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Getting boys to raise their voices

A project in Bristol is raising the profile of singing among male primary pupils, says Andrew Mourant

The 25-strong choir at Westbury-on-Trym C of E Primary has just two boys - clear evidence, as if more were needed, that choral singing lacks street cred among young males. And a shortage of music teachers doesn't help. Now a unique project in Bristol is addressing both issues and moulding potential singers in unlikely corners of the city.

Bristol Voices runs in an education action zone covering some of the city's toughest neighbourhoods. Its dual aims are to grow a music culture in primary schools where none existed and create new opportunities for trainee teachers.

The project involves Bristol Cathedral, researchers from the University of the West of England (UWE) and the city council arts service. Funding of Pounds 27,000 has come from Youth Music and the Choir Schools Association.

The north Bristol choir, created from scratch last September, has performed a Christmas carol concert, a mix of modern hymns and carols. Now around 50-strong, including boys and girls from five schools, it is working on songs to celebrate Mothering Sunday.

Few schools pose more challenges than Fonthill Primary on the Southmead estate, where deprivation levels are high. But freelance conductor David Ogden, who works with all the schools, is an old hand at getting restless children on-side. He sets a brisk pace and keeps minds focused.

"Over the six months I've seen them grow more confident in singing," David says. "They also learn to be part of a team. And they've learned disciplines such as standing up straight and how to listen."

Liz Rawlinson, 25, a first-year trainee on the English and the Arts in Primary Education course at UWE, is a keen singer who jumped at the chance to help develop music in primary schools. "One thing I've realised is the value of fun songs that David teaches. I think it's a good idea to learn them in stages; lyrics before the tune," she said.

"The boys at Fonthill don't show as much enthusiasm as the girls, but it's clear they want to be a part of the whole thing. The project has been well received everywhere. As for starting a music culture in the schools, I think that's already happening.

A DVD will be recorded by children in the summer containing backing tracks that can be used with an interactive whiteboard. Project co-ordinator Dr Martin Ashley, from UWE, thinks this is the best chance of the scheme becoming sustainable. "We've done an evaluation among teachers who are not music specialists but who have a go, and they say this is what they'd use,"

he said. "They're our targets."

The session at Westbury Primary, in a leafy suburb belying the fact that almost 40 per cent of pupils come from some of the city's poorest wards, draws 16 children. Seven are boys: five more than are in the school choir.

Alex Squire, aged nine, is from a family of pop music lovers. "I thought I'd try something different. Once I started... couldn't stop," he said. That something different entailed singing a solo at the Christmas concert in front of 500 people, which he found "really scary... spooky".

lMore information from: University of the West of England Email:

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