Recent reports on music education in schools have highlighted the need for a different approach that accounts for the musical experiences that young people are having outside the classroom.  We profile two organisations that are using DJ-ing and turntablism as a way to do this – with significant results.

Despite the fact that huge numbers of young people are passionate about music, these numbers don’t correspond with the number of students choosing music at GCSE level. There are many fundamental reasons for this, such as lack of funding, prioritisation of core subjects – but it has also been increasingly noted that the curriculum doesn’t always offer school students music lessons that engage their interests.  Also, many teachers don’t have the practical skills, knowledge or resources to deliver the kind of alternative music lessons that have been known to inspire and attract students.

Young people benefit from a music curriculum that’s more tailored to them

The latest report to examine music education in schools, Exchanging Notes, confirms a hypothesis that many have suspected for a long time: young people can benefit hugely from a more engaging music curriculum that is less focused on grades, supports their wellbeing and connects their musical lives both in and out of school.  The report, commissioned by Youth Music, presents the results of their innovative four-year partnership project between music organisations and schools that sought to combine formal music education approaches with more non-formal community-based music.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including ‘Music teachers should be given the time and space to develop external partnerships to support young people’s engagement, wellbeing and progression’ and, ‘The music industries (including charities and Music Education Hubs) should provide strategy and investment to support the next generation of musicians.’

Enter the DJ decks

The good news is that several musical projects are having considerable success in both these areas.  Central to these projects is Turntablism (using the traditional vinyl) and mix DJ-ing (can involve vinyl, CDs, MP3s) The turntable is now recognised as a musical instrument by both AQA, OCR and CDC examination boards, and last year DJ-ing as a musical performance was added to the GCSE music curriculum. Bradley Smith of Leicestershire Music Hub and FutureDJs are both actively working with schools and teachers to introduce Turntablism and DJ-ing, respectively, to their music lessons,  giving them the opportunity to explore different areas of music and performance that they may be very familiar with outside school, but has barely been acknowledged in formal music education – until now.

Smith, who has had a passion for music production and DJ-ing since watching a DMC Turntablist competition at 16, developed the Turntablism unit in 2016. To date, 15 schools have had the unit, with several of those making repeat bookings.

A music classroom with mini DJ turntables at each desk.

A Turntablism class set up

The Hub has already received 9 bookings for next academic year across primary and secondary schools, and has already supported a pupil through their OCR Music GCSE using scratch DJ-ing as their discipline of choice. The lessons are delivered on a ‘whole class ensemble’ basis. One school managed to teach 650 people, which included Year 7, 8 and 9 students and some staff.

The scheme has several aims. “Firstly, the unit gives access to pupils to explore using turntables as instruments by learning the basics of scratch DJ-ing – learning the techniques of basic scratches and an adapted form of graphic notation to read and compose pieces”, Smith explains. “Adding to this, they get to see several turntablism routines across a variety of genres, performed by a professional turntablist.

A brown, feminine child and a white, feminine child are both using DJ turntables.

Primary school children in a turntablism class

“Secondly, students can learn and discuss a variety of standard music curriculum outcomes and skills, including performing a range of scratches of varying note value, time keeping and pulse, composition opportunities, performance opportunities, paired performance, arrangement/sections, the use of repetition in a theme etc.” The unit lasts for 10 weeks and 7-inch portable turntables are used as they are light weight, small and are more affordable to buy than full size 12-inch turntables.

Training the trainers

For a scheme like this to flourish, it’s important that music teachers are empowered to keep it going. “Teachers receive one day of training before delivering the unit which helps to broaden their understanding of contemporary music making, specific to the genre.  In the training, they go on the journey of the learner, practising a variety of scratch techniques and learning and performing a range of composed pieces.”

DJ-ing is the Future

Just like Leicestershire Music Hub, the organisation FutureDJs, founded in 2016, are helping to transform how children experience music at school. Their founders Austen and Scott Smart helped to write the syllabus for the addition of turntables to the list of recognised musical instruments at GCSE level.

