How do we engage the kids who don’t normally enjoy classroom music?  

ALEXANDRA HOWES and KEN OWEN of Soundhouse tell us about a ground-breaking trial in a government school. 

Music in the middle years of schooling is widely known to be an area where most of us need to ‘lift our game’. Many music programs lack a practical component that is culturally relevant to young people, and so do not engage student interest. This current project confirms that the best activities for teaching music are the ones that reflect the way teenagers live and learn.

Carranballac College is a government school at Point Cook in the fast-growing outer western suburbs of Melbourne. Now in its fourth year of operation, the school has two campuses covering Prep. to Year 9, with 70 class groups, 31 of which cater for the middle years of schooling (Years 5 to 9). The principal, Peter Kearney, was keen to create a music program that made kids really want to come to school. Assistant principal Gaye Edmonds, using as external partners, set about designing a program that would engage and motivate students to learn instruments.

What did we set out to do?

It was decided that this would be done in a contemporary popular music setting, with the aim of developing students’ skills in music so that they could maintain music participation throughout their lives.

The program aimed to:

  • Support whole-class instrumental tuition
  • Include personalised and collaborative learning
  • Enable structured, sequential learning and pathways
  • Support state and national curriculum outcomes
  • Include live performance
  • Break down the distinction between ‘classroom’ and ‘instrumental’ music
  • Include different types of learning styles, particularly visual learning
  • Include ICT
  • Acknowledge and embrace students’ capacities for self- tuition
  • Allow students to continue their learning at home.

We decided the best way is to let kids play the music they like and be part of a band with their friends. They should be encouraged to continue their music after hours and at home. It looked like we had to find an easy way to include contemporary/rock bands in the music classroom.

How did we manage the noise level?

A variation on the once-popular keyboard lab concept was tried by setting up 6 digital drum kits, 6 keyboards, 6 guitars, 2 bass guitars and 4 vocal mics. Kids can hear backing tracks when required for individual or group practice. In addition, the teacher can hear an individual, a sub-group or the whole class group playing. A P.A. system also allows live performance to the whole class. A data projector and screen are important visual aids. The instruments are placed around the walls of the music classroom as space is still required for other junior music programs.

What about sequential skills development?

This was where we really needed to be innovative. Our inspiration came from a great article entitled ‘Music Education and YouTube’ by Andrew Swainston, published in the Summer 2007 issue of Music in Action. Andrew wrote about the value to students of some of the great content available, giving concrete examples for classroom use. Two years on, we now know how much kids use YouTube and there is strong evidence that this type of visual learning is, by far, their preferred style of enquiry. This influenced our search for tuition content that could help us achieve our goals.

What curriculum support materials do we use?

Enter—some exciting new music making resources.

Gigajam is a computer-based, rigorous, rock tuition program with downloadable student notes, video-ed instrumental tutorials (that include exercises and demonstrate playing techniques), play-along files, performance analysis and graded lessons, all of which enable students to learn band parts and play contemporary original songs together. There are also great possibilities for vocal and instrumental improvisation, using Gigajam backing tracks.

The video lessons cleverly link the notation with instrumental instruction. After only a few lessons, all students have learnt their parts to the one song and can play together.

Show Me How to Play has a unique piece of software called ‘Multiplayer’ which allows students to learn from, and play with, a pop band. Multiplayer uses known songs showing the drums, bass, piano and guitar in separate windows. Students can solo by isolating each part as well as zooming in to get a better view. When they feel confident, students can mute the part they are learning and have the experience of playing as part of the band. There are three additional audio tracks for extra production components such as metronome, vocals etc.

O-Generator is unusual music teaching software with a myriad of uses. Incidentally, it’s also great for constructing and deconstructing drumbeats and rhythms in a very visual way.

Drum Tutor DT HD-1 is remarkably simple software by Roland. It has an ingenious switchable screen that toggles between ‘drumkit hero’-style graphics and traditional drum notation. Students play with the backing tracks in their preferred score style.

