National Singing Ambassador's Keynote Speech, 31 Jan 2008

  • Posted on 31 January 2008 at 2:43pm
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[NB Howard doesn’t write his speeches down, nor does he deliver them from a prepared script or even notes, he has a very conversational & informal way of speaking in public, so this has been put together from a sound recording of (nearly) all the talk. So if it doesn’t read like Dickens, that’s why!]

This is like home from home for me [The Sage Gateshead], this fabulous building, and all it stands for in its community and the way it is loved by its community and the way it reaches out into its community, and where learning and participation are now blood in its veins, in this palace of music. So it’s always wonderful to be here. Thank you for asking me to be here.

I live in a village, in London. For those of you who know London, it’s not a surprise to say that. We really are a village – Barnes. It’s got a pond and a village church and a village green and two little streets off it, and yet we’re sandwiched between Hammersmith and Putney and the South Circular Road. But it really is a village. It’s very small and it’s got one long, windy street with some shops in it, the usual little Londis, this, that and the other. But I counted in my mind last night that it has six, six, coffee bars. In addition, both the churches, the Methodist church and the Anglican church, do coffees all morning every morning. And the two big pubs, the Red Lion and the Sun Inn, also do coffee with tables outside, in a tiny street in my part of London. And that coffee revolution has gone on, on every street in our country over the last five or six years. I don’t think it’s entirely an accident of commerce that this has happened because at a time in our development as a society where we have retreated into our worlds, because of the internet and our reliance on computers and machines, where because of the ability to communicate with each other without having to be in the same room, we have increasingly hidden away from each other as we work. At the same time, because we are a brilliantly adaptive species we have wanted to be with each other. People have wanted to have meetings, to gather, to be around others, to use coffee bars as a way of getting out from that desk or that office environment. Starbucks, Nero, Eat, Pret a Manger, Cafe Express and all the others, I believe, are a phenomenon of a society that wants to be together, that needs to find each other and to be with each other.

And I don’t think that it’s an accident. At the same time we live lives that have never been more controlled and circumscribed than ever before. We work incredibly long hours. Every minute counts. If you’re half an hour late for a train or a plane you think your life’s ended. You ring round everybody, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I’m half an hour late!” It’s a funny thought that if you were half an hour late in 1950, you just had a cup of tea. And that was the end of the trauma, there’ll be a train soon! Now if you’re half an hour late it seems like a crisis because every minute is so important because our lives are so circumscribed, so precise. Everything matters to us so much. There are CCTV cameras following us everywhere we go. We’ve never been more identified, by plastic, by banks, by social security, by all the organisations who seek to keep tabs on us. At the same time a parallel adaptation, which is a need to lose our inhibitions, has grown: to be literally out of control. Binge drinking, and what happens in the Bigg Market most nights of the week inNewcastle, and in the equivalent of the Bigg Market everywhere else around the country, and indeed across the Western world on Friday and Saturday nights, that drinking phenomenon, which we are rightly scared of, seems out of control. I believe it’s because people want to be out of control, they want to be a bit wild, they want to lose the moment where someone’s watching them or they’re watching themselves, or to worry about that extra half hour.

The third phenomenon that I think is connected to this, is this idea that those of you who’ve visited the Classroom of the Future downstairs will be familiar with, and that is that we’ve got to this point where it’s possible to make a whole CD, to launch your whole career, to distribute it yourself, your music, across the whole planet. To be a Kate Nash, to create your whole album, all your instruments, in a bedroom, to put it on a laptop, even to make a promo video and broadcast it to the whole world. What an extraordinary thought that is! And yet, at the same time, live performance has become more of a fashion than ever in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries: the premium of seeing a live act perform, there and then, in the moment. You can buy their CD, you can even buy a CD of them playing live, but you still want to pay, if it’s the Eagles or Led Zeppelin £500 a seat, or The Spice Girls or Take That £100 a seat, to see someone go through the motions live. Someone was saying to me the other day that since the Dome turned into the O2 Arena, and they’ve been doing live music there, in those few months they’ve already made a profit of £50m. This is a phenomenon, the thirst for live performance, to see the real thing happening in front of your eyes, even though you’ve got the most fantastic reproducers of live material actually in our homes. Everybody has them in their homes, in the corner on their TV or on their computers.

