Byrd-song and sweet nothings

Michael Burnett

Children's voices are now required to rise in chorus - but, despite isolated pockets of good work, there's not much happening in schools. Michael Burnett reports.

Since singing is so good a thing, I wish we all would learn to sing." Little can William Byrd have known that, 400 years after he had set those words to music, all state school pupils in England and Wales between the ages of five and 14 would be required, by law, to "learn to sing", or, in officialspeak, "to control sounds made by the voice".

Indeed, some key stage 2 pupils may well experience Byrd's composition as teachers meet the national curriculum instruction that pupils should sing "rounds in two parts" at this level.

But, as ex-music adviser Peter Fletcher said at a recent symposium on choral music in Ljubljana, "It costs something to introduce singing". For many primary teachers, who feel insecure when it comes to singing in the classroom, training is needed. And, even at secondary level, where music specialists are the norm, there is little evidence that teachers' expertise has increased since a 1991 British Federation of Young Choirs survey found that more than 85 per cent of schools provided no vocal curriculum at all.

Colin Durrant is music education co-ordinator at Roehampton Institute London, which plans to offer an MA course in choral education from 1996. He points to the irony of a situation in which, at the same time as specifying singing in the national curriculum, the Government has reduced the number of hours on music post-graduate teacher training courses during which students might have developed the skills to manage singing effectively in schools.

"Despite some pockets of good work, there's not a lot actually going on in schools," Durrant says. "Many teachers just don't know how to do singing. Nor do they know what music to use. Don't forget, singing can come out of other activities in schools, such as composing. And here you can start where the kids are with speech patterns and rap, for example."

Durrant's "pockets of good work" do, of course, produce some first-rate examples of choral singing (although a good school choir does not necessarily guarantee a good music curriculum). Indeed, this year's Music for Youth National Choral Festival featured more than 20 school-based choirs whose standards of performance were high and repertoire varied.

Sue Barber conducts one of these, the Stoke Brunswick School Choir from East Grinstead. "It's easy to get children to sing well if you start at an early age," she says. "The national curriculum has at least given singing recognition. But it's too late if you start when children are aged 11 or 12, when they have become inhibited about it."

Keith Morgan is head of music at Halesworth Middle School, Suffolk, whose senior choir has performed regularly at the MFY festival. How does Morgan react to the inclusion of singing in the national curriculum? "The curriculum's great constraint is that it insists that all children sing," he says. "I don't believe 13 and 14-year-old boys should be forced to sing in the classroom just at the stage when their voices are breaking."

An important point. But, given that the curriculum demands are quite specific, to which agencies should teachers turn for help in coping with them?

The British Federation of Young Choirs mounts a number of regional choral projects in which tutors visit schools, encouraging children to sing as well as supporting and equipping teachers with skills and techniques. It also works closely with Sing for Pleasure, which offers choral events throughout the country including singing days, residential singing weekends for children with their teachers, and workshops for teachers. "The workshops", says administrator Lynda Parker, "provide participants with techniques and repertoire which increase their classroom confidence." SfP also publishes a range of curriculum-related songbooks.

Michael Stocks is curriculum director at the Voices Foundation. "Our purpose", he says, "is to develop a curriculum in primary schools which makes use of all that the voice offers in terms of music learning." The foundation is setting up a regional network of advisory teachers and provides a one-year package of in-service training.

The Association of British Choral Directors mounts an annual "singposium", with Music for Youth, which is "designed to encourage, inform and motivate all who work with young singers". Topics explored this year included "Working with the six to nines" and "The junior choir". ABCD is also developing courses within higher education for choral conductors.

To Erkki Pohjola, famed for his work with the Finnish secondary school Tapiola Choir, "songs build bridges", a point he stressed at the Ljubljana symposium. He also said that singing enables pupils to "experience the pure joy of being together musically". So there is a lot to be gained by pupils in the UK if their teachers approach the singing requirements positively.

o Roehampton Institute 0181 392 3437; Music for Youth 0181 870 9624; British Federation of Young Choirs 01509 211664; Sing for Pleasure 01277 353691; Voices Foundation 0171 370 1944; Association of British Choral Directors 01525 370251

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