Looking back as recently as a generation ago, the changes that have come about in education are quite incredible, but we still have a way to go. iPads have replaced the dog-eared schoolbooks of our childhoods, YouTube is the go-to information hub for young people and gamification is no longer a buzz word but a learning trend very much on the rise. However, coming up with creative new ways to merge technology with traditional teaching is key, as is developing styles of tuition that are more in tune with the needs and lifestyles of modern children.
A glimpse into the future of primary school music education comes in the form of DabbledooMusic. The brainchild of traditional and classical musician and teacher Shane McKenna, DabbledooMusic is best described as a new system for music education. Bursting with colour and quirky characters, the site’s illustrations are the work of artist, illustrator and DJ Killian Redmond, who describes Dabbledoo’s journey from grassroots level, to festival favourite, to fully-integrated web-based resource. The site now boasts material covering all 26 weeks of the school year, lessons for baby infants right up to 6th class and with different levels of difficulty. Fittingly, the seeds for what eventually became DabbledooMusic were sown on Dublin’s dance music scene around 8 years ago;
Their first attempt was a spectacular fail
‘Shane and I got to know each other on the music scene at the time. He used to come along to the ¡Kaboogie gigs I was promoting and I’d be at his Attention Bébé gigs. He was doing some interesting work with graphic notations for his thesis in Trinity. His experiments involved projecting visuals and getting people to interpret them and play along. Then he started doing it with younger groups, and I came on board to look after the visuals. Once we realised that there was a space to develop a different way of teaching music, we published a self-financed Dabbledoo Music book. Then we realised none of the schools wanted it because they already had their music books, so it was a spectacular fail, but we decided to turn the idea into an interactive website and ran a Fundit campaign to get us started.
Revising the concept
The concept for the website was that there would be this house that you could travel around and learn music in all the different rooms. Each lesson was taught by a different character. The characters are actually based on people that we know. The music you hear on the site is played by friends of ours too. Jazz Cat is actually Johnny Taylor, who is a savage pianist. He’s amazing and has been with us from day one. Igor the Octocpus is a drummer, he likes to sample hip-hop and funk. We also had ED9000, who was based on Ed Devane. He would hack into the rest of the house and make the toaster pop or put on the kettle. With the characters we thought a lot about what would be fun for kids, because they have amazing visual and design literacy that a lot of educational authorities don’t give them credit for. It is getting better but some of the material produced for kids looks naff and awful. I wouldn’t find it in any way appealing, so why should kids bother with it?
In terms of putting it all together, we’re lucky that we both come from digital media backgrounds so we’ve managed to do a lot of work in-house, from illustration and video-editing to animation. It took us about 6 years to get to a point of being comfortable charging for Dabbledoo. We had a kind of hippy approach like ‘music should be free man’, but soon learnt that wasn’t a good business model! We got some good advice and tough talks from people, who told us that if we wanted it to be sustainable, then we shouldn’t be afraid of putting a value on our work. Chris Rooney just joined the team recently to help us with this. His specialty is sales and marketing, and the trombone!’
Everyone is capable of playing an instrument
Our tendency to view musical ability as a rare gift bestowed on a special, lucky few, rather than something innate that can be tapped into by everyone is a notion that Killian and Shane are eager to overturn, both for kids and the people teaching them. Giving teachers the guidance and support necessary to create a fun and interactive lesson for kids is central to Dabbledoo;
‘The most important part of what we do is giving teachers the confidence to teach music, because what we’re finding and what we’ve always found is that a lot of teachers hate teaching music. They’re like ‘I’m not musical’, ‘I can’t sing’ or ‘I’m tone deaf’ so what we’re doing is providing a system where you don’t need to worry about any of that. We’re giving them step by step instructions. We’re constantly updating the website, so it’s not like a book that can get outdated really quickly. You can follow it easily, and you can turn it over to the kids and get them involved, which teachers love because it takes the pressure off them. There’s an assumption that if you put 25 or 30 kids in a room that they’ll be able to learn the same amount in the same amount of time. That’s the difficulty teachers are faced with. It’s hugely pressurised and challenging, but if you give teachers something that actively supports them, that understands how the classroom works and the difficulties that they’re facing in terms of preparation and time constraints it can really help.