These are examples to me of how adaptive we are, of how ingenious we are. And I believe that what is happening is that we have found that young people, (they don’t know this, they don’t say this explicitly), and to an extent the whole of society, feel a great unspoken need to participate, not to be passive but to participate and to be there at that moment when they are playing that number, to be in the room with other people, to experience it with another person, not just to see it on your computer screen on your own and say, “Wasn’t that a very funny joke?” but to be next to someone in a room where someone tells that joke and to laugh with someone.

I believe our key challenge in the delivering of music to young people centres on the nature of their participation. It is going to require ingenuity to do it in such a way that it’s really good participation, above all that it’s a lasting participation, that we leave something sustainable behind. We have to get out of the habit of descending upon schools with projects, working hard at them for a short while, then disappearing again shortly after. It excites me to think that by engaging young people really effectively in a cultural entitlement will stay with them for their whole lives. I should say although I am a Singing Ambassador it’s important to assert that children should feel entitled to play instruments and gain the great skills and benefits that come from that as well. I don’t see the provision of singing and of instrumental learning as competitive in any way. I see the child who starts to sing, aged 5 or 6 or 7, as being more likely to want to play a musical instrument later in life than the child who doesn’t. However I do believe that there is one slight difference between singing and playing an instrument. The opportunity to master the skills of playing an instrument, to learn to read notation, to join ensembles based on these attributes, is something that a child in a rich, sophisticated society like ours, should be granted as a basic cultural entitlement. It will enrich their lives in countless ways even if they do not choose to develop into professional musicians as adults.

But singing on the other hand is a species entitlement. I think that it’s the weirdest thing in the world that we’ve had a period in our history where every child did not sing everyday of their lives. Singing is something that is fundamental to being a human being, and it’s incredibly important that we put singing back into schools because it’s not in every home. Hopefully, one of the by-products of our National Singing Programme will be that in time that people will sing more at home and parents will sing more to their children – at the very least the current generation of school children will rediscover the simple delights of singing to their children. There’s no better way of participating in music and in your community, than through singing. So I make no apologies for saying that I think this is an absolute first base for all of us in music education.

We have to get young people singing so that it is a completely normal and acceptable activity for them, so that it’s not cheesy, or uncool, but something they love doing and something that they can be encouraged to do well with each other. Now, there are going to be various presentations tomorrow (Day Two of the MusicLearningLive Festival of Music Education) about Sing Up, and many of you will know about Sing Up. So I’m not going to say very much about it, except to pick out four things. (And I should also say that I normally do about an hour without questions, and I’ve got half an hour with, so I’m really going to talk fast and forgive me if I don’t cover every angle but I just want to say a few things and pick up on a few ideas!).

The Sing Up programme is about getting young people of primary age, whatever sort of school they’re in, to sing in groups, hopefully in whole school singing (including the adults in those schools), to ensure singing becomes a normal, habitual part of their lives at school. But there are various challenges we face that we discovered when we did the research prior to the singing programme’s existence. One is the training of classroom teachers, so that they feel that they can lead singing; the other is to have enough specialists to be able to cover the whole country to lead and inspire those teachers in all those twenty or twenty-five thousand schools that we’re talking about. In a recent survey of trainee teachers, they were asked what they were most scared about, and the thing that came top was having to lead singing. But they were also asked what they would most like to be prepared for and singing was the thing they most wanted extra help on!

