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Songs of praise

Occasional carol writer Gerald Haigh listens to what is being composed and written for and by children in multi-ethnic primary schools this Christmas.

I always sympathised with the preference of my own pupils for a version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" in which the angels would "Sing in Exhall Station". It conjured up a much richer image than the original after all. Such logical simplifications (not mistakes, surely) are well known to teachers, and arise because many traditional hymns and carols contain difficult words and thoughts.

Every Christmas, in fact, it has become a tradition that we repair to church, and shamelessly belt out balderdash like "Lo! Star-led chieftans, Magi, Christ adoring," ("O Come All Ye Faithful") and "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!" ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"). Unsurprisingly, therefore, teachers have always looked for more child-friendly Christmas songs. The traditional canon contains a few, of course - "Away in a Manger", though not without its own infelicities, has always been in the school repertoire, and the determined explorer of the published collections could usually find some lively alternatives to the standards.

The real breakthrough, though, came in the sixties and seventies, when publishers became aware of the demand, and started to find and deliver good carols for young singers. At about that time we began to see, for example, astonishingly beautiful carols from the pen of John Rutter - "The Star Carol", for instance, from 1972, and "The Donkey Carol" of 1975. These are sung and loved in many schools, especially where there are accomplished choirs. Much of Rutter's prolific output is to be found in Oxford University Press's Carols for Choirs, a series of four books which has become the definitive collection for adult and secondary school choirs.

The great school carol success story though, surely universally envied in the trade, has been that of the two books published by A and C Black - Carol Gaily Carol, which came out in 1973 and was followed shortly afterwards by Merrily to Bethlehem. Virtually every school has both books (the full music editions alone have now sold 100,000 copies between them) and it is common practice for combined school carol services to specify their use on the assumption of universal ownership. The majority of the carols in the Black books already existed, but what the editors did was make them easily accessible, all together, at singable pitches, with playable accompaniments and suggestions for classroom instrumental parts. Their appearance, too, undoubtedly inspired other publishers to collect and other composers to write.

The growth of this rich canon of children's Christmas songs has undoubtedly had its effect on what schools do at Christmas. In most primary schools, there will almost always be now, in addition to, or as part of any dramatic production or nativity play, an opportunity for the children to sing such favourites as "On a Starry Night", "Rat-a-tat-tat", "March of the Kings", "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy", "Infant Holy". One very common approach is to do two events - a dramatic production, perhaps of a published work, and then a simpler carol service with a variety of music, on another evening, or at an extended assembly. Often the school choir will sing items from the carol books, and the traditional favourites will be provided on printed sheets for everyone to join in.

Schools may also combine for a town service in the local hall or church - as they have done in my home town of Bedworth for more than 20 years (rehearsal in the morning, service in the evening) despite the growing pressures of curriculum, the cost of coach travel and the desire of each school to do its own concert. Both of the Black books will be in use this season at Dallow Infants School, in Luton, where head Pamela Brown has adapted a story to be told by 20 different narrators, and interspersed with a wide variety of carols. The fact that her school is made up largely of pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi families does not modify what, for Pam Brown, is the magic of the infant school Christmas.

"The infants are so beautiful to watch. My little narrators are already word-perfect, and when you consider that at least two thirds of them couldn't speak English when they came into the school, that's quite something."

There are, she assured me, no religious objections from parents. "We are very open, and of course we celebrate the other religious festivals, such as Eid."

She starts on the carols soon after the October half term - "We do a hymn practice on Wednesdays, and I build them into that. We have goes at the words, picking phrases and making little games of them. Singing is such an important part of language development."

At Jessons Church of England Primary, in Dudley, where, too, there is a mixed ethnic community, and a strong musical tradition, head Lucy Griffiths believes strongly in keeping the traditional carols alive - "It's part of the cultural heritage. We've always done the ones such as 'Hark the Herald', and the kids have been singing them around the school for days now."

Peter Morell, a Warwickshire teacher who composes carols, and has recently edited a new collection for Scholastic, also believes that "this kind of tradition and heritage is important. We have an input every week of traditional songs. It's important not to lose everything that's gone before." The Christmas service this year at Coten End Primary in Warwick, where Peter teaches, will take the familiar form of carols interspersed with bible readings. Traditional carols will be mixed in with some of Peter's own, and with some from the ubiquitous Black collections. Peter Morell points out, though, that as generations of children learn new carols, the distinction between "traditional" and "modern" becomes blurred. "Some of the ones in those two books are becoming standards now."

There are undoubtedly lots of teachers who, like Peter Morell, write their own carols for their pupils. Nobody knows how many, and comparatively few reach a wider audience, although Carols edited by Peter for Scholastic has brought together some 15 contributors, most of whom are working in schools. (One notable inclusion is a Hindi carol, "Issa alei salaam" by Nash Meghji of the Warwickshire inter-cultural team) Writing carols is not nearly as easy as it might look. Alan Biddle, formerly music adviser to the City of Coventry, who has contributed a group of beautiful carols to Primary File Publishing's Christmas File, is disappointed by some of the new ones that he hears in churches. "I feel robbed. The thought hasn't gone into them - some look as if they took five minutes to put together." The problem, he suggests, "is to be original without going over the top. It's important to keep the feeling of Christmas. If you go too much for the pop idiom you lose the sanctity."

One approach is to guide the pupils to write their own Christmas carols. The Christmas service at Brailes Primary, a village school on the edge of the Cotswolds will be held in the local church, and will have about six carols written by the pupils of years five and six. "Mixed in," said head Ann Dancer, "With some from Carol Gaily Carol".

Composition is a classroom activity at Brailes anyway, and Ann Dancer explained that for the Christmas music, "The pupils work in groups. They choose a genre first - a march for the kings perhaps, or a lullaby for the baby. They do the words first and then play around on pitched instruments to work out the tune."

The writing down of the tunes is accomplished with the aid of music software on the Archimedes computer. Brailes pupils soon find, though, the snag which all amateur song composers bump up against - that the most difficult task is not to do the tune and the first verse, but to go on and write a series of following verses all as good as the first, and all of which fit the tune exactly. This can be astonishingly frustrating, especially when you have to ditch a really excellent line just because it it one syllable too long or short, or an accent falls in the wrong place. As Ann Dancer pointed out, "We don't do much work in set metres in school, and it rocks the children back. They'll write this wonderful tune and a first verse, and then find that the second verse doesn't fit. It drags in all sorts of skills. It's a labour of love and it takes up lots of time. They're so proud of the finished product, though."

So demanding is the task that "home-grown" carols only appear in the Brailes Christmas every few years. One reward, though, says Ann Dancer, is that "Each year there are one or two little gems that are remembered." Some of the Brailes pupil-composed carols, in fact, are still being sung after 20 years. Carols, then, new and old, are alive and well in the multi-ethnic schools of the nineties. The tradition is taken seriously by teachers, enjoyed by parents and children, and respected by the members of other faiths. And for myself, I cannot deny that, with Pam Brown, I find it all to be joyful and moving. The spirit of Christmas is brought most intensely to life in the presence of children, and as a teacher I always felt that I was immensely privileged to be approaching Christmas surrounded by children, - making music with them, and helping them, for a time, to feel the deeper meaning of it all.

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