A lament for the silence of choirs

Singing is something we can all do and easily learn to do better, but it is no longer high on the list of school pursuits and concern is growing, writes Julie Morrice

The state of singing in Scotland's schools is "lamentable", says traditional singer and arts officer for Fife Sheena Wellington, and she is not the only person who thinks that, though she is quick to acknowledge pockets of excellence.

Our voice is a musical instrument we all have, from birth. It costs nothing. Learning to use it is the best foundation for learning any other instrument. Doing so brings benefits in numeracy, literacy, motor skills and social development. So why isn't singing more valued in schools?

"It somehow got lost in the 1980s and '90s," says Nigel Durno, principal teacher of music at Stewarton Academy in East Ayrshire. "There was a huge focus on the accessibility of electronic keyboards and sadly singing got left out."

Specialist music teachers who once did the rounds of primary schools are few and far between . More importantly, many primary teachers have lost confidence in delivering the music curriculum.

"There are concerns about teacher training," says Ian Mills, general manager of the National Youth Choir of Scotland. "Singing no longer has the profile it once had. I've been speaking to Jordanhill to see if the National Youth Choir of Scotland could have a slot in the BEd programme."

NYCOS was conceived as a showcase national choir but has mushroomed into nine regional children's choirs and a national boys' choir. It also produces publications for schools and nurseries and offers various taster days and training opportunities for choir leaders, singers and teaching staff at all levels. Yet it is still a small organisation, reliant on grants and sponsorship for survival.

"NYCOS has to be careful not to set itself up as the national saviour of singing," says Mr Mills. However, of Scotland's 32 education authorities, most have formed partnerships with NYCOS and only six remain untouched by it in any way.

The British Foundation for Young Choirs, which has supported singing in Scotland for generations, is soon to appoint a new Scottish representative, who may bring fresh impetus.

In England, under the patronage of the opera diva Lesley Garrett, the National Foundation for Youth Music has given singing a much-needed boost, offering grants of between pound;1,000 and pound;20,000 for singing projects, but the foundation is conscious that it is unable to extend these grants beyond the English boundary.

However, a partnership between it and the Scottish Arts Council has resulted in a survey, carried out by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, to map youth music activity across Scotland. "The early indications are that there is very little formal singing instruction going on," says researcher Stephen Broad. "In our focus groups, singing has been raised by a large number of people. It has been a general concern."

The RSAMD expects to report by Christmas, giving a picture of music provision and, more importantly, gaps in provision across Scotland. This should be a useful lobbying tool.

At the moment, singing instruction is down to individual schools, says Mr Durno. "If there is an individual who has the skills to form and run a choir, then there will be singing. Some schools are not so lucky."

Even where a school has excellent practice, there is no guarantee that it will be carried forward. One primary music specialist who nurtures choral singing knows there is no choir for her singers to feed into at the local secondary school.

In Fife, Ms Wellington acknowledges the work done in schools but longs for the talent that exists among staff and pupils to be given a profile in the form of a Fife choir. It seems that a local authority orchestra has more cachet than a choir, despite being more expensive and complex to organise.

Short-term project grants, as deployed in England, can be a good way to initiate groups and thereafter people's expectations can keep them going. Singing inspires a lot of voluntary time and effort. However, many wonderful projects come and go, stalling through lack of funds.

A nationwide initiative has adherents, who long for some joined-up thinking, but there is always the fear of a national administration absorbing funds. As ever, there is no easy answer. Harmonious ideas on the back of a songsheet, please.

RSAMD will host a national seminar on youth music on October 5. Contact Stephen Broad, tel 0141 270 8329, e-mail s.broad@rsamd.ac.uk

5-14 CURRICULUM GUIDELINES ON SINGING

For all levels

* Sing a wide repertoire of songs, representing a variety of styles, in which the language is comprehensible and appealing to the age group Level A

* Demonstrate some control in pitch and rhythm

* Show ability to memorise simple songs containing repetitive melodic and rhythmic patterns Level B

* Show a greater ability to sing in tune with others

* Fit words to the melody where this is obvious

* Control rhythm, speed and leaps in melody Level C

* Sing together confidently in unison with some awareness of dynamics, phrasing and expression

* Sustain a simple harmonic part Level D

* Sing together confidently, in unison and straightforward harmony, producing good vocal tone and clear pronunciation and demonstrating awareness of dynamics, phrasing and expression Level E

* Sing in unison and in harmony with an appropriate vocal technique and a sense of interpretation, sustaining enjoyment of singing during the transitionary period when the voice changes

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