So, we have to help teachers who are not musicians, or who lack musical training of any kind, to feel confident to lead singing. We know from best practice models all over the country that this is possible. You can take ordinary teachers and turn them into natural singing leaders so that they and the children actually enjoy the process, so that singing starts to infiltrate not just lunchtime rehearsals or start-of-the-day assemblies, but every subject in the curriculum, since the benefits and rewards of singing can yield terrific results across the timetable.

One of the most pernicious myths that we have to counter in our campaign for singing, is that if a school’s in trouble and it wants to get better SATs results it has to strip away all the ‘luxury’ items and just do Maths and English. How ridiculous! The point is that if you want to improve your children’s memory, if you want to improve their concentration and their focus and the way they work, and if you want to get better academic results, you actually have to put those so-called luxuries, especially singing, back into the daily menu. Not as spare time add-ons, but as essential parts of the training and developing of young minds. And we have to change parents’ minds as well, since too many of them still don’t appreciate how beneficial to their children singing can be.

Part of our mission is to change the public’s perception of the role of singing at school. I’m going to talk a little bit about recent advances in cognitive science that demonstrate what we now know about music and the brain, and why we now have scientific proof of the benefits of singing, particularly of singing but of music in general to young people. So we have to have a campaign that’s going to last quite a long time, it’s not going to be just a couple of months, but through these four years, to persuade parents and teachers and head teachers that you can’t just strip these things away and just have your Maths and your English.

Actually, in order to achieve excellence across the board, singing has to be a normal and a functioning part of every child’s education. And let’s all bite the bullet on this one. If you spend ten grand a year to send your child to a private school, you would expect there to be lots of singing, plays, events, concerts, performance opportunities – a range of creative activities to enhance the lives of the students, so why should it not be also the case that in a state primary school you should expect them as a parent? But we have to change the parents’ minds as well, because not all of them get it either. So there has to be a public campaign and we have to help the teachers and we have to help them lead.

Sing Up is also creating a free resource for schools so that there are songs for them to sing every day, songs that are well chosen by expert animateurs in the field, with generous support materials to go with them – accompaniments, tips and tricks, recordings of the songs by children as well as the sheet music and the lyrics in easily-accessed forms. You can call it a songbook if you like, a growing online resource that reflects the extraordinary richness of our musical culture.

One of the things that we found in our ‘audit’ of singing provision prior to Sing Up’s existence was that where there was someone in a borough, county or town whose job it was to be a singing co-ordinator, to fill in gaps, make connections, guide and provide at all levels of singing, the area’s singing was much better served than if no such person existed. So, Sing Up has started to fill those gaps by appointing 24 Area Leaders, so that there’s always someone whose job it is to join up the dots, to bring delivery together, to make sure that best practice is shared and organised, to help schools whose staff are most at sea with singing. Now, I’m going to talk a little about cognitive science because there has been a huge increase in the last ten or fifteen years in what we understand is happening to the brain when it reacts with music. And there are two very good books out recently about this. I get all I know from these books. I don’t know anything at all about science myself. There’s one called, ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ by Daniel Levitin and another one called ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sachs.

There are two things I want to pick out.

One is that we are now sure that memory and emotion are very closely related in the brain. In fact, the two parts of the brain that do this are geographically very close together. Emotional response is inextricably linked with the functions of memory. Why am I talking about this in relation to music? The fact is that you don’t remember everything that happens to you but in your brain a trace is left of every experience you have ever had and that trace can re-trigger the brain to recreate or re-run it: the scene, the smell, the moment, the happy holiday or whatever it was. But you don’t have stored in your head – like an mp3 library – every song you’ve ever heard (you don’t have the hard disc space for it) but you have a trace of it. And what the brain does is trigger that trace and reruns the sequence for you, reconstitutes it, which is why sometimes memory isn’t always one hundred percent reliable because it’s filling in the gaps, it’s doing a little bit of quantisation as it goes. In the re-run of the memory sequence, the brain will approximate or even fabricate the missing details: “I’m not quite sure what happened after he opened the door, but I’m opening the door anyway!”

