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Overtures to beginners

Many young children, their teachers and their parents are being denied the opportunity of discovering through singing whether they have any musical talent, according to Richard White, chair of the Choir Schools Association (CSA). Together with the Cathedral Organists Association and the Federation of Music Services, the CSA is co-hosting a conference on children and singing at St Paul's Cathedral, London, on February 25.

Many teachers would agree that, despite many valiant efforts and pockets of excellence around the country, the quality of singing in primary schools has declined.

"It makes sense to address the problem at an early age, and certainly before onset of adolescence," says Richard White. "We need to start at the bottom, and singing at primary-school level is the cheapest and most effective way of discovering and nurturing musical potential - establishing a base from which other musical activities can follow."

Without more specialist teachers and professional development, he says, there may be little that can be done in the immediate future about the quantity and quality of singing in primary schools. Curriculum pressures, lack of specialist music teachers and a larger proportion of classroom time spent on keyboard and percussion instruments squeezes singing. And many boys seem to consider that singing is primarily an activity for girls - at least in schools. Yet many teachers agree with Richard White's view that, "singing is important. It gives enjoyment and satisfaction. It can also help to develop concentration, self-discipline and other personal qualities. Children deserve quality singing opportunities".

At the day-long conference, headteachers, cathedral musicians, representatives from local authority music services, government advisers, church representatives and teachers will pool their expertise. Singing opportunities for the nation's children are growing, thanks to several initiatives around the country. Some, like those in Truro and Liverpool, originate with the church, but are not confined to church music.

Richard Hickman, chief executive of the Federation of Music Services says:

"Making the expertise and experience of cathedral musicians and choir schools available to more primary pupils has much to commend it."

Truro Cathedral launched a primary-school scheme last year using its choir school and Cornwall's music service. Each term, choristers visit junior schools in the county to help boost singing. Primary pupils then perform a concert in the cathedral and can join the newly-formed County Junior Choir.

Music ranges from folk to jazz to negro spirituals. At Christmas, traditional carols linked all groups, but this term they are working on "Summer Nights" from the film Grease and a couple of Gershwin pieces - "Summertime" and "I've Got Rhythm". Work is focused on teaching the children to read music, rather than simply teaching the song.

On Merseyside, a time-demanding programme of primary-school visits keeps Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral's director of music in and out of city junior schools throughout term-time. Elsewhere, a growing number of church musicians, including cathedral organists in Blackburn and Norwich, are becoming more closely linked with developing singing opportunities for children.

Professor John Harper, Secretary of the Cathedral Organists' Association says: "Cathedrals are powerhouses of musical resource and activity and welcome thousands each year to share in musical services, concerts and events. Increasingly, there is recognition that there are opportunities for them to reach out directly into the community, not least to stimulate an inclusive culture of good singing."

* The Choir Schools' Association information office, tel: 01359 221333. E-mail: The Federation of Music Services, tel: 01747 820042. E-mail: The Cathedral Organists' Association, contact John Harper, tel: 01306 872800. E-mail: Victoria Neumark

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