Teacher Hub

Meet the teacher - Judith Kimber, Strathearn School, Belfast

Written by William Thompson07/09/23

I’ve been Head of Music at Strathearn for 21 years, During that time my colleagues and I have moved from an old school building with limited space for music to a purpose-built and very well equipped department in our new school.

Our philosophy is that music is for everyone, and we work hard to provide a curriculum that supports this, particularly at Key Stage 3. Our students learn performing skills on keyboards, ukuleles and guitars. Some of them have existing skills on these instruments, so we always provide differentiated resources to allow each individual to work at a level which is challenging but achievable. We try to choose repertoire which will appeal to teenagers – a mixture of appealing classics and contemporary music, which we update regularly. It can be hard to get this right, but it’s fantastic to see how hard students are prepared to work when they really want to be able to play a piece we’ve chosen.

I introduced ukuleles to the department about twelve years ago, and they’ve been one of our most successful initiatives. We have two full class sets and students use their own picks. We always have a few tuned lefthanded and do the same with guitars. We find that the fast progress students make on ukuleles is very motivating, and that the skills they learn make guitar playing very accessible too. Half of our guitars are three-quarters sized and half full sized, so that students can play an instrument that suits them physically.

We have two classrooms equipped with keyboards, with pupils in KS3 classes sharing keyboards in pairs. In one classroom, equipped for the younger students, we use the onboard recording function to record work on the keyboard. This is particularly helpful for composing, as pieces can be built up week by week, stored on external flash drives.

Composing forms an important part of our curriculum, often relating to performing skills and covering a wide range of styles over the three years of KS3. Projects are based on themes which allow students to be imaginative and creative, and differentiation by outcome is a key part of our planning. One favourite project includes composing a theme tune for a cartoon character. This involves inventing original characters, writing lyrics, structuring a melody, adding intros, ostinatos, endings, and other textural layers as desired, as well as a presenting and performing element. Another engaging project is composing and recording an underscore for a film scene, after learning to use a range of professional techniques.

The film score project is completed in our second classroom, where the keyboards are linked to a suite of Mac Minis. We use Logic software – I feel that students of all levels can access it easily, and it’s important that they know that it’s standard in the music industry. Our students are always impressed when they see professional musicians using Logic and realise that it’s the software which they use in class. We’ve recently had a new set of Macs installed and are looking forward to using the updated network which Chamberlain Music have set up for us. The previous system was operational for nine years and was very successful, both for student access and ease of teacher use.

Our students all have school iPads, and we use GarageBand with younger KS3 classes. This makes the transition to Logic later on very straightforward, and it’s a fantastic programme in its own right. It also syncs well with our use of Google Classroom: it’s very straightforward for students to submit screen recordings of their GarageBand songs for assessment, for instance.

Listening skills and activities and other musical knowledge are always linked to the practical work we do: we tend to play, sing or compose first and explain afterwards. High quality electric pianos with recording functions and excellent stereo equipment and screens in both classrooms help us to incorporate listening smoothly into our lessons and to maintain consistently high sound quality.

Having the opportunity to provide input into the design of our new department was very welcome, and we’re very satisfied with the space and equipment we’ve ended up with. It was a challenge to establish a balance between rooms to be used by visiting music tutors and practice rooms for student use, and we could always use more storage space. However, our classrooms feel very welcoming and are enormously practical. Our music technology equipment, which also includes a dedicated recording studio, is very well used and enables all students to produce work which they can be proud of.

Judith was speaking to William Thompson.