Inspiration / 13 August 2020

How a music educator uses BandLab in the classroom

Music lessons, like art, can be much needed creative outlet in the mix of subjects across the school week. But for many, music lessons haven’t always been the stuff of happy memories… For some, a squealing chorus of 25 recorders is their strongest memory of music at school – and it feels a long way away from the music they love to listen to.

A music educator since 1984, Phil Heeley has seen it all, and he’s determined to change that. His champion? Music technology.

Phil’s mantra is simple: Access to All. Inclusion is everything. Everyone should be able to experience the joys of making music, young or old. And he believes that technology like BandLab takes us one step closer to that.

A self-proclaimed “BandLab Guru”, Phil certainly lives up to those credentials. He’s the founder of Inclusive Music, which has an entire site dedicated to educating both teachers and students about making music with BandLab.

Phil has had many successes using BandLab in the classroom, and we were very keen to find out more when we caught up with him recently. Read on as Phil talks about how technology has helped shaped music education, how he uses BandLab as an education tool and lots more.

Tell us about your philosophy or approach as an educator

It’s my passion and purpose to enable young people to discover their musical genius. In fact, it’s not just kids but everyone! I want to inspire and facilitate as many people as I can to access the wonderful world of music.

Knowing the impact that music has had on my life, my happiness, my joy and my career I really want to share that opportunity with others and have made it my business and my mission to make that as easy and inclusive as possible.

Phil at the 2019 Bett Show in London presenting for BandLab.

As music technology became more affordable in the 80s , it meant that I found a way to express myself and get my music out there. I believe that connection, collaboration and creative self-expression are basic human needs and that’s why we consider music the universal language. 

Going back to the beginning, what inspired you to start Inclusive Music?

I’d got to a point as a teacher where I wasn’t satisfied with the music education or experience I was offering my students. I could see that the majority of young people were just not engaged and did not enjoy the music lesson as dictated by the curriculum. I also believed that the curriculum had it wrong. It was too academic and old-fashioned. It didn’t take into account the incredible passion and love that young people have for music, how they identify with certain genres and artists. Their personal relationship with music was not reflected in school. I was saddened to see, but not in the least surprised, that the take up of music examination courses at the age of 14, was decreasing rapidly. Music has now been acknowledged as an endangered and dying subject in the UK. When I realised this was a national trend I realised that change was needed. Unfortunately, change is extremely slow in education and it’s taken me over 20 years to begin to have the impact I wanted and felt was needed.

I soon realised that I had to branch out on my own and establish a music education system that was fun, motivating, child-led and incorporated personalized learning. So I formed my company “Inclusive Music”, reflecting my intention and passionate belief that music needs to be accessible and inclusive so it can positively impact the lives of young people. When I found that the domain name “Inclusivemusic.com” was available, I knew I was on the right path!

Tell us how you got to know about BandLab and what made you decide it was the right platform to work with as an educator?

I have been looking for a music software that could replace the brilliant Dance eJay. In 2004 I worked with eJay to produce “Dance eJay for Schools” which became a bestseller in the Education market. I introduced it and taught it to whole classes in schools. They loved it! But alas, the company stopped trading in around 2008. I went on to try a range of different music software to try and find a suitable replacement including Magix Music Maker, GarageBand, Mixcraft, Ableton, Cubasis, Cakewalk, Soundtrap but none was ideal for schools due to expensive license options, problems with installation, running on networks etc.

It didn’t take into account the incredible passion and love that young people have for music, how they identify with certain genres and artists. Their personal relationship with music was not reflected in school.

I stumbled upon BandLab in December of 2017. OMG! A modern, powerful, simple to use, drag and drop loop based software with virtual instruments, drum machines and FX. And it was free? FREE! I couldn’t quite believe it. Not only that; it was online and it worked like a dream. Within minutes I was hooked and I knew from the getgo that BandLab was a game changer! As I started making music with the software and put it through its paces I started to compile a wishlist with suggestions to Jess and Kate at BandLab as to what I thought could make the platform even better – a bit cheeky really but it was met well and I soon became friends with people in the company. 

