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DJing as a GCSE: The Smart Brothers on getting CDJs into the school curriculum

Courtesy of Austen and Scott Smart

07.12.20
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Since 2015, brothers Austen and Scott Smart have been campaigning for the inclusion of DJing into the formal curriculum – a move that has modernised music education in schools.

Their efforts, be it through their educational initiative FutureDJs, their virtual learning environment Virtuoso or their work with Pioneer DJ and the GCSE exam boards, have led to a shift towards a more inclusive music classroom. Not only have they designed new curriculums focusing on DJing as a subject in its own right – and helped train teachers to deliver them – but they played a huge role in raising accessibility for equipment in schools, ensuring the initiative can have lasting impact.

Earlier this year, FutureDJs and the London College of Music Examiners published a new syllabus that offers grade certifications on CDJs. This means that students honing their craft on decks can be formally assessed in the same way as those who play jazz or classical instruments. The new syllabus has been in the works for some time and provides detailed criteria for school teachers assessing GCSE-level pupils. Furthermore, one of their first successes was getting CDJs, turntables and other DJ gear recognised as instruments in the eyes of the GCSE examination boards.

The Smart brothers’ commitment to DJing can, unsurprisingly, be traced back to a previous career as electronic music artists themselves. They previously worked as DJ and production duo Brodanse, then as Austen/Scott, before turning their attention to music business. It’s a passion that can be traced even further back to their formative years; a period of musical discovery.

In the last six years, the music A-level uptake has declined by around 32%. Austen and Scott wish to change that. They’ve made it a mission to inspire more students to get into music by reimagining what music lessons could look like: in line with modern technology, and in tune with modern music tastes. We caught up with them to discuss their work and their hopes for the future.

Courtesy of Austen and Scott Smart

Firstly, can you tell us a little about the various companies you head up?

In 2015 we founded FutureDJs, an educational platform that works with schools around the UK supplementing their traditional music syllabus with MC, DJ and production lessons using online music production software like Soundtrap. We recently announced the world’s first-ever graded DJ exams, alongside writing the book How to DJ, and training teachers on how to be confident when incorporating modern music into their lesson plans.

This year we also launched our second business, Virtuoso – the world’s first virtual music classroom. This allows us to bring that real world teaching experience to students of all ages, everywhere. Our first studio is based in Manchester and is built on state-of-the-art software to provide a fully interactive learning environment that simulates a physical music classroom through 20-plus multi-camera angles and fully optimised audio for music. Next year we will be rolling out lesson plans across a number of different instruments – not just DJing. Our ambition is to make music education accessible to everyone in the world by 2030. Ambitious, hey!

Courtesy of Austen and Scott Smart

How did you first get into dance music?

Growing up, we were largely into rap, hip-hop and grime. We’d always make music for the common room and make beats with our friends. Then, one day, a friend of ours introduced us to Joey Negro – it changed everything. We were friends with one of the DJs at Sankeys and started going out there, plus to a funky house club called Ampersand. It was a real turning point for us. Shortly after, we blagged our first set of [Gemini] decks as a joint birthday present and have been obsessed ever since.

What inspired you to start campaigning for DJing and DJ equipment to be involved in the formal education curriculum?

We saw an announcement from AQA that they were introducing turntablism into GCSE Music and we very quickly connected the dots with Pioneer DJ, who we had a relationship with. We crowdfunded a lot of money to get things moving and began working more seriously with Dr Pete Dale, of Manchester Metropolitan University, who we believe is one of the true heroes of the movement to modernise music education – alongside Andrew Coxon (AQA) and Jim Reiss (DJ School UK). These guys have been saying that this needed to happen for a while. We then ran with it.

