A pioneering software package that teaches music to schoolchildren in a fun, contemporary way is currently being piloted in London and Oxfordshire. Nicola Lisle investigates
At the Ladygrove School in Didcot, Oxfordshire, around 30 children, aged eight to nine, are busily creating simple rhythms and melodies, adding bass lines and experimenting with different sounds. But there are no musical instruments in sight. Instead, the children are sitting at computers, following on-screen instructions, and all are completely absorbed by their tasks.
This is the new O-Generator software, a totally unique concept that uses contemporary musical styles – such as rock, reggae and hip-hop – to teach the rudiments of rhythm, melody, harmony and tempo, while introducing a range of different instruments. It is fully interactive, with plenty of opportunities for the children to create their own pieces of music.
O-Generator is the latest development from the London-based company Bassistry Arts, formed 12 years ago to help non-musical teachers cope with the demands of the National Curriculum. Initially, the company’s main focus was on workshops based on traditional rhythms and sounds from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, devised and written by the company’s founder and co-director, Marcel Pusey.
“Music is a difficult subject to teach within schools and there is this ground which is quite hard for teachers to cover,” he explains. “So our company is bridging a gap for them. We try to base everything on areas that are in the curriculum – aspects of composition, improvisation and world music.
“Over the years we have developed different programmes, from nursery right through to sixth-formers. With the youngest we are using movement and dance, just making it fun, really. At the older level, you can go into something more complex. We always take a drum kit in with us and an electric guitar and we use the percussion at the school. For a teacher, it is giving them the idea that you don’t have to play the piano in order to do music, you can find another method and it is still musical. I write my own songs within the programme and try and make them really quite contemporary.”
The O-Generator programme, which has taken four years to design, is a natural extension of those workshops. “One of the hardest things is that once you have been to a school and shown them these rhythms, teachers aren’t always sure how to follow it up,” says Pusey. “So the O-Generator was really to try and address that particular issue.
“ICT has opened up a lot of avenues in schools, because now they all have computer labs, so it’s become a really good resource. O-Generator was designed as a means of saying, well, we’re coming to your school, use this software and you can carry on doing the music and explore those rhythms that we’ve been doing. That really is why we got into the O-Generator in the first place, so we could offer that to schools.”
The ground covered by O-Generator is impressively comprehensive. At primary school level, the software introduces basic understanding of rhythm, note values and major and minor chords. As the children progress towards GCSE level, they learn how rhythms are composed, the role played by different parts of the drum kit in creating rhythms and how to add vocal lines. Eventually, children are able to compose and perform their own dance or rock songs. Everything is taught by a series of simple, step-by-step instructions, with class teachers giving extra support as necessary.
O-Generator was launched last year but in January the project was given a significant boost by the formation of an O-Generator Alliance, as Pusey explains. “The London Grid for Learning (LGFL) initiated a joint venture with us and Ealing Borough Council. They bought the software for a number of schools, which are currently doing a user evaluation. Eventually, they want to use this music software in all London schools. Because it’s so visual, they are now asking us to do online lessons as well, which is a huge opportunity for us.
“A number of schools in Oxfordshire have also bought the software in Abingdon, Wantage, Witney and Oxford and we are currently in talks with distributors to roll out the software across the whole country. I hope to become high profile by September.”
Pusey gives induction workshops to any schools buying the software and teachers also receive a special pack containing details of the lessons, a year planner, on-screen guide and other useful aids.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” enthused Claire Brooks, one of the teachers at Ladygrove. “It covers a whole different genre of music to the other software that we have and it’s very easy to follow. The virtual teacher is good for teachers who are not musical and having a teacher pack with it is wonderful.”
And the verdict of the pupils? One 10-year-old boy at an Oxford school summed it up: “It’s fun and it’s really cool.”