine we use Reason, at GCSE we mostly use Cubase SX and Reason and at A Level, again, Cubase SX and Reason and we're just startng to use Sibelius at A level for score writing'.
Is it the case, though, that what is being taught is the techonology itself, rather than the playing and writing of music, facilitated by that technoplgy?
'We use technology mainly as a compositional aid, so in an example would be in year seven and eight, we do a couple of projects on music and film where we've captured a clip from a film or TV programme which we then load into Cubasis, so the pupils can create a soundtrack for it,. We find that a really good way in to using Cubasis.'
This adoption of techonolgy at the school does not, however, extend to instrumental tuition - a common situaton, apparently, and one that is only just starting to be exploited. 'At the moment,' says Richard Rogers, 'I can see how interactive systems could be useful in instrument teaching, but that tends to be the realm of peripatetic teachers, whereas what we mainly do in the classroom tends to be keyboard based and working on projects. Some of our teachers use CDs with backing tracks, but none of ours yet have started coming in with laptops. There's a lot of potential for online work. At the moment we don't have our computers networked but as a school we're very very keen to build on our links with other schools, not just in this country and being able to share musical ideas with school in other countries would be fantastic.'
While some heads of department are pushing as fast and far as their budgets will allow, other schools remain locked in very traditional aproaches - for good or ill. What will change this is the output of teacher traning colleges as a new generation of music teachers starts out with a solid techonlogial background. Responsible for making sure they have that is one of the leading lights in the use of techonology in music education, Dr Johnathan Savage of Manchester Metropolitan University. Moreover, Dr Savage has branched out from his purely academic work and become part of a company called Ucan, which works with publishers and technology comanies, producing software for use in music education and elsewhere.
Formerly a teacher of music for 11-18 year olds and then head of music in two schools in Suffolk, in 2001 Savage was appointed senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan. 'Since moving up here, though I'm not teaching 11-18 year olds any more, I've developed more of an overview of what is hapening generally. Between us, my colleague and I have a group of about 70 post-graduate students who are training to be music tachers, which makes us the largest teacher training provider for music in secondary schools in the country. As a consequence, I go to visit schools all over the North West.
'What you find is some schools that are very well equipped and some that aren't. I could take you to schools up here that have proessional level recording studios with big live rooms, decked-out wth Pro Tools, while a school round the corner has an old Atari compter and a worn-out Fostex 4-track. There is an issue to do with teacher's knowledge and what they think technology can do and whether they want to embtrace the vision.
'Research done by David Hargreaves at Roehampton showed that people coming into music treaching are, generally speaking, quite conservative in their musical backgrounds and haven't got a large amount of experience with technlogy. They might have had experience of Cubase as part of their music degree, but they won't have had exposure to the full rage of technology that is being used outside of education, so there is a gap between musical practise outsideof schools and what goes on inside'.
Still there seems to be the emphasis on composition, arranging and recording. Is there a role for technology in the actual playing of instruments?
'I haven't sern a lot of imaginative uses of techonology to support instrumental teaching. We've got some City Learning Centres that have bought Gigajam and are starting to use it for teaching Pop-based instruments, but it's quite sparse. It may be that things are more advanced in the States. American high schools they are very peroccupied with instrument teaching and there has been some interesting things with technlogy and traditional instruments over there, but I've seen very little here. There is a move towards it, though, and our company, Ucan, for exxample, is writing softare designed to turn a Playstation 2 controller into an instrument for kids to play. But I stll don't hear many peple talking about using computers to augment the learningt of a traditional instrument'.
Part of the problem, Dr Savage agreees, is the amount of instrumental teaching underatekn by peripatetic teachers, who are rarely given the resources to make use of technology. 'In this country we have quite a gap between what most people would conceive of as music education and music technology edicatuon. There are a number of things that have happened that reinforce this division. We;ve got an explosion of courses in music technology - B.Techs in music production, foundation degrees in music technology and honours degree programmes in sound production technology and sond design. You can even do a master's degree in sound design at one university. So you could be a student at 14 who does a range of GCSEs, a B.Tech foundation degree, an honours degree and even a master's degree even and not actually study any traditional music at all. And this has become very popular. Most schools are making some proigress, but there's still a long way to go.'
If the application of technology to instrumental tuition per se seems to be what is missing, Mark Mumford's company, MusiWorks, thinks it might have the answer. He acts as a consultant for the US software producer, MakeMusic, whose SmartMusic pckage is already successful in the USA and is starting to gain acceptance among some British education authorities.
'It does two key things. First of all you get over 30,000 pieces of well-known music and 30,000 accompaniments that match exactly the sheet music you can buy in shops. The difference is that you can use the backing tracks as just that, but you can also adjust the speed, or switch them into Intelligent Mode, where the accompaniment follows you, rather than the other way around. This lets beginers create their own expressive performance. At the beginner end, it will asses what you are doing and how you are playing, even showing you the correct finering where you havce made a mistake'. The product is now starting to be adopted by some British schools.
'There is a specfic requirment to be seen to be using some form of ICT, even in delivering instrumental lessons. though in most cases few teachers are using a computer, never mind a microphone to record.Whereas you can do Key Stage 3 and GCSE music, pretty much with a sequencing programme on a computer, with SmartMusic it's only usable if you are clever enough to be learnng to play the flutre or another traditionalnstrument and we've sold many to teachers because of that. We've sold it to Leicestershire Music Service, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and others. Also, the ABRSM have partnered with this programme and will be launching some of their publicatons with the SmartMusic application inside, and the first one will be lanched at this year;s Frankfurt. Instrumental teachers are valuing what they see in it.'
There seems to be a schism in UK music education. At one extreme, teachers who have embraced music tech and and forging ahead with it - though perhaps rather more as a study in its own right, than as an aid to traditional music making, at the other, conservatoire-trained traditionalists, who might use Sibelius, but possibly find Pro Tools a bit of a handful. And in the middle a huge diversity. Where there is a noticeable lack, however, seems to be in the teaching of traditional instruments. A case of 7/10 - must try harder?