There were a myriad of people involved in making this happen. Importantly, the examination boards AQA and OCR, who essentially got this through government. The major challenge, however, was that decks were now on curriculum but no teacher had any idea what to teach! And DJ decks were largely inaccessible. We designed our own curriculums around the exam syllabus framework and built the first ever DJ tutoring program which standardised teaching in a structured, modularised way with clear outcomes. We also got Pioneer DJ to agree to put decks into every school we were working with – for free – so we could break down access barriers. Our unique strategy was in taking this into the commercial space so that we could raise awareness, financial support and to give it a real chance of not just being a ‘cool’ initiative but one that would have lasting impact.

Courtesy of Austen and Scott Smart

What’s been the key to keeping up the campaign’s momentum in the years since you launched FutureDJs?

It really was a case of joining forces with the right people. The forward-thinking London College of Music examiners, 4 X DMC world champion DJ Mr Switch, our How to DJ co-author Tom Dent. And of course, head tutor of FutureDJs, Mark One. It was aligning that academic expertise with highly-talented and passionate people who shared our vision and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

Was there a moment where you felt the campaign really gain traction?

For so long, music lessons have had a disconnect with the young people who take them. The music they enjoyed wasn’t reflected in what they’re taught in schools. Classical instruments, as important as they are to music, don’t appeal to young people in the same way that the modern sounds we hear in pop and dance music do. Introducing DJ decks as an instrument into the GCSE Music curriculum has opened up the door for students to learn about music in a far more engaging way, and with music that they love. Schools have been quick to notice how engaged it’s getting their students, and actually improved their performance and engagement in their other classes too.

It sounds like a really important breakthrough has been made.

It’s meant that many young people who were previously unengaged by music lessons, or even school in general, suddenly have a creative outlet which they can pursue. We’ve seen this particularly in schools whose students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Being behind an initiative which has connected so powerfully with those young people is deeply inspiring for us.

Avalon Emerson, Simple Things 2019 © Giulia Spadafora

How does the syllabus work and what does it involve?

These exams are regulated and are placed on the Register of Regulated Qualifications. Debut and Breakthrough are categorised as Level 1 awards, whereas Artist is categorised as Level 2. GCSEs are either Level 1 or Level 2 depending on the grade awarded.

In terms of grading criteria, how does it compare to the other instruments included in GCSE Music?

In GCSE Music, for full marks in the music performance component of the exam, one needs to show exceptional ability to demonstrate technical control with excellent accuracy (pitch, rhythm, intonation) and fluency of the instrument. There will be no discernible flaws, with just minor inaccuracies. This is the exact same when taking GCSE Music on DJ decks, and is applied to advanced techniques such as hot-cue drumming and live-looping – both skills that help the student show technical control. Students who want to take it further than GCSE Music can do our London College of Music-graded DJ exams. They really aren’t easy. We recently tested some of the exam questions on Annie Mac. She only just passed!

Have you encountered any other unexpected challenges?

The biggest challenge has always been traditional schools and teachers that are out of touch with their students and don’t see a place for DJing and MCing in the school. But that is why GCSE Music numbers are at an all time low and many students have never even stepped foot into a music department; kind of mad when you consider pretty much every kid – like we did – engages with music on a daily basis.

“Young people who were previously unengaged by music lessons, or even school in general, suddenly have a creative outlet which they can pursue”

How’s the reception from young people or students been since the news broke earlier this year?

When we step foot into the school and deliver one of our live performances we are always greeted with tons of energy and enthusiasm. The kids that get involved are often the ones that teachers least expect. They are usually amazing, too. Suddenly talent is being unearthed and rhythm that’s with us all is brought to life. We’re now getting students writing to us, and joining us virtually from LA, Philippines, Holland, Bolivia, Singapore and Australia. Recently we were asked if we could put our programmes into Pakistan. We said yes!

What’s next?

We are fast becoming able to reach so many more people, especially through our virtual classrooms. The first half of next year will see us building at least three more virtual learning studios so that we can deliver our music exams, mentoring and music lessons – on all kinds of instruments – to people all over the world. One of those in Amsterdam. We aim to build at least 10 studios in the next three years. We’re really aiming to scale up what we do, across the board.

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