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Finding a voice

Children at a London primary have found a new way of talking through their shared problems. Gerald Haigh reports from the school that's tackling tough issues through song

The most memorable children's music groups are those where a school shows something of its heart and personality as well as demonstrating impeccable musicianship. That's how it was at last year's Schools Prom, when St Mary's RC primary school's "Big Choir" - over a hundred singers and instrumentalists - not only delighted the Albert Hall audience, but gave them a great deal to think about. Not many junior choirs, after all, have in their repertoire a song about family break-up (performed with children playing the roles of parents, children and a solicitor) with the lines:

"Daddy said, 'I'm leaving. But I still do love you. It's just that things have changed. One day you'll see it too'."

St Mary's has another big musical event coming up on September 29, when pupils will be appearing with the Australian Youth Choir at the Royal Albert Hall. They also sing at local church events and fetes. The school, in Lambeth, is as typical a London primary as you're likely to see. The children (366 including the nursery) come from a range of backgrounds - there's a strong contingent with roots in Portugal, for example - and it's a happy place, where the children and staff smile a lot and are comfortable with each other.

Much of this feeling, says head Karen Pluckrose, recently appointed, and formerly deputy head at the school, is down to the school's commitment to music and the arts. "Music's really central here," she says. "It's been part of St Mary's for as long as I can remember. It brings us together in our worship and in our lessons and it spreads through the whole school."

The formal music programme is impressive enough: every class has an hour a week with a specialist teacher; every child learns recorder in Year 3; and there are six visiting instrument teachers. Beyond that, there are the two choirs, one of which has a rehearsal in school time; the orchestra; and, importantly, the singing sessions and hymn practices.

Arguably, though, nothing demonstrates the school's commitment to music so much as the level of staff involvement. There's a staff choir, which includes the site manager, office staff and classroom assistants, and which occasionally sings to the children. Some staff also have lessons with the visiting instrument teachers. This is surely worth any amount of lecturing and cajoling. Karen Pluckrose, for example, passed her Grade 1 cello exam last summer, and found the experience of nervously waiting her turn to play to the examiner to be salutary. "It's the sort of thing that helps a teacher to feel what a child experiences as a learner," she says. "I've been able to step back and think about my teaching style."

If leadership from a head who's keen on music is the first requirement when it comes to running a musical school, then the second is the presence of an able subject leader. At St Mary's that role belongs to Julie McCann, a specialist who's studied choral conducting. Just having her there, timetabled into the day, gives the subject status and presence. "The subject is sacrosanct and held in high esteem," says Ms McCann.

Her approach is to encourage and understand the children's preferences and needs. Nothing demonstrates that more than the way she uses songs by Stephen Fischbacker, a composer who recently led a one-day workshop at St Mary's and who composed the song quoted at the beginning of this article.

The choir did three of his songs at the Prom: "Tears Falling", "Family Blues" and "You're a Star", which is a joyful celebration of every child's individual worth. "He doesn't use twee language," says Julie McCann. "He gets his words from talking to children."

There are songs about anger, bullying, divorce, feelings. The assumption is that teachers will talk through the issues as well as sing the songs.

"When we started on them," says Ms McCann, "we did lots of talking and drama: what would mum say, what would you say, acting out bits of the songs." Most of the children, she says, recognise what Mr Fischbacker is writing about. "If a child expresses doubts, there are others ready to say, 'that's exactly what happened to me'."

Mr Fischbacker, whose background is in church youth work in Edinburgh, wrote his first songs for the children he worked with. "I knew nobody else was writing things about real issues that kids have to face. It seemed that we'd stumbled upon an area where we could make a contribution," he says.

His songbooks and CDs are popular, as are his workshops; he and his team do about 50 a year. Mr Fischbacker was particularly impressed by his visit to St Mary's. "I was bowled over by the relationship Julie McCann has with the kids. It was quite remarkable."

Just how remarkable is demonstrated by the following anecdote. "We have the chance to take some children to one of Music for Youth's Primary Proms," says Ms McCann. "We can only have 40 places, so we decided to target just those children who've never been in the choir or orchestra, so as to encourage them." So how many children, do you think, out of the 366 who attend this primary school, have not been in a school choir or orchestra? The answer is 37.

Stephen Fischbacker's scores and CDs are available from Fischy Music: www.fischy.comFor more information on the Schools Prom and the Primary Proms go to the Music For Youth website:

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