The gymnasium at the Alfred Sisley College in Moret-sur-Loing, south of Paris, echoes to the sounds of Pink Floyd’s Another brick in the wall.
The school orchestra performs it with gusto, but pride of place goes to a group of non-musicians who’re providing a strong rhythm section by bouncing and clapping basketballs.
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Each group of four has to play a different rhythmic pattern. Their heads bowed in concentration, they listen attentively as Josep Aragay brings them in one by one and gives the tempo.
Music teacher Yannick Val is impressed by how, after a few hours, the kids have got to grips with notions such as rhythm, beats in a bar, crotchets and quavers.
“It was a very good experience,” he says, “it would normally take us weeks to teach that in class. I think I will change my music lessons.”
Sports teacher Jean-Pierre Ageorges selected the 14 teenagers taking part in this two-day workshop. Some were turbulent in class, others were starting to lose interest in school altogether.
“I’ve noticed the pupils have really paid attention, which doesn’t happen that often, even in a sports class,” he says.
Ageorges happens also to be an amateur musician, but “even if you’re not,” he adds, “Basket Beat allows you to feel the rhythm in a very physical way”.
During the workshop Josep Aragay keeps on telling the group to “feel the rhythm” and trust their intuition.
This tall, charismatic musician is used to keeping the attention of sometimes very difficult youngsters. He first developed the Basket Beat methodology within a community music project in a poor neighbourhood in his native Barcelona.
Many of the young participants were unaccompanied migrants, keen on basketball but whose only real contact with music was through mp3 or on YouTube.
“Basically people need to love something to do something, if not the participation is so difficult,” he explains. “So we thought why don’t we use the love that youth have for basketball, to play music.”
Aragay admits the concept is not altogether new.
“Many professional music groups use different objects to play music but here the thing that is new is to use the basketball to play music in groups with vulnerable communities.”
Aragay has spent the last nine months giving workshops in some 13 countries including Columbia, Uruguay, the US, UK and South Africa.
One of the most remarkable workshops was held in a township near Pretoria in South Africa last November. Some of the youngsters were unemployed, most had little or no schooling. They incorporated song and dance into the sessions.
“It was amazing,” says Aragay. “They really worked hard, six hours a day for six days, and never complained once.”
Musician Albert Cassan, who accompanied Aragay on the tour, says Basket Beat can be considered a real form of percussion, but recognises it is limited as it only really has two sounds – the bouncing of the ball and the clapping in the hands.
The South African experience reminded them however that "in a longer workshop song can be added to percussion."
They’re also looking into enriching Basket Beat with other sounds such as the screeching of shoes during a match.
And while Aragay agrees Basket Beat is quite limited “because alone I can’t do many things,” this is also its strong point.
“It’s great because I need the group or I need friends to play something more complex. So to feel that I’m doing music I need another person.”
Just like in the school orchestra says Marianne Blayau from the Orchestre à l’école programme which brought Basket Beat to France.
“Of course Basket Beat isn’t as rich as the orchestra in terms of harmonies and tone,” she says “but it requires the children to concentrate, respect the rules, listen to the others. These are exactly the same values as in the orchestra.”
Plus Basket Beat is cheap and easy to put in place, "every school has basketballs" she adds.
For it to take root in France, we’ll just need lots of Josep Aragays! As a first step Blayau hopes to set up joint training workshops for sports and music teachers.