Montcalm Secondary School’s music room looks like a scene from Jack Black’s School of Rock – electric guitars and Roland amps, cables and distortion pedals.
A four-man band, Void Eater, practises an improvised version of Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl. The 17-year-olds jam on drums, bass and electric guitars during a Musical Futures unit in music class.
Music instructor Sherry Beynon pokes her head into the music room to check on the group. Meanwhile, the other half of the class searches for new sheet music in the computer lab.
This classroom displays a vision for the future of all music rooms – small student bands learning together through mutually agreed upon, and teacher-approved, contemporary music.
“They get to choose their own pop or rock songs they’d like to perform,” Beynon said. “But, of course, it has to be appropriate for school.”
Musical Futures is a holistic learning process where students listen, compose, improvise and perform a song of their choice with friends, in a music classroom setting, said Ruth Wright, Western Music Education chair.
Wright launched the Musical Futures pilot program in southern Ontario last year. In 2009, she moved to Canada from the U.K., where she had been working with colleagues to bring Musical Futures to Wales.
Musical Futures began in England in 2003 when the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, an independent grant foundation, investigated new ways to engage young students in the traditional classroom.
“My goal with beginning this pilot project over here was just to try to reach more young people and make them feel that they could be musical,” Wright said.
Wright received two Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants to launch pilot programs at Montcalm in London and Our Lady Immaculate in Strathroy. Wright co-led the project along with colleagues Betty Anne Younker, Don Wright Faculty of Music dean; Carol Beynon, School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies acting vice-provost (and mother-in-law of Sherry Beynon); and Kari Veblen, Don Wright Faculty of Music professor.
Roland Canada and Long & McQuade loaned $30,000 worth of rock band equipment, including synthesized keyboards, bass guitars, microphones, electric guitars and electric drums. The instruments are on loan until June 2014.
Wright has also encouraged students to use traditional orchestral instruments like the clarinet and flute as well.
The Musical Futures research team from Western approached Montcalm to give its music program a makeover.
“Some school’s music programs are thriving,” Sherry Beynon said. “But at a school like ours that suffers declining enrollment, we needed something new to draw in the crowds.”
While Musical Futures introduces an informal way of teaching, Beynon said the students are not the only ones learning. Teaching has shifted from teachers instructing students (or conducting the class as an orchestra) to students learning with their peers in small bands. The teacher only steps in when students need guidance to learn a riff, for example.
“It was scary at first,” Beynon said. “It’s totally going out from the traditional way of teaching that I’m used to. I’m a classically trained musician and teacher so it was a bit of shock to think I would give my students all this freedom.”
Beynon added while there is room to improvise teaching, a class still needs structure. She wrote on the blackboard in the music room: “Musical Futures begins in the deep end.”
Students are thrown into the trial and error technique of listen and learn.
Beynon and her students list off goals they want to achieve for that class — learning the bridge or chorus of a selected piece, for example. Groups then go to different parts of the school to practise. Near the end of the 70-minute period, Beynon and her students regroup to discuss what goals they achieved.
For Grade 12 student Dillon Hastings, Musical Futures helped expand his interest in music.
“I’ve always been into music,” Hastings said. “I picked the hardest instrument to play, the clarinet. Since then, I’ve been building my skills. I really love it.”
Hastings added he performed Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down on the electric guitar in his first Musical Futures class last year.
“I want to be a music tutor one day and teach different instruments and different genres,” he said.
Wright said schools across Canada are beginning to adopt the Musical Futures method of informal teaching. She hopes Musical Futures will continue to motivate students to study music.
“So many people in society are convinced they’re not musicians or they’re not musical,” Wright said. “My aim is to reach more young people and make them feel that they can be musical – that that they can keep on making music for the rest of their lives after they leave school.”