Notes from a Small Town
Students getting into the groove
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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In the music room of Trafalgar Primary School, a Grade 1 boy on the drums has the straight-faced insouciance of an old pro, his shoulders bobbing with the rhythm. Second-graders take keyboards and bass, a third-grader the guitar. They’re accompanying a pair of vocalists from Grade 4, trilling Fleetwood Mac’s ‘You Can Go Your Own Way’. Their teacher, the tall, heavy-set Mr Smith, jams alongside them. In long shorts, a checked shirt and turquoise sneakers, with his freckles and slightly upturned nose, he looks like an overgrown kid himself. “C! F!” he calls out, warning of chord changes. “One, two, three, four … D! C! E minor!” The resulting sound is both haphazard and toe-tappingly wonderful.
Travelling east from Melbourne on the Princes Highway, you can easily miss Trafalgar and find yourself among the smokestacks of the Latrobe Valley. The town is home to power-industry workers and retirees from the surrounding hills’ cattle and potato farms. Ben Smith, 34, sometimes known as ‘Smithy’ to his students, grew up in the area. He remembers his own school music lessons – “the recorder and ABC Sing! books” – being a joyless, discouraging experience. As a teenager he began playing guitar, and after that he was always in one band or another.
Ten years ago, when Smith started as a primary school teacher, he would put together bands of students, and help them work the school’s sound system. Slowly he became the multimedia teacher, with a focus on music and animation. Then, in 2010, Smith heard about Musical Futures, a UK-based program being piloted in Australia that uses informal, practical teaching methods to re-engage high-school students – a group that tends to switch off from traditional music education at the very time when they identify with music most intensely out of school. Smith, a man with preternatural passion for his work, persuaded those running the pilot he should trial it with primary classes.
Musical Futures unashamedly draws kids to popular music. The group playing the Fleetwood Mac break-up anthem chose the song after watching it being performed on the musical TV series Glee. They largely learn by ear, rather than following sheet music. Smith encourages them to be adventurous and try every instrument, unless they feel a special affinity for one. But what if 20 kids want to play the guitar? “Then 20 kids play the guitar,” Smith explains. “At the moment I’ve got seven kids wanting to do drums for the one song.” He’ll end up finding percussive roles for all of them.
If I could, swears a serious, flat voice, maybe I’d give you my worrrld!
How can I, comes the high, thin response, when you won’t take it from me?
Meanwhile, the rest of the music room is hectic with activity: two boys wearing headphones have plugged an electric guitar and drum kit into a “jam hub”, a central mixer that allows them to silently rehearse ‘Battle Scars’ by Guy Sebastian. At another hub, a Grade 5 girl with a voice so powerful it makes a visitor tear up sings Birdy’s ‘People Help the People’, and learns to accompany herself on piano. In an adjacent studio a student is recording the voiceover for an instructional video she plans to upload on how to play a virtual djembe, a handheld African drum, on an iPad. Her friends use the computer program GarageBand to do the sound engineering. Others are producing a radio show, which will be broadcast over the school’s PA system during recess, and end up as an iTunes podcast. There are plans for an end-of-year CD. And, of course, Smith still runs student bands at lunch and after school. Basically, Trafalgar is the Seattle of West Gippsland.
“Traditional music education has been very good at the pathway to the conservatorium, but not so good at recognising the other functions of music in people’s lives,” says the head of music education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Dr Neryl Jeanneret, who evaluated the Musical Futures pilot program. She sees this approach to teaching as akin to the 19th-century enthusiasm for standing around the piano, and, earlier, to folk music. “This puts music back in a social context.” Engaging the children in music – and by extension literacy, numeracy and new technology – may also keep them engaged in their schoolwork. The pilot schools found attendance was up on days the program ran. Some of Jeanneret’s colleagues, however, fear it augurs the death of classical-music training. Ben Smith has indeed found that songs penned after 1950 work best in the classroom, although students can go on to develop their repertoire and technique with private tuition. In fact, almost half of Trafalgar Primary’s 350 students now have ‘pay to play’ lessons.
Towards the end of Smith’s class, the kids gather and sit cross-legged to hear what their peers have been working on. Adolescence hasn’t yet struck, and for them this music is like a bridge to the other side. As they sing of dashed hopes and love gone wrong, they lose themselves in the collective thrall of playing.
A group of Grade 6 boys gets up to perform a throat-stripping cover of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’. Soon an office administrator comes to the glass door and wildly signals it’s too loud. Ben Smith politely waves, pretending not to understand.