In my department, we base much of the KS 3 work on the Opus collection of books. These books provide excellent texts, solid lesson plans with clearly defined outcomes and high quality audio accompaniments. This particular Year 8 (first year) topic introduces students to Polyrhythms through Djembe drumming patterns, followed by student performances. This progresses to: an examination of music as art, an examination of the validity of the monotonous school, Steve Reich’s Clapping music, and an analysis and performance of Oldfield’s tubular bells. At the end of the unit, students will be able to recognise polyrhythms, play a part in a polyrhythmic ensemble, compose a percussion work with proper beginning, middle and end, become familiar with minimalist compositions and understand the basics of multitrack recording. While there are other elements such as; participation in groups, working with others, peer appreciation and review, the musical skills are the interesting part for my purpose.

There is absolutely no doubt that students love hitting things. The initial warm up exercises of hand claps, finger clicks and shouts engaged them all. The creation of polyrhythms in rounds was instantly recognisable in the classroom and the concept needed little extra explanation. Brains were taxed by suddenly switching patterns, repeating them backwards and leaving out certain beats. The creation of 4 part djembe patterns was also very well received, the kinaesthetic pleasure of learning different ways of striking a drum was highly engaging. At this point in any other year, the class ends and there is little valuable homework to be set; research the Drums of Kenya, find examples on youtube etc etc. However, the iPad allows for a good reinforcement of the topic. Students used the free app sound drop to experiment with random polyrhythms. They were also asked to create a 4 track polyrhythmic pattern in GarageBand. (4 tracks at once? remember one of the main aims of the topic is to introduce multi tracking, yet here it is in lesson 1) By experimenting with auto play random selections, loops and their own finger patterns, the students were able to create valuable homeworks.

The class work continues to take a practical approach, the ipad used only as an access point for lesson materials. A discussion of music as art, of Tracy Emim’s bed, leads into minimalism. In previous years, I have used basshunter’s youtube clip of fl studio loops to show a contemporary musician composing with technology. It’s in Swedish, but it’s clear what he is doing. Mike Oldfield’s pioneering days with reel multi track are available on youtube too, very much a look back in time, as the students are all in possession of greater technology on their desks. Students are asked to learn to play different parts of the riffs on keyboards and eventually we’ll create a class performance. As it’s in 7/8, GarageBand’s time signatures don’t allow for a straightforward input, but what is the value in non keyboard players trying to practise, with slow fingers, the rhythmic and melodic patterns created by Oldfield? How does differentiation work when competent keyboard players still have to wait for absolute beginners to come up to scratch. Does an absolute beginner playing a drone, pedal note or slow moving harmonic line really feel a sense of ensemble and group participation? My experience is that the beginners become quickly frustrated, bored and cannot see the point. ( How is this going to help me to become a Doctor/Lawyer?)

This is where GarageBand and other generators really come into their own. A basic, up to 8 track composition can readily be undertaken by these 11/12 year olds. The creation of minimalist building blocks, of layers, the use of split, edit copy and paste are all introduced seamlessly. The discovery of apps such as Novation’s Launch pad and keyboard, Arix 303, ikaosscilator all greatly enhance this learning, previously unachievable apart from by observation. All students are engaged, are learning how the works are constructed, have control of the resources and can create satisfying, musical works. 

One of my concerns is that the iPad removes the student from the actual instruments. I am still debating as to whether or not I really need keyboards in the classroom. This unit has given me great hope, showing that both Djembes and iPads have very solid places in this unit, the iPad greatly enhances the experience, the students are more engaged and they remember the learning. Ask last year’s group about Polyrhythms and minimalism, there won’t be too many hands up.