The trials

As you can imagine, considerable funding help was needed to ‘tool up’ for this project. The school sought industry support and Roland Australia immediately saw the potential, generously lending us six digital drum kits. Soundhouse provides the technical set-up and the services of key teacher Alexandra Howes, who is on secondment to Caranballac College to implement the program.

Each student instrument also has a laptop computer to allow students the opportunity for personal study.

The laptops are part of a trolley system that is booked for each lesson. Group work, where all students played together, is projected onto the main screen.

The room provides a very exciting music environment, especially with some funky LED lighting to complete the ‘club’ atmosphere. We call this new room the ‘Soundgarage’.

To ensure she had the support of other staff, Alexandra encouraged the classroom teachers into the Soundgarage and gave them first-hand experience. She soon had them jamming along with AC/DC. With the security of sound coming only through their individual headphones and with quality music pumping through, the staff were hooked! We even had everyone playing out loud through the P.A. to finish—what a hoot!

Evaluating the learning outcomes

At the time of writing we are 20 weeks into the trial at both campuses of Carranballac College and the results have been more than we could have hoped for.

Students enjoy learning their parts and love performing in their band. Gaye Edmonds reports that ‘lessons in the Soundgarage are still the favourite session of the week for our Year 7 students.

Self-paced tuition using an instrument for each student, and a laptop to record skill development, ensures greater progress than any other tuition program I have seen. We also have a stronger school attendance on Tuesdays and Fridays (Soundgarage days), providing some empirical evidence about student attitude.’

We have learnt many lessons already, and undoubtedly have much more to learn.

  • The drums are a winner. Students are engrossed because they have their hands, feet and brain occupied as they follow along and play, play, play. They sound good from the start and are soon trying the fills and nuances as they emulate the drummers they see on the accompanying video. If we discovered nothing else, the concept of an ‘electronic drum lab’ has been identified as something that every school or music institution needs to experience. It is practical, economical and has a good claim to become a standard inclusion.
  •  Keyboard tuition begins with simple chording and is easy at this level.
  •  The key challenge is in electric guitar, and in getting students to first base in many songs. Learning bar chords is the first and biggest challenge we face in ensuring that students can join in the performance aspect of class in the first few weeks. To this end, we have included a young guitarist, Chris Hilton, to assist in classes by providing intensive and personal help to the guitarists. This may seem a luxury but we have a strong view that music in schools should be treated and supported like other practical subjects, such as science, where ‘lab technician’ support is provided.

It has been gratifying that school attendances are higher on days when our program operates. Nine students in Year 7 enrolled in instrument tuition for the first time.

After twenty weeks of trialling we can confirm that

  • Students love having a say in what music they play and learn
  •  Students love playing as a group
  •  Some guitar chords take considerable time to master!
  •  Students are now playing in their bands out of school hours.

Above all, music needs to be ‘caught, not taught’. We, as teachers, must not stand in the way of young people’s enthusiasm to play music.

Where to now?

This program is now the core music program for Carranballac College during the middle secondary years.

We know that we have much to learn and as we learn more, it will inform the decisions we make as the school offers the program to Years 7 and 8 in 2010.

By 2011 every student will be involved in playing music, every minute of every music class. In a school of 2000 students, this is surely going to create a positive cultural shift in music participation.

The program motivates the students to enter the music stream, by being immediately culturally relevant. As Ricky from Class 7B says. ‘It’s awesome because you learn how to be a rock star.’



Show Me How to Play:


Roland Drum Tutor HD-1 Drum-Tutor-HD-1

Alexandra Howes  A graduate of music performance from Victoria University, Alexandra has managed to fit a great deal into her still young career. As a singer with skills across a range of instruments, she has a passion for seeing young people succeed in contemporary music.

Ken Owen is the manager of Soundhouse at Debney Park Secondary College.

Gigajam comment

Gigajam does not teach bar (barre) chords until Level 2 of the course and the first lessons of Gigajam involve simple two note power chords. The course progression is found here

Gigajam recommends the use of smaller portable drum kits, such as the Yamaha DD65 to reduce cost and space issues. You can also use less audio sound equipment by using lower spec, portable and affordable MIDI instruments which are all monitored in headphones.

We generally suggest one live band set for live class performances.