Category Archives: Getting to know you
Our latest guest blog is from Lee Holder (aka Lee Chaos), a teacher, mentor, promoter and DJ who runs the BTEC course at Gloucestershire College and works freelance for The Music Works, a key partner in the hub. From singing harmonies along to the sound of his mum vacuuming the carpet, to building his own music interfaces to make music more accessible, Lee works with people of all ages and abilities to help them make music.
A few people have asked me how I ended up having a career in music, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time trying to remember how I ended up making music for a living. It’s not been the most obvious of routes and it certainly wasn’t the plan from the beginning.
My first musical memory is of being very young and very ill, wrapped up in a blanket, and singing harmonies along to the sound of my mum vacuuming the carpet. I remember the feelings in my head as I sang, and played around with different notes, seeing which felt nicest when sung along to the mechanical drones. My second musical memory is of a big kid picking on me for singing too loud in the school choir at Primary school – I’d always enjoyed singing up until that point, but suddenly I became very conscious of my voice, and this one comment damaged my confidence so badly that I became reluctant to sing alone for many years after.
Secondary school was a disaster for me musically – this was a long time before equality and diversity and Every Child Matters, and our teachers seemed to regularly leave less able students behind in order to focus on the naturally talented members of the class. And, so, after a few unsuccessful experiments with a recorder and a violin, I was classified as Not Musical, a state that could only have been remedied by a combination of costly private lessons and enthusiasm, both of which I couldn’t afford at that point.
Around this time I became an avid heavy metal fan, initially drawn in by the artwork of bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and so on, before encountering Guns N Roses – apologies to any fans reading this, but I found Appetite for Destruction so repellent with its misogynistic lyrics and whiny vocals that I sold all of my metal records and disappeared down an electronic music rabbit-hole. For me this was the gateway to incredible new soundscapes and unexplored worlds, some of which were musically within my grasp through the magical powers of the holy trinity of synthesis, sequencing and sampling.
When I was doing my A-levels, we had a change of staff in the music department, and a more forward-looking music teacher called Mr Yarnley changed my life forever. He updated the school music room with a synthesiser and 4-track recorder, declared that he didn’t have time to learn how to use it and by some twist of fate, give me the keys to the music room to experiment with the equipment during private study sessions. I balanced my academic studies with an art A-level and as much music as I could fit in the gaps around the edges, learning how to put tracks together piece by meticulous piece, compensating for a lack of music theory with remorseless trial and error. These early experiments even got an opportunity to take to the stage, early synth-pop experiments sticking out awkwardly in the end of term rock concerts.
Electronic music became my hobby whilst I went through art college for 4 years, firstly in Cheltenham and then in St Albans. I spent all my money on music equipment and records. My first student grant (those were the days) went on my first drum machine, my second got spent on my first sampler, and the money from my job was spent on cheap food and gig tickets. My college course was in modelmaking – something I wasn’t particularly good at, but which gave me a wide set of problem-solving and business skills. With some friends we also staged a hostile takeover of the Students Union, and we started to run events alongside scraping a pass on the course. Although I was a barely adequate modelmaker, I was able to use computers to enhance and manipulate my 3D creations, and in my final year I was able to combine this with early experiments in computer programming, installations and composing film soundtracks. By the end of the course I knew I had no future as a modelmaker and knew that music was what fired my motor.
After the inevitable freefall from college graduate into dead-end job, I ended up working in music retail whilst starting to form my first serious band, The Chaos Engine. We were the band with no drummer at a time when grunge was big, but our stripped-down and portable stage set-up, coupled with our love of filling the stage with projections, smoke and strobes, meant that we got a lot of gigs and played all over the country. I always maintain that we didn’t necessarily get gigs because we were a great band as much as the fact that we were incredibly efficient, well organised and easy to work with. Most of my free time was taken up booking gigs, promoting, running our little fan club and writing & recording music at home.
The usual musical route of sending out demos to record labels and getting rejection letters was followed before we decided to self-finance our own CD – this wasn’t common at the time but thanks to some great T-shirt designs and paying gigs, we’d managed to save up enough money to give it a go. Suddenly, people started to take the band seriously, and because of my contacts in the record store, we were able to get the album on the computer system and shipped out to other stores. Accidentally, I was running a record label.
Wasp Factory Recordings was a great idea in principle – it was more like a co-operative than a traditional label might be, and we got to sign and work with many of the bands that we had enjoyed gigging with in the earlier years. We released more than 20 CDs around the world, took artists to play festivals in Europe, North America and Australia, did deals with Microsoft to provide music for video games, won awards, had brilliant adventures, and made hardly any money at all. Whilst trying to control this juggernaut, I also worked at a local arts centre called The Axiom, which is where I learned how to be a sound and lighting engineer, DJ and events manager.