All the funding goes to the sciences which means the arts are floundering
One thing me and Shane are really bamboozled by is that Science seems to be cooler than music at the moment. There’s lots of funding going into Science and Coding. I have nothing against that as an Engineer myself, but arts and music are really floundering within our education system. An interesting comparison is with Finland who have pumped tens of millions into the creative arts. Its now the backbone of their education system. They’re teaching maths with music and geography with art, which is pretty incredible.’
As well his stance on better supporting teachers, and overhauling our approach to teaching creative disciplines, he feels its hugely important to empower kids to explore their musicality at a young age, so they can decide later on whether or not they’d like to pursue it further;
‘We all have this innate musicality built into us. We know what a major or minor key is without being able to put a label on it. Its built in, but at some point in Western culture we started to put it up on a pedestal, like you need to be a musical genius or prodigy to be up on stage, which I think is nonsense. People don’t need any previous musical knowledge to be able to get stuck in and have a meaningful musical experience. That’s something we really try to get across.’
Running concerts in classrooms has captivated children
Popping up at festivals and holding workshops was an essential part of growing awareness for DabbledooMusic in the early days, and getting out into the musical community is something they continue to do regularly. Drawing on his background as a DJ and Promoter Killian is keen to build on this ‘live’ element going forward with their Classroom Concert series’;
‘We’ve always made a point of putting on gigs. We need to be out there in the community. For teacher support we do training sessions called CPD (Continued Professional Development) workshops around the country where we walk teachers through the site and explain how it can help them, but we really enjoy touring around schools and doing sessions with the kids. The idea for the Classroom Concerts is getting deadly acts into schools. We’ve had some interest from amazing people. I’d love to get someone high-profile like Glen Hansard, Hozier or Katie Kim. Imagine a group of 30 kids jamming with those acts? We had Joe McKenna, a hugely-talented piper/multi-instrumentalist, do a concert at a school in Roundwood with his Uileann Pipes recently. We had this big session in the classroom and the kids loved it. Their minds were blown, and it was just us rocking up in a van with a bag of instruments. It was like Beyoncé had been helicoptered in or something! One of the girls in the class came up to us at the end and said ‘that was the best day I ever had in school’, which was amazing to hear.
Passing on his legacy
Another high-point was a workshop we did at Open Ear festival on Sherkin Island in West Cork. We did a collaboration with Eomac who was also playing that night. We took a piece of his music and cut it so it was really basic rhythm track and that’s what we played in the workshop. All the nice tonal stuff like the instruments were left to the crowd to fill in. We improvised some instruments, picking up some oil drums and security gates on the island. The big screen was playing the rhythm track to keep people in time and we had the bouncing ball and colour coding from the website. We built a graphic score based on that. We had 40 or 50 people of all ages in the tent, whooping, hollering and hugging each other. There was this childlike enthusiasm and every trace of cynicism was gone. It was such a fun experience.’
The passion for that shared-musical experience is definitely evident here, but there’s a kind of ‘paying it forward’ associated with the DabbledooMusic project for Killian also;
‘I’ve always had someone willing to take me under their wing when I was a young pup coming up. When I started to get interested in graffiti and street art Kev Largey invited me up to Belfast and showed me the ropes. Thatboytim was my mentor when I was learning to DJ. Apprenticeships are important in creative cultures. I feel now it’s my turn to pass on what I know to the next generation. Now the next crew are coming up, priorities are shifting, people are having kids and settling down. It’s all very organic and it’s up to the next guys and girls to take things over. Now that I have a family of my own to take care of my time is a lot more limited, but Dabbledoo is a nice way for me to pass along what I know. I’ll keep it up until it’s a multi-planetary education system!’
You can find out more about Dabbledoo Music here…