Why is this important? Because we all know that music can act as an emotional trigger. You hear a song: it reminds you of a beach you were once on. You hear a moment from a piece of music: you can’t quite remember what it is, but it’s awakening something in you. The fact is that in order to make your memory work your brain has to do what’s called ‘trace memory modelling’, which is to train itself to rerun sequences of events, or of data, sounds, words, melodies, whatever.

If during infancy you don’t keep stimulating this process, you grow up with a kind of default level brain setting. Fine, but not exactly a Ferrari. But it’s possible for the child’s brain to be accelerated, to be working much more efficiently if this trace modelling is constantly being asked to run. How do we do this with infants and young children, then? Singing. Singing is the easiest, most fun, most effective way of boosting trace memory modelling in the young. It stimulates the re-running of sequences of pitch, rhythm, contour, timbre, lyrics and structure, time and time again, effortlessly!

Literally, singing supercharges your memory. So when I went to the ministers with a proposal for a singing programme, as well as listing all singing’s other benefits – increased self-esteem, the building of community spirit, healthy breathing and posture, an introduction to music, putting the mind in a better place to start the day, helping young people make sense of confused emotions and giving them a sense of identity, giving them a safe environment to explore their feelings – I could simply have focussed on this one extraordinary fact: that singing makes young brain work better, it accelerates processing and memory, and that one crucial asset in itself might have been enough to persuade them to support our campaign.

Here’s the second thing. We’ve now understood that after a trauma of some kind, a bash to the head, concussion, or an accident or something like that, the brain is much more capable of repairing itself than it was hitherto believed. Because, when you are very, very small, under 3, you’ve got millions of circuits in your head that are sort of dormant, and what happens is your brain over the first few years of life says, “I don’t need this connection, I’ll just shut it down. I don’t need that connection, I’ll shut it down too”.

There are too many millions of possible hard-wire links in your brain to keep them all open all the time, so your brain starts to concentrate on what this species, what this child needs. It needs to be able to run, it needs to be able to walk, to laugh, to speak language. All these things it needs to do, it makes all those particular connections work. Language needs this bit, it needs motor skill for the mouth, so it needs this bit, “We’ll make those connections first.” The potential actions or demands it doesn’t need, it effectively closes down the link, suspends. As you grow up, these unused links stay dormant except if there’s a trauma of some kind and then your brain has the ability to reconfigure new routes through those connections.

The most obvious example of this, a very crude example, is if you lose your sight, your hearing often gets better. It’s a very basic example but what’s happening is circuits are being replumbed in your brain to make your senses of perception better because the brain knows it needs it. This ability to rewrite those circuits, to make those circuits do jobs they didn’t think they had to do, and to do it at will, is called ‘neuroplasticity’. I sound so scientific! Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to rewrite or re-task its circuits, to make itself work better, and unlike a serial machine, which is what your computer is (i.e. you tell your computer to do five things and it does them one after another in a row, it does it very, very quickly so you think it does it all at the same time but actually it does it in a row), the human brain is a parallel machine.

If you tell your brain to do three things at the same time, it can actually do three at the same time. Especially if you’re a woman! (Laughter) Now, our parallel brains learn early on to do various tasks at the same time: walk and talk, for example. But the ability to keep training your brain to be flexible, to be adaptive, to open up a path you didn’t think your brain had, to make a circuit, this skill needs to be learned in childhood. What is the thing that makes you as a young infant train your brain to be a neuro-plastic motor? Singing. There has been much debate about whether there is an evolutionary reason for singing. Why do we sing? Some have asserted that it hasn’t got any actual function. Steven Pinker, the great language expert, said controversially that singing is just a pleasant by-product of language. Other scientists challenged his assumption: If it was just a meaningless by-product, why would we still do it fifty thousand years on? We still do it. Why?