Somewhere in amongst all of this I met George Moorey, who asked me to do some music workshops for a project he was running called Wired Music. From this small seed, I started to get involved in teaching and mentoring young people in bands, briefly running the recording studio at Whaddon Youth Arts Centre and providing music sessions for young offenders and excluded school children. Of all the work I’d done to date, this some of was the most rewarding so far. When the funding for that project ran out, I decided to look for other work, and as luck would have it, I managed to get a job running a project called In Tune for Stroud College. Over 18 months, we worked with 150 hard to reach students trying to re-engage them in education through a programme of music, film-making, poetry, DJing, animation and anything else that would catch their imagination. It was here that I really began to understand the positive effect that music could have, how it could literally transform people and energise them like nothing else. It helped people to communicate and express themselves when everything else had failed, and I realised that it had done the same for me throughout my life.
Ever since then I’ve been working to try and provide these opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. I’ve started to build my own music interfaces to allow people with limited mobility to access music making, and to modify existing instruments to make them more accessible. I think back to my experiences of music in the past, and of all the barriers that were put in my way, and use this experience to try and help people overcome whatever barriers they face. In general, we have moved towards being a more egalitarian society since I struggled with a recorder in the 80’s, but in some regards, music education has failed to keep pace with these developments, and still judges musical accomplishment by a set of criteria that haven’t changed in 50 years. Similarly, the music industry has struggled with change and its reluctance to adapt to a digital age has stunted its growth of late. It’s time to move bravely into the future and maybe leave the recorders behind for a while.
Interview with Omar Khokher, Head of Music, Severn Vale School, Quedgeley and Music Lead for the Gloucestershire Initial Teacher Education Partnership (GITEP).
Severn Vale School is a secondary school with academy status, for students aged 11 to 16, which takes in students from Quedgeley and surrounding areas such as Hardwicke, Tuffley and Kingsway. It is a school which continues to be good (OFSTED 2016), and the music department has built a strong reputation and significant support from the senior leadership team.
Music is growing at Severn Vale: in the five years since Omar was appointed, the number of students taking instrumental lessons has increased from 30 to 140 (obviously this fluctuates through the year), and uptake at KS4 is healthy with around 30 students taking music related options each year. The music department has three teaching staff (one also acting as the coordinator for the instrumental teaching team) and seven instrumental teachers.
In this interview, Anita Holford from Make Music Gloucestershire talks to Omar about how he’s secured a strong place for music in school.
Music lesson take-up by students here seems well established – what’s the situation like at the moment?
“It’s very healthy. We’ve got increasing numbers going on to do music. Nine out of 32 pupils in year 11 last year went on to college to study music, which is a healthy proportion. They mainly go to Stroud College and Gloucester College, and over the past three years, we’ve consistently had students going on to the BOA academy in Birmingham.”
What you do at Severn Vale School to encourage those who may have missed out at primary level but who want to be involved with music?
“Once we know the students who are coming through from our feeder primaries, we write to them with the information about instrumental lessons. And because they can sign up online we’ve got payments made and timetables in place for incoming Year 7’s before they’ve even walked through the door in September. Having an online sign-up and payment system has really helped.
“We’re very proactive in the first couple of weeks of the first term, we talk about instrumental lessons with the students. And we don’t pressurise. We talk about it very much as an opportunity that’s there for them. We also advertise our music scholarship in September which creates a bit of a buzz among the new Year 7 students.”
Is there anything else you and your team do to encourage students to choose music as an option, to study for GCSE or BTEC?
“We’ve shifted to BTEC with our Year 10’s this year, which does have much more of a vocational value to it. Students tend to find it more relevant to the music they’re interested in, and it is very accessible as you can write assignments which are pertinent to your students. I like the transparency of the assessment criteria. I also feel the new BTEC requirements have got an increased level of challenge and rigour which reinforces an equal standing to with GCSE. In terms of how to encourage students through, I don’t think I’ve changed anything since introducing BTEC in terms of expectations and standards in performance and composition. If anything, we’ve probably increased the level of challenge and expectation to cover the range of units chosen by the students. The fact we can differentiate the provision of units to engage a broad range of students with interests in performance, composition, music technology, and production only adds to the diversity of musicians among our students.
“One key factor which has helped the quality of our intake has been that students elect between art and music at the end of Year 8. This means we have students who want to be learning music in Year 9. We also set the classes which means that the level of teaching, support and challenge is more differentiated between the classes, which has a very positive impact on progress all round.”
In order to ensure music has a strong place within a school, it’s always important to build a relationship with the senior leadership team. Has it been a struggle to get music into the strong position it’s in now?
“It’s based on earned trust. I think your first year as Head of Department is critical – that’s when you need to demonstrate what your vision is, show some quick wins, and also have a very clear long-term game plan as to what you want to achieve and how.
“I have been fortunate. The head teacher is very supportive, and the business manager understands the value of music and is a champion of the role of creative subjects in school. It just so happens her brother was the Principal Trumpet player in the Philharmonia and is now Head of Brass at the Royal Academy of Music!
“You’ve got to be able to communicate your vision to the business manager and work with them. It’s also nice from their point of view to not be seen as the accountant or cheque book, and that they’re someone who makes a difference to a student’s life. Working effectively with your financial team is imperative.
“The deputy head and assistant head who are responsible for child protection, student wellbeing and behaviour also know the values and opportunities that music can bring socially and emotionally to vulnerable students. They’ve used instrumental tuition as a means of enriching students’ experiences at school and personally.