“The inclusion of DJ-ing on exam board syllabi is a new and exciting prospect with plenty of room to grow,” sales and marketing manager Claire Le Tissier explains.  “The exam boards are clear about the skills and requirements of a DJ performance at GCSE, but as with any instrument, lessons and hands-on experience are invaluable when getting to grips with the basics.”

FutureDJs provide lessons on a peripatetic basis and have taught over 450 aspiring DJs at 35 schools around the country. This number is growing rapidly. “Schools are seeing the benefit of connecting young people with their music departments through the music they listen to and understand. Every student who learns with us is a student with a new fascination for music — and potentially a new enthusiasm for studying music further.”

A brown, masculine adult and a white, feminine adult, using a DJ turntable.

Future DJs

Like Leicestershire Music Hub, FutureDJs can teach music teachers as well as students, to help them to be confident working with aspiring DJs and including electronic music in their classroom, despite their own musical background.

Introducing more genres to the classroom

The turntable makes it easy to introduce forms of music that children may be more immediately familiar with – dance, hip-hop and grime beats go hand in hand with the turntable.  “Most of our practise backing beats are in a Hip-Hop style genre”, says Leicestershire’s Smith. “However, during the unit, they also experience short turntablism routines working in a range of other genres including, Drum and Bass, Big Beat, RnB and many more.”

FutureDJs teach multiple genres across the whole spectrum of electronic music. “Knowledge of all genres, techniques and DJ-ing cultures helps students to value and appreciate all the music they hear in a whole new way. All our tutors are encouraged to explore the genres that their students are interested in, and develop the genre-specific skills that goes with them”, says Le Tissier.

Getting your first decks

For anyone looking to take their passions further, it may be worth investing in some decks. There are a number of factors to bear in mind before buying such as portability, ease of use and value for money. Pioneer has long been regarded as one of the go-to brands, and FutureDJs recommends two of their models.  “We think that either the Pioneer DDJ-200 or the DDJ-400 Rekordbox DJ Controller would be a great first set of decks. They are affordable, portable, easy to use, and good for small hands. You do also need a laptop/desktop computer to use the DDJ-400, but it has everything a student will need to become an accomplished DJ and they resemble the format of industry standard kit. Any over ear headphones will work to start with, and we recommend the Pioneer DM-40 speakers.”

Pioneer 200 (DJ turntable)

Pioneer DDJ-200 – recommended entry level decks

Partnerships are the way forward

These organisations both show how some of the recommendations made in Youth Music’s Exchanging Notes report can work when put into practice.  Working with external partners has brought significant benefits for the schools concerned and made a lasting impact on the students.

As FutureDJs put it, “We want to connect young people to music through DJ-ing. By teaching them the skills of DJ-ing in school, we fire their passion for music. Through learning to DJ, students can learn the fundamentals of music and open a gateway to a whole new world of music production, songwriting and composing.”

Mark O’Donnell, Master at Westminster Under School, agrees. “FutureDJs offer something unique and new for schools, combining musical creativity with their passion for, and insight into, electronic music. They’re articulate and resourceful, and have an amazing sound system that will impress any child and teacher with an interest in using new technologies for sound.”

A white, masculine, ginger adult is teaching a young, white, masculine child with brown hair how to use a DJ turntable.

FutureDJs student Sandro Charmers has made history by opening the Amsterdam Open Air Festival on 1st June 2019. At 13-years old he’s the youngest UK DJ ever to open a festival – anywhere in the world.

Bradley Smith is also working on developing things further. “We are now offering pupils and schools the option to hire turntables from us, I am developing more resources for the pupils to access and practise along with and, this year, I am hosting the first ever Leicestershire Schools Scratch competition for the pupils and schools who have taken part in the unit of work. The competition is being judged by myself and two DMC champion Turntablists and we are combining the day with workshops for the pupils to learn some advanced techniques. From this, I hope to start a continuation “masterclass” where young people from the competition sign up to workshop days where we meet up every half term to exchange rhythms and practise ambitious techniques.”

Smith is also very keen that other hubs adopt the scheme: “We are currently working with another hub to make it part of their offer from September 2019. There have been other hubs show interest and we are in discussion with several.”


Natalie Bedeau