Olympic Chorus

  • Posted on 1 October 2006 at 2:04pm
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Editorial essay in the Music Manifesto Report no.2

Singing is as natural and enjoyable to human beings as laughing. It is easy and universal, bonding us first to our mothers and then to each other. It complements our grasp of language and communication and accelerates our learning processes. It does not belong exclusively to one culture or another and cannot be traced, like musical instruments, through some distant family tree back to one place, time or tribe. It is the cheapest form of musical expression and where most children’s musical journey begins. So why is it that every child inBritaindoes not sing every day?

Although I do not subscribe to the risible notion that there was once a golden age of music education in the UK, there was without doubt a time when a great many children began their school day with some singing: hymns, usually. The nostalgia that surrounds this phenomenon relates less to religious edification (for the most part those obtuse Victorian texts washed through us) than to singing regularly in a large group, albeit often badly or in off-putting circumstances. I remember the headmaster of my school caning a boy for ‘singing an octave down in assembly’ – some golden age. Nevertheless, the singing did happen and there is a definite sense of loss associated with the widespread abandonment of the singing assembly.

In all our deliberations in the Music Manifesto singing work-stream, led by Youth Music, it has become clear that some kind of regular singing event in the young person’s day is highly desirable, possibly even essential. How do we achieve this goal?

There are a great many diverse and inspirational models to draw on. Manchester Music Service’s Singing Schools initiative in 95% of all their local primary schools is led brilliantly by Sue Berry, complete with a whole set of bespoke song books and methods. The Sage Gateshead’s partnership with no less than nine music services in their Vocal Union programme, pioneers singing work with large groups of boys, with whole families and infants and with children in transition between schools, as well as promoting whole-school singing. The Voices Foundation now operates in 62 schools using a modern, British twist on the Kodály method and Youth Music’s Singing Communities reaches the kind of young people who might never have imagined they would get involved in group singing.

These large-scale projects are certainly replicable, and they need to be, more rapidly and in more places. Areas that benefit from someone to coordinate, enthuse and guide singing achieve far more than those without one. Kate Courage in Bristol, Ed Milner in Northumberland, Jamie Lewis in Rochdale, Carolyn Baxendale in Bolton, Cathy Dew in Worcestershire and Caroline Cox in West Sussex are a few of the charismatic vocal champions that we would like to see everywhere.

But we must face some realities. Young people do love singing, but they do not always love the kind of repertoire that has been historically associated with choirs. Vocal tutors will tell you that teenagers want to learn how to sing musical theatre, jazz, cabaret, gospel or soul better, but not necessarily classical lieder or operatic arias. Adolescents who are keen enough to sing and dance in a boy or girl band can feel awkward about joining more formal choral groups where they personally feel less in control.

This does not reflect an aversion to discipline and hard work. Music teachers will testify to the willingness of young people to concentrate and learn when they are focused and motivated. They are part of a new, forward-looking generation — why should they not have preferences in repertoire and style? This is not to say that young people do not embrace ‘old’ music with a freshness and passion that humbles professionals: the National Youth Choirs take a bow. But we must not fall into a lazy assumption that what we had to do when we were young is what they should do now. I would personally love it if young people experienced music because they wanted to, not because they were supposed, cajoled or obliged to.

We have had debates about what constitutes ‘proper’ singing, good pedagogy and appropriate challenges for the young voice. While I respect the experience and wise counsel that informs these discussions, there is also a sense in which we must walk before we can run: get them singing first, worry about the pedagogy later.

We have agreed that the best practice, in all genres, is not daunted by the challenge of peer group pressure against singing, but confronts it head on. It is generous and open-minded towards the musical tastes of young people and usually involves some surrendering of the traditional hierarchy that choirs have tended toward in the past. Hilary Mayer is the head of music at Coloma Convent Girls‚ School in Croydon, a comprehensive now with specialist status in music. She has over half the entire school in one or other of her many outstanding choirs. I am absolutely convinced she has achieved this through warmth and acceptance of young people’s interests, not by pretending it is still 1950.

The work of two other specialist music schools could provide excellent templates for singing work. TheRochesterGrammar Schoolappointed a new member of music staff to run choirs at the school, which she has done admirably. She has also begun choirs elsewhere in the town and trained her own older teenagers to take their expertise and enthusiasm for singing into their local and feeder primary schools. This peer-to-peer mentoring is also a feature of the work ofNorthamptonSchoolfor Girls and an approach that we would like to see spread.

Indeed, fully opening up the potential for the specialist schools and colleges to fit actively and creatively into local ‘hubs’, which would also include music services, Youth Music Action Zones, other federated schools and musical organisations, is a tantalising prospect if these trail-blazers are anything to go by. In a truly child-centred singing offer, opera companies, non-classical vocal groups in the community and music theatre organisations, for example, would all participate in the delivery of singing projects in a given area.

Britain’s 48 choir schools have much to offer in this respect, too. It is my firm belief that in reaching out into their local primary schools they will reap rewards that are as yet untapped, not least connected with recruitment. Some already participate in this kind of outreach, and others are looking to expand their capabilities and establish new local partnerships.

We must appreciate that singing is a habit, and that once we have acquired an aptitude for it, we can apply it to any genre, any style, any performance environment we like. The massed teenage ranks of Alnwick’s Duchess’s Community High School raising the roof with a perfect close harmony arrangement of a Tamla Motown song is, in my mind, entirely compatible with the choir of Lichfield Cathedral filling its vaulted ceilings with William Byrd, or for that matter the cast of Youth Music Theatre UK’s new musical Frankenstein, or the Cantamus Girls’ Choir from Mansfield defending their gold medal this summer by performing at the Beijing Choir Olympics. Our own capital city will host the Olympics in 2012. It should be our determined aim by those games to have reintroduced group singing in every primary school in theUK, in a kind of pre-Olympiad roar. What this actually means is the immediate replication everywhere of the best practice to be found in Greater Manchester, at The Sage Gateshead, in the Voices Foundation’s primary school strategy and Youth Music’s Singing Communities. We do not ask to be left musical stadiums after 2012, but if children are given back their right to raise their voices in uninhibited harmony it will be a magnificent, lasting legacy worthy of the event.


For more on the National Singing Programme and Sing Up click here

The Music Manifesto Report No.2 can be found here