“It’s also a case of promoting music through the students, and it’s got to be selfless. They’re the best ambassadors for what you are doing. If they’re talking about it in the corridors, in Student Voice sessions, if you’re at a parents evening and you are the last one leaving because you’ve been absolutely rammed with parents and students who want to talk to you about the students’ progress – then that’s fantastic, and senior management do notice it.”
How else do you use students as advocates?
“Student Voice is vital. We’ve had student panels where we’ve discussed the curriculum, resourcing, what they want from the department, and we build that into our quality assurance.
“Also, if you’ve got an open evening I’d say be proactive and have musicians playing in different parts of the school. We always put on a mini concert with the performing arts students. We have had students performing in the foyer as soon as people come in, and we make sure that music is visible from the outset. Both our rooms are open, with demonstrations of what the students are learning. We want the students to talk about what music is like at Severn Vale.
“I teach with my door open, so if SLT, Year Team Leaders etc. are walking down they will hear what’s happening and are welcome to pop in.”
One example of the Head backing music is his Music Scholarship which is launched each year in term one. Who’s idea was the Scholarship?
“The idea for it came up jointly between the head teacher and our business manager. Then we came up with rubric for it, how it would work, the terms and conditions.
“It’s open to all students whether they’re having instrumental lessons or not. Students apply and audition, and one from each year is awarded £500 towards their musical learning. A key part of the award criteria is to do with how the funding will have impact, make a difference, and provide opportunity which may not have been there otherwise.”
Closing the attainment gap is increasingly important to schools. Do you think there’s any element of that going on here, that the SLT has recognised that they need to look at different ways of doing that, not just maths and literacy?
“Absolutely. One of things that I like about here is that, yes, we need to be looking at our targets, grades and results, but it’s always done with an holistic understanding of the child and their background and needs.
“I think about some students I had last year where the creative subjects where basically what kept them in school. It was the focus for them.
“And behaviour and attitudes to learning in music lessons is something that’s improved greatly, and that’s been recognised. I can think of one student in Year 9 in particular, who has challenging behaviour in all of his subjects and he comes into his music lessons and he is absolutely perfect. I’m sure that plenty of other music teachers out there have students just like this. Part of this is down to the curriculum. It has to be relevant. Also, the students respond best when they engage with real music-making through live musicians.”
“SLT make the connection. Often they will come to me saying, We’ve got a student who wants instrumental lessons, or would like singing lessons as a means of developing their confidence – can we arrange for that to happen?”
Is that usually Pupil Premium funding? How did you get that in place for music?
“We’ve got an allocated amount of money from the Pupil Premium budget, which is £5,000 per year. I think my predecessor set it up, and I’ve been able to carry it forward. Some colleagues I’ve spoken to in other schools have sometimes not been able to access this level of additional funding. Pupil Premium helps in providing learning opportunities to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access them, to close the attainment gap – and we know that music helps with all sorts of aspects of learning, from increasing motivation to improving metacognition, developing confidence and communication skills, and making school a happier place for them.
“We tend to part-fund instrumental lessons by 50 per cent. If there’s a case that the other 50 per cent can’t be fully met by parents, then we’re not going to deny that student the opportunity because that’s going totally against what PP is about. It’s about opportunity and entitlement.”
Do you have any statistics that you use to show people the value of what you do?
“That would be part of our departmental minutes and our line management review documentation, which we have to submit three times a year, and which is rigorous. We analyse the data on SISRA – target grades, student performance across KS3 and KS4, ability groups in terms of prior achievement, high, middle and low, closing the gap in terms of gender, and English as an Additional Language and looked-after children. The data doesn’t lie. It’s totally transparent – that’s where the accountability is.
“There’s quality assurance and monitoring. It’s monitoring which is done in such a way that you have control and autonomy. There’s trust here, high trust, but high accountability.
“Also there’s evidence from coursework and concert recordings that I put it on the departmental SoundCloud page which has motivated students to raise the bar in terms of performance standards. And last year my line manager who oversees the Pupil Premium budget, wanted pen-portraits of specific students for an overall school case study.
“But the best evidence would have to be to come and see the students perform.”
Is there anything you’d like to pass on to other people that you’ve learned during the process of securing a strong place for music here in Severn Vale School?
“I think one of the biggest things for any head of department to bear in mind is that SLT are human beings too. I often share student recordings with SLT and year team leaders – as well as email them to parents. Colleagues often comment on how nice it is to hear students’ performances and how it adds another layer of understanding about a student.”
“From my experience, one of the things SLT appreciate, and more likely to get you the support, is not going to them with problems but with solutions. And solutions which can be validated. Also, if ABC is being asked of you, make sure you ask for 123 to do it.”
Further links and resources :
Facts and guidance about Pupil premium
Using the Pupil Premium to support music education – advocacy information
How music changes lives – research summarised on the MMG website
More evidence about impact – from Music Education Works! website
* Musical Futures is an initiative and movement to transform music education through real-world learning. We Teach Music was a photography commission to celebrate music teachers: a journey through the length and breath of the UK to capture them in their regular school working environment.