The reason is that when you are singing a song you know, even if it’s a child’s playground song, you are using about five or six or seven parts of brain in parallel. It’s incredibly good for your brain because it makes it do all these tasks simultaneously. Think about it. You’re singing a song. Pitch is something one part of your brain is working on, recognising timbre is the job of another part, rhythm yet another, calling upon memory for the pattern, the shape or the lyrics requires another bit of the brain. The instructions to your muscles to perform the singing sound, or to your ears to monitor the returning sound all come from different parts of your brain It’s amazing what your brain is doing even at 4 years old, singing a lullaby with your mother. It’s really working hard.

So, all in all, in order to make children fit for the purpose of learning you need to get their memory and their brains working the best they possibly can. This is what we can offer children, we can give them this gift of singing at school and the joy is, it’s not at all painful, they actually like it. Unlike Jamie Oliver who has to go round saying, “You’re going to have to have this broccoli because it’s going to be better for you, even if right now you hate it” – we have something that they actually like doing and it’s going to make them feel better about themselves. It’s going to improve their self-esteem, to cohere them as a community and to do something non-competitive that makes them feel proud of themselves.

Now, I came to a conference here in this building a few years ago, and heard a wonderful man speak, in Portuguese (luckily there was a translator because I don’t speak Portuguese). His name is Ivaldo Bertazzo and he’s an expert Brazilian-Portuguese choreographer/physiotherapist, a brilliant man. And what this guy has been doing for thirty-five years is taking street children inSao Paulo, and turning them into dancers. He calls them ‘citizen dancers’. He’s a highly-sought-after choreographer and he started his career working with professional dancers. But he moved into this area working with the poorest children of all and turning them into fabulous dancers and putting on with them these extraordinary shows.

At that conference he said some absolutely gripping things about the process. His focus was on the developing child, in particular those going through adolescence. He said that the point about getting adolescents to perform was not the reward of an audience clapping them at them at the end of the night, not about how marvellous that show was and all the other glamorous parts of it, but that the reward was the internal journey of the child towards that performance.

That was the real point of it, and that the youngster had to commit whole-heartedly to that journey. He talked about adolescents feeling frustration because they were clever enough to see what they were trying to aim for in those very sophisticated, extraordinary, imaginative dances that he created with them. But because they didn’t yet have the motor skills, their bodies weren’t yet ready for it, nor did they at first have the required concentration, they also knew they couldn’t immediately get it right. So there was tremendous frustration. Even when they were getting better they often were very aggressive and very angry and difficult with each other, and they found the dynamics and the interaction with each other as a group (many of them didn’t know each other) and the demands placed on them, were very great.

But he did this because he believed that it’s in adolescence that you most need a vocabulary and tools of expression. It’s because of that frustration, that inability to say exactly what you want to say, and to get your message across or to deal with your own frustrations, it’s because of that that they need to participate in culture, to express themselves, to be able to get through those mountains of frustration and irritability towards their goal. He used to do these shows, and if you’ve seen any videos of them you’ll see they are quite sensual and the young people are very physical with each other. He was criticised by some of the adults who sponsor the events for introducing young people, teenagers, to these dances that were semi-erotic. And he countered this and said, “These are the people who need to confront these issues, they’re confused, they’re growing, their hormones are making them confused about sexuality. They are the ones most in our society who need to be doing this, to explore their bodies, who need to do something through art, that’s a safe environment to help them get through that period.” Although I’m not suggesting that we all start dancing (I’m a terrible dancer), I do think many of the lessons he learnt from this process – how the interaction worked, how the journey for each individual was so crucial – are very, very pertinent to music and to the provision of it to young people.

All of you who have worked with young people will know that the most profoundly moving moments are not the applause at the end of that concert but the look on a child’s face that has conquered some mountain. It may be in a quiet room at10 o’clockin the morning on a Monday in February, it may be in that final rehearsal, or on the coach on the way home. Whatever it may be, it’s that moment when the young person moves from difficulty, from limitation, from frustration to conquering. That moment you can see flicker across their face and the change in the body language that betrays the real triumph that is possible. Young people are bombarded with senses and ideas and media of all kinds – no wonder they are sometimes confused. What they need to do is find themselves, individually, and there aren’t many things we can offer them as a society to help them to do that, but participation in music through singing and playing are really, really good tools for doing this, for helping to explore emotional difficulty and indeed emotional joys, in an environment that is safe – where they can do something at the end of it that makes them feel good about the sweat and graft.

