I’ve Run My Own Workshop!

As part of my Art Award, I had to lead a teaching event, and as my tutor’s music charity, Readipop, was starting up some taster sessions for music, then I thought why not host a workshop on DJing.

So, that’s precisely what I did. With my tutor and some other assistants, we set up some DJ equipment in a school youth centre and got round to teaching a few kids on the basics of DJing.

We had two setups: one with my Numark Mixtrack Pro and MacBook (for the ‘easy’ level) and the other with two Pioneer CDJ-1000MK2s and a Vestax mixer which my tutor brought in (for explaining on a more advanced level).

DJ workshop in session

Above: either setup was put on either side of a pool table, which was very elegant as it meant just going from one side to the other to change setups, and thus change difficulty level.

My teaching was very thorough, which was necessary as the participants were understandably not very familiar with the equipment and when planning, I thought that they would be more comfortable with working out how the controls worked – this was good in that I was able to talk to them more about the advanced uses of the controls, and even fit some chatting in there; I noticed that the boys seemed to like Eminem and dubstep music a lot so we used some of those songs as examples.

The downside to the thorough explanation though was that I was not able to explain all of the areas which I wanted – I did not get onto loops or effects, which I feel are important basic areas to know about when DJing.

The boys were also very keen in trying to practice playing tracks and manipulating them, which went on for much longer than I thought, but this is understandable, as it is good for kids to get hands on and it meant that they were getting used to it, which makes progress in the long term, even if I didn’t explain all of the controls. It is important to get used to the absolute basic level before you have any other information thrown over the top of your head, and the old saying is right: it really is better to learn how to walk before you can run.

Despite this, I still managed to get through the important features, like the pitch control, about how BPM (beats per minute) works, how songs are structured and how to keep them in time. I also mentioned the Sync button and what its effect was (instantly setting the tempo and the timing of one track to be the same as the other one), and I mentioned that although some see the button as cheating, it is OK when you are learning in the early stages. After all, I still can’t manually beatmatch and I’ve been learning how to DJ for nearly 2 years.

I then did a small mix demo on how to get two songs to play together and how to transition from one to the other. I explained techniques like fading, cutting, dropping and chopping. It was difficult for them to understand it at first, but for someone seeing it for the first time, it is probably quite bewildering to see two tracks trying to be controlled at once, almost like trying to use a sixth sense, because one boy said that he didn’t realise that DJs have to control two tracks at the same time instead of playing one after another (like with an iPod) – a common misconception. Because I knew that this would be confusing, I demonstrated how cuing up songs works – I playing a song through the main output while cuing up a completely different song on the headphones, before chopping over to the new one. When I left them to try it, for a while, they were playing two songs at the same time completely out of beat and not transitioned over; they improved obviously, but I underestimated the amount of control needed to manage two different records and in time – they were doing very well for complete first timers. Understandably, they also liked to do a lot of scratching – it is probably the most amusing technique to try out, especially when you are starting out.

Above: I let my participants have some goes. They seemed to like scratching a lot.

Above: I let my participants have some goes. They seemed to like scratching a lot.

Back to the point about iPods and playing one song after the other, I explained at the beginning the true importance of DJing and why it should be taken seriously rather than not using one and just using an iPod; I mentioned the following points about what iPods can’t do in comparison to DJs:

  • An iPod can’t judge the audience and choose appropriate songs to suit the mood of the audience.
  • An iPod can’t cue up a song (while another is playing) so that it can be played exactly on beat when it comes in; instead, there is a pause while the track loads and this kills the atmosphere.
  • An iPod can’t mix songs in order to keep the set of music continuous.
  • An iPod doesn’t know how to respond to many different peoples’ requests.
  • An iPod can’t speak or interact to the audience and create an entertaining event – it’s only music.
  • Using an iPod is not being an audience to an art form.

This last point is very important; I mentioned at the very beginning of the workshop that DJing, like playing the piano, drums or guitar, is an art form, and not what a lot of youngsters these days regard as showing off (they are looking at mad turntablists). Letting a computer decide a set number of songs is not art – it does not translate into a real aesthetic experience. Having a real person control music means that they understand peoples’ emotions and attitudes towards music and so can use artistic, logical and critical thinking skills to reflect and satisfy those emotions with appropriately-chosen music, with appropriately-chosen skills.

This is why I thought that doing a DJ workshop would be useful, so that kids can understand how the art form works, especially as electronic music and being a DJ has become a massive trend over the past couple of years (with artists/DJs such as David Guetta, Skrillex, Steve Angello, deadmau5, Knife Party, Afrojack, Major Lazer, Disclosure, Avicii and DJ Fresh (and the list goes on) making it big around the world), and so it is in my opinion a good art form to be aware of, because it is only going to get more popular. I know that kids have a lot of misconceptions about how DJing actually works which is why this workshop was necessary to set the record straight on how it does work. I think that I did quite well at it and I would be happy to do it again for another group of kids, although next time, I’d do better at understanding their skill level.

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