1st October 2020

GUEST BLOG: Jo Medland on Music Technology

Jo Medland is a Music Teacher at St Augustine’s Catholic College, Trowbridge. We asked Jo to write a blog on developments in music technology at her school:

It’s time to renew the music computers!” said our IT Manager, “What would you like next year?” This was music to my ears, and an upgrade is always very welcome, particularly when it is offered as opposed to requested!

That conversation was the start of a whole new journey of discovery and excitement involving a lot of brainpower trying to get to grips with an entirely new way of working and a piece of brand new software. Up to this point I’d used Sibelius successfully in all Key Stages but now was the perfect opportunity to investigate what other software was out there to see if there was anything different we could use for sequencing.

I then began the process of looking at several different DAWS (Digital Audio Work Stations). Firstly, I downloaded a demo of Mixcraft. I found this easy to use, and I liked the colourful interface. This would appeal to my students, I thought.  It looked a very straight forward piece of software, but what about the more advanced musicians? Would there be enough in the programme to keep them interested?

I then downloaded the demo of another programme. I’d heard some of my students talking about FL Studio, so this was the next demo to be downloaded. On first glance, it looked a bit more complicated than Mixcraft but not overly difficult to use, and the programme has a couple of different viewers. Again there was a lovely colourful interface. It all looked very promising, so far… Then I discovered some language in some of the loops that wasn’t appropriate to use in school, so I had to go back to the drawing board.

My IT Manager was so supportive and helpful during this time and made a few enquiries on an online forum asking what software other schools were using. Try Ableton, one person said, so again I downloaded the demo and began the task of trying to teach myself how it all works… One of my A-Level students loved Ableton and was enthusiastic about the programme, so this was a promising start!

Two viewers – session view and arrangement view? Drum racks? Sampling? Loops? Effects? So much to remember and quite a steep learning curve trying to get to grips with it all! Will the students like it? Will they be able to master the programme at Key Stage 3? Will it suit those GCSE students who want to write something a bit more complex?

After a few weeks of watching ‘teach yourself Ableton’ videos and a bit of help from some Ableton experts, things gradually started to become clear. I also asked a few students to try it out and canvassed their opinions. Did they like it? How easy was it to use? On the positive, I didn’t find any inappropriate language in the samples, and it looked as though there was lots of scope for GCSE students to create some exciting pieces of music. So that’s the programme I went for, and I haven’t looked back since!

Initially, I introduced the programme to Year 7 who were doing a Haunted House project. First, the students wrote their own story, and then I sampled them making their own sound effects – ghostly laughs, screams, scratching, clocks donging and slamming books down on the table! Year 7 loved this and were keen to volunteer to make their sounds to be recorded in front of the class. I also tried some whole class sound effects – everyone running on the spot…scratching…clapping. Once I had the sound effects, I saved them to a folder and then uploaded them to Ableton. I then put these sounds into a drum rack so the students could play the sounds through a MIDI device. We had a lot of fun adding effects to the laughs, making them high pitched or low pitched. There were some successful compositions in Year 7, and more importantly, we all had a lot of fun producing the pieces as well. All the students were completely absorbed with what they were doing and loved experimenting with the sounds. The programme seemed to be quite intuitive and easy to use, and there is an excellent range of sounds and samples available as well.

Around the same time we got Ableton I was awarded some funding from Wiltshire Music Connect to develop Music Technology in College. With some of this money, we purchased some PUSH 2 devices. These are MIDI devices with lots of buttons and flashing lights, and they really appealed to the students. I started to use these with my GCSE music students, and some of my Year 11 students were very quick to pick up the programme and created some innovative and creative compositions using this technology.

I would highly recommend Ableton for anyone looking for a DAW to use in schools. Ableton also have some great teaching resources to help develop composition skills. The Learning Music Ableton site has a whole series of online lessons where students can create their own beats and learn about the building blocks of music. They can also import their ideas into the Ableton programme and build on their ideas further. https://learningmusic.ableton.com/

I was also recommended the App Melodics https://melodics.com/ which has 60 free lessons and 5 minutes free practise time each day where students can teach themselves to play the drums, keys and pads. These are all skills which compliment using music technology in lessons. There are also lots of videos on the Ableton site itself explaining how to do various things within the programme. Within the programme, there are some tutorials to help get you started. I’ve also made links with Ableton specialists in schools across the country who are keen to share their resources and ideas which has been a great support in developing my skills. I was due to visit a school in Essex this year, but because of lockdown, we ended up doing a training session on Zoom instead. This was a lot more environmentally friendly and who knows perhaps this could be the way forward for training in the future…

Have the students enjoy using the software? Yes! Is it easy to use? Yes! Have the students produced good work using the software? Yes! Overall it has been a very steep learning curve, however, using Ableton and PUSH 2 has been a great success, and I would highly recommend the software and PUSH 2.

Wiltshire Music Connect does not endorse any particular brands or products and the views and opinions in this blog are those of the author alone.  We would always recommend that schools choose the suppliers and brands that are most appropriate for their particular context.