One of the things Bertazzo said was that impossible things are made to happen through respect. This really struck a chord with me. He was talking about how inBrazilthere’s a very mixed culture and he would start with indigenous, native dance and move through all the other forms of dance that they all brought with them, including hip-hop and all the street dance they knew, and Hispanic styles and what have you, and meld them together and work with them. But it was very important to him that there was equal respect for these different types of dance, these different traditions that people were coming from. And I wish I could say that this was universally agreed in our exchanges on providing music for young people, but it’s not universally agreed that there should be universal respect for all these different styles and for the child’s tastes as well. That’s not to say that you can’t teach someone something they don’t already know and introduce them to something they’ve never seen before, but having a respect for where they are coming from and for the difficulties they face or the journey they’ve got to go on is an incredibly important part of the transaction.

Finally on Bertazzo, he said that one of the things as a teenager it’s hard to do is learn to focus on one thing. Because you are being assaulted by so many different ideas, emotions, challenges, it’s quite hard and frustrating. Focusing on one thing, concentrating on one thing for a while until you start to make progress is a very hard discipline to grasp and these are the kinds of things a dance show, something musical, playing in a band with other people, singing in a choir, these are exactly the sort of things that allow someone who is bombarded with images and senses and thoughts and ideas, to focus and reflect. It goes back to this idea that if you’re three minutes late for something you feel as if there’s this terrible problem, and anger starts to build up – you’re going to miss the train. We need places we can go in our heads where we are centred, calm and focused, and we need to give that gift to young people, that gift where music can put you in a place, out of real time, where you can be yourself in a protected environment and to allow the gradual, beneficial process of acquiring a vocabulary for emotional expression.

Now, in terms of focus, I have recently begun to appreciate that we need to apply some urgent focus in all we do lest we let events overtake us. We are entering a period of political change that could have significant impact on all we do in music education. The last two Conservative manifestos have called for the scaling down of the national curriculum to three or four ‘key’ subjects, removing music from its current position on that list.

In David Cameron’s conference speech last September he made a commitment to abandoning ring-fencing funds to local authorities. A commitment not many spectators will have noticed, perhaps. But it is worth pointing out that every single penny of the £332m committed to music in schools in November by the government is ring-fenced. Ring-fencing for the provision of music to young people works. In fact, it is essential, since without it, in the 80s and 90s, music in schools was decimated. This extraordinary amount of money we’ve been given, by our standards (of course it’s nothing compared to a fighter jet) can potentially make a huge impact and we are determined that it will, but we have to be realistic in acknowledging that it may not last forever. Because of this reality, it is doubly important that what we now do is sustainable, lasting and is centred on training. A trained teacher who can lead a singing session, once empowered, is there for good.

It’s possible that in two year’s time the construction sites of the biggest school building programme in our history will have gone quiet, Every Child Matters will have been dismantled, along with Creative Partnerships and much else that we take for granted now. So the next two years are going to be very critical – we have to make rapid and very impressive progress so that we can go to whoever is in charge after an election and say that what we have achieved is unstoppable, it’s too good to dismantle, too worthwhile to too many young people. I sincerely believe that we have the skills, the expertise and the determination to prove the extraordinary transformative benefits of music on young people.

We have to grasp this moment. This could be a crescendo, not a diminuendo. We have so much to offer. I cannot pretend that working with young people is not without its trials. That all of you face daily challenges and problems, that not everyone sees the world the way we do. But, if you have one of those dark moments, stop for a second and remember those kids and what happens to them – just look at their faces when they are singing. Thank you.