Planting the seeds of song

  • Posted on 3 April 2007 at 2:18pm
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There is an ethnic group of tribes who live on the Hunan-Guizhou-Guangxi region borders in China called the Dong. They are many fascinating aspects of their culture, like the fact that their indigenous language was only written down for the first time in 1949 after the Maoist Revolution, or that they have constructed huge ‘drum towers’ that act as ritual centres of their communities (a resident Stomp! for every village).

But there are two particular fatures of their lifestyle that seem to me to be incredibly pertinent right now. One is that for every child that is born a fir tree sapling is planted, so that when the child becomes 18 the wood can be made into a house for the new adult when they marry. Even though nowadays a fir tree can be matured in as few as 10 years, they are still called ’18-year trees’. Talk about a neutral carbon footprint.

The second wonderful characteristic of the Dong people’s lifestyle is that singing is absolutely central to their existence. Singing is not something they do just to let off steam after a tough week down at the logging plant. It is an everyday alternative method of communication, used in some villages more widely than speech. When a boy woos his chosen girl, he must do so by singing. Poor singers are often coached by expert elders to improve the boy or girl’s chances of a good match. This is a world where Leona from the X-Factor would be significantly more important than Simon Cowell or where Norah Jones might beLondon’s mayor, so crucial to one’s status is the quality of one’s singing voice. All communal occasions are marked by singing, including ceremonial and decision-making gatherings. Imagine county council meetings or the opening of parliament in theUKbeginning with a sing-song! Elizabeth II would have to abdicate in favour of Lesley Garrett and Tony would have to brush down his old Ugly Rumours set.

Singing is about as good for you as a thing can be and in my new role as singing ‘ambassador’ I hope to able to persuade many more schools that starting the day with it would do wonders for the self-esteem, concentration, morale and behaviour of the young people in them. Never mind that it is a wholly positive, non-competitive, team-building, community-cohering activity, it is actually hugely enjoyable when led by someone who knows what they are doing and when the choice of songs is cleverly made.

Asthmatics do not have trouble breathing when they sing nor, for some reason I do not understand, do people with speech impediments always carry that impediment over into singing lyrics – stammering doesn’t occur in singing, for example.

Singing makes you feel good about yourself even if you are just bellowing along with others in a rough and ready way. It is as natural to us as laughing and yet it is possible for many thousands of young Britons to get through a whole week at school without doing it once. This can’t be right. Indeed it is perverse, like saying no student will be allowed to smile for a week.

Whilst it may be a challenge to persuade a half-asleep 15-year old to sing at 9am on a Tuesday morning it is not hard to get primary age children to sing and so our recently-announced national singing campaign will begin with the primary sector and move upwards, as it were, from there. A habit of singing acquired at primary school is a gift that stays with a young person throughout their lives, even if it becomes less ‘public’ an activity during adolescence.

For teenage boys, though, the apparent reluctance to want to sing, or the labelling of it as something girlie, is only attached to certain types of group singing and certain types of song. Not many teenage boys would label the singing of Lemar or Gnarls Barkley as ‘girlie’, nor would many turn down the opportunity of joining a band like The Feeling or The Darkness, both of whose sound relies on high quality, uninhibited lead and close-harmony backing vocals.

So. How about one song every morning, for everyone, staff included? Get the students to suggest the songs as well. You may find that what feels like a strange idea today will probably be perfectly normal tomorrow and anyway, you have to start somewhere. Like planting a sapling at the birth of a child.


This article appeared as the Backbeat column in The Teacher April 2007