It wasn’t long before BandLab for Education was released which, for all intents and purposes was pretty much the same music software but encased in a safe, walled garden Teacher Management System which meant that children could make music within a safe and secure environment. This is perfect for schools as it ticks all the boxes that teachers are concerned with regarding safeguarding and the online safety of their students. With the teacher having total control over who is invited into their virtual classroom and students not having the ability to contact anyone outside of that classroom, it’s become the safest and simplest solution for young people to create, experiment and learn music in an exciting and motivating way in both the classroom and at home. The teacher also has access to a simple but powerful TMS which allows them to create assignments, publish them to their students and monitor their progress. The fact that BandLab for Education is also free means that every school has the opportunity to use BandLab’s award-winning creative music making tools. It’s a no-brainer!

There are many ways to expose music appreciation to a wider audience. How has technology like BandLab allowed you to make music appreciation more accessible to the masses?

I think BandLab has helped democratize music. There has always been a sense that music is an elite subject, that if you don’t have musical instrument lessons you’re not ever going to be able to become a musician. This has been blown out of the water! Anyone can scroll through the thousands of sampled Loops in over 100 styles of music and discover what makes a funk track funky or film score dramatic.

So the opportunity to create music in the style that they love is hugely motivating and conversely being forced to interact with music that they don’t like is a challenge because it’s so personal.

But perhaps the most important factor in BandLab’s success is their efforts to include cutting edge modern genres such as Neurofunk, Dark Hop, Future Trap. For most young people music and technology is the air they breathe and it’s what they spend a huge amount of time interacting with. In those early teenage years in particular, a certain genre or artist becomes part of their identity and an emotional connection is made which will likely stay with them their whole lives. So the opportunity to create music in the style that they love is hugely motivating and conversely being forced to interact with music that they don’t like is a challenge because it’s so personal. That being said the potential for integrating different styles and creating something new and exciting is a distinct possibility.

Music technology has helped lower the barriers of entry to music making. Why do you think some educators are still skeptical or hesitant to adopt music technology, and what do you think can be done to champion the use of tech in the music classroom?

Haha! This is something I’ve been battling with for decades. I owe my musical life and career to technology. When I was about 20 years old my Mum, God bless her, bought me the newly released Casio VL-Tone.

It was a bit of a gimmick measuring about 18 inches long with tiny fingernail keys. But within its tiny frame it had the basic elements of a synthesizer and a digital recorder. I soon realised I could play the tune in my head, one note at a time, record it and then play it back with the rhythm and tempo I chose. This changed my life! I had now found a way to express myself, to get the music in me – out!

Realising the evolving power of technology I became an avid consumer of the latest musical instruments that were being invented. Over the years I was the proud owner of synths like the Roland SH-101 and Moog Rogue, samplers including the Ensoniq Mirage and the Akai S950, Analogue Recorders like the Tascam 4-track cassette recorder and the Tascam 8-track reel to reel, Drum machines included the Yamaha RX11 and Roland TR-606 Drumatix. Every instrument allowed me to access, explore and express myself in a different way. 

So I’ve never been the traditional kind of teacher, in fact I can’t read music and I’ve no music qualifications. Technology has allowed me to learn in my preferred learning style and pursue my musical journey in whatever way I saw fit. No rules – no boundaries.

Finding champion students to help and in some cases lead can be a powerful tool in breaking down the teacher-student divide and empowers some kids to rise to the challenge of an expert, often those who may not normally do that well in a traditional educational environment.

In my time as the Head of Music Technology for the Somerset Music Service, I came across a number of music teachers who actively avoided technology. I found this incredibly frustrating and felt sorry for the students who were forced to learn the old fashioned way. There are many reasons why this continues to be an issue. In some cases the more traditional music teachers brought up in the classical western tradition, doing their instrument grades then going on to a music college and bolting on an education qualification at the end were always going to find technology a huge challenge as they had no experience of it. The prospect of having to learn something completely alien was considered onerous and would demand a great deal of time and effort. Teachers rarely have that luxury. Then there’s the fear that the technology would malfunction or fail. There’s nothing worse than that when you’re in front of 30 stroppy teenagers! The reality is that technology is much simpler these days and it’s usually user error that is to blame. Problem solving is therefore a crucial skill. Another factor in some teachers’ reluctance to embrace technology is that they know that the kids are likely to know more than they do. For some this is embarrassing. 

One of the solutions, in my experience, is to unashamedly admit that you’re not an expert and become a facilitator instead. Finding champion students to help and in some cases lead can be a powerful tool in breaking down the teacher-student divide and empowers some kids to rise to the challenge of an expert, often those who may not normally do that well in a traditional educational environment.

I have made it my mission to demystify music technology in education and demonstrate its power to enable all students access to a musical experience and learning that is engaging, motivating and fun. I do this by producing step by step video tutorials that teachers can pause at any time, allowing both the teacher and students to try out what they’ve just seen demonstrated. This means that the teacher is learning on the job (Continued Professional Development – CPD) and the student can learn from the expert. My songwriting course “BandLab for Schools” is proving incredibly popular all over the world.

Any teacher worth their salt will embrace this with open arms and those who don’t should pass the baton on!

The most dramatic advocate for music tech in the classroom will be the witnessing of the students’ reaction, learning and success. To watch how engaged they are, how passionate their interaction and dialogue with each other is, how eager they are to share the music that they’ve created and how proud they are when their peers spontaneously cheer or dance. Those are magical moments in any teacher’s career and I’ve been privileged to have seen this many times.

With many years of experience in music education, what are some of the areas that BandLab brings to the classroom that previously could never have been done?

The fact that BandLab is an online platform that successfully and efficiently streams over WiFi without latency is an incredible feat. This bypasses the many challenges and protocols in schools when having to install software and music programs that generally require a lot of hard-disk space and fast processing power. 

BandLab’s Mix Editor interface is very clean and simple so it doesn’t scare off teachers or students. But this is deceptive as just below the surface there are some incredibly powerful and sophisticated music making tools which are normally only to be found on paid for programs. Who could have imagined a 16 track digital recording studio which incorporates Virtual MIDI Instruments, Drum Machines, Sampled Creator Kits, FX, Envelopes and so much more. All the tools the budding musician needs to learn their art.

BandLab’s Mix Editor interface is very clean and simple so it doesn’t scare off teachers or students. But this is deceptive as just below the surface there are some incredibly powerful and sophisticated music making tools which are normally only to be found on paid for programs.

The quality of sampled Loops is incredibly high and this is important to young people who listen to and expect access to high quality music.

What are some features on BandLab you have found particularly useful in your lessons?

Lots! Here are just some:

  • The ability to quickly publically play the music of any one of my students to the rest of the class
  • The potential to record a voice or instrument or noise, edit it and then use it in your composition
  • Using the built-in effects to either enhance a sound or create a completely new one
  • Having the option to change the Snap to Grid setting to ensure accuracy when aligning Loops together or when zooming in to get creative with the slicing feature
  • The ability to reverse a Loop
  • Using the AudioStretch tool to change pitch and tempo of an individual Loop
  • The ability as a teacher to group students who want to work together collaboratively
  • The ability to play a virtual instrument with the qwerty keyboard. This saves money and space.

I love the latest Loop packs created by celebrity DJs and producers. This is really inspiring and motivating for young people. On a personal level I was absolutely delighted and so proud when I saw Martin Badder’s Deep House Grooves Loop Pack appear on the Mix Editor.

Martin was one of my first Music Tech students when he was a kid. His mum came round to my flat and asked if I would teach him privately. I was of course very happy to and we spent many hours together recording songs on an old Atari computer with Martin playing the keyboard. It inspired me to produce my own Loop Pack for BandLab. My “Songwriter’s Toolkit” should be released shortly.

Many schools around the world have moved their classrooms online. Do you think it’s “now or never” for music educators to fully embrace music technology into their curriculums?

I hope it’s not quite that drastic. Yes, I’m heartily encouraged by the shift towards virtual classrooms and online education and I think this will only enhance the learning opportunities of students. It would certainly be a great shame if music educators ignored this global trend and didn’t embrace music tech.

I strongly believe that those who don’t are depriving their students of a hugely empowering and important element of musical education but perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to access and start their musical journey, experience the joy and healing that making music and maybe even becoming life-long musicians as a hobby or professionally. Now that BandLab have introduced the possibility of creating your own album and selling it on the platform whilst retaining 100% of the money earned, this becomes a real option.

How do you think music education will emerge out of this pandemic? Do you see it being approached in a completely new way from now on?

I really hope so. When the lockdown began I immediately created some free courses – BandLab for Schools Covid-19 Edition for education and BandLab for Beginners for the general public. I then contacted as many organisations, music services, schools and teachers as I could letting them know this was available for students and teachers during the crisis. The uptake was amazing and the response and reviews heartwarming. 

“I’m really glad I found this website. Very informative and course structure is easy to follow. I Never Thought I would understand BandLab until I came across your course. The most exciting aspect is that I learnt this course for free. Thank you so much!” – Douglas Adukpo

Music educators were literally forced to find something online which was educational, entertaining, accessible and inclusive. Most of them had not even heard of BandLab (Where had they been?) but when they were introduced to it via “BandLab for Schools” they were amazed at what they found. They realised that here was an incredible resource that young people would engage with like ducks to water. Teachers discovered that they didn’t have to be the expert to introduce and teach music technology in their classroom, they didn’t have to spend weeks of their own time trying to learn new skills, it was all available online in a format that they understood and could use immediately.

As a result I am now doing webinars to hundreds of young people every week and offering online courses as a follow up. Of course, I wasn’t the only company to do this. I believe that this will result in online music education learning and resources being an integral part of the future of music in schools. 

In all my time as an educator I’ve never seen such engagement and enthusiasm for learning and I think it’s down to the fact that kids intrinsically love music, they love technology and they love learning, particularly when they can do it their way – according to their own strengths, needs, skills and interests – Personalized Learning is the future of education. 

What I love about BandLab and BandLab for Education is that the platform and software is available anytime, anywhere. It’s completely intuitive to young people and every time I teach in schools I see that many kids are instantly hooked and will start creating their own music at home before the second lesson. They will have created their first piece of music and be desperate to share it with me and their classmates. In all my time as an educator I’ve never seen such engagement and enthusiasm for learning and I think it’s down to the fact that kids intrinsically love music, they love technology and they love learning, particularly when they can do it their way – according to their own strengths, needs, skills and interests – Personalized Learning is the future of education. 

However, the power to adopt online learning and digital music making still resides with the educators. And whilst there are a growing number of primary and secondary schools teachers adopting this new breed of music learning, there are still far too many either unaware or unwilling to embrace music tech as an essential part of young people’s music education in their classroom practice. Whether this is encouraged and supported by educational institutions is down to the individual teachers as well as those who create the curriculum. What is clear though, is that young people are driven to express themselves and engage with the music that they love. They will always find a way to do this even if they have a negative experience in their school music lessons. Now such incredible free music technology is available in BandLab, music educators would be foolish not to realise that this is a golden opportunity for them to invigorate and modernise music provision in schools and to make music accessible and inclusive to all kids not just a few. 

What is one valuable lesson you as a music educator have learned from being in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s confirmed a couple of things that I already knew:

  • That online learning is an incredibly powerful tool and enhances access and inclusion and the concept of music for all;
  • That technology is an integral part of the future of music and of education in general and that;
  • BandLab and BandLab for Education are arguably the best music platforms to engage young people.  

When people discover BandLab and start playing with the incredible music making tools, they are astounded at its power and potential. Teachers realise that they’ve found a free resource that will enable them to deliver the curriculum in a new, creative, motivating and exciting way. And students, young people, old people (in other words pretty much everyone) discover that they can access music making in whatever way that suits them. 

The confirmation has come from the takeup and feedback from the Free Covid-19 Music Making Courses. 20 million BandLab fans can’t be wrong – they know this and love it. Now educators are beginning to see what all the fuss is about. It makes me more passionate about finding ways to get this in front of teachers, to show them the impact that BandLab has upon kids. Once they see the magic for themselves I believe they will embrace it too.

Just this week a classical violin player, Jorge Aguirre, has approached me to help with his summer school. Because of lockdown he’s running it online this year. He has students all around the world and they’re going to be using BandLab to bring it all together. I met him for the first time yesterday on a Zoom call and we immediately hit it off. We realised we shared the same passion – to bring music to the masses, he from a traditional perspective and I from a technology background. We instantly understood that between us we had the power and potential to make a massive difference across the globe bringing young people together from all walks of life to connect and collaborate no matter what their circumstances were. For every purchase of “BandLab for Schools” I give away a free license to a school in a developing country or in a deprived area of a developed country. Jorge works with hundreds of students around the world who fit this criteria! Once again the power of music moves in mysterious ways!

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