Anything goes

9th February 1996 at 00:00
The secondary classroom is a challenging place in which to run a singing lesson. Gerald Haigh sounds out the possibilities.

For a short time after I finished being a primary head, I did a few hours a week teaching music in a local secondary school. There I rediscovered, among other things, what it was like to have trouble keeping adolescent students in order. What the pupils did enjoy, though - rather to my surprise - was singing.

Almost anything would do - "Lady Madonna" was a favourite I remember, as was a medley of music-hall songs which included "Where Did You Get that Hat?" In between numbers they would smile beatifically, call out requests and reminisce about the songs they used to sing in the junior school. I would happily bash away at the piano, feeling slightly guilty about getting paid for doing it.

I am not sure that the quality of the sound we produced would have stood up to scrutiny, however, and for a range of reasons the standard of singing in our schools leaves much to be desired. One problem is that many teachers are not sure how to teach children to sing well. Voice production seems to be a mysterious and technical business, and as Peter Hunt, a specialist singing teacher working in Northamptonshire, put it: "The teacher is faced with whatever sound comes out, and doesn't know what to do to improve it."

Peter Hunt is a singing specialist, visiting schools and community groups and holding in-service sessions as part of the choral animation project run by the British Federation of Young Choirs. Although knowledge of technique is important, the really key ingredients are enthusiasm and confidence. His biggest feeling of achievement comes when a teacher says "I didn't know I could do that - I must expect more from the pupils in the future".

Part of the difficulty lies with repertoire. Secondary school students, nostalgia apart, really do not want to repeat the jolly stuff they sang at junior school. "Lady Madonna" and "Where Did You Get that Hat?" will only take you so far. As Peter Hunt explained: "You need straight repertoire that's easy to learn, with repetitive phrases and manageable words."

Teachers need guidance on how to teach the songs put before them - "warm ups, exercises drawn from the piece, ideas about what you might expect. There's a definite need for that". The secondary classroom is a challenging place in which to run a singing session - "You have to be a very special person to make it really successful in the classroom. The atmosphere is often just not right". One answer is, "every half term, get some classes together and have a good sing. It's better than grinding away".

Chris Simmons is arts co-ordinator at Henry Smith School in Hartlepool. Despite modern technology, he says, "Singing is still popular, the children enjoy it, and I work it in not just by singing songs but by using voices in other creative ways - in a composing module for example".

Chris Simmons is conductor of the Hartlepool Youth Choir. Are the choir's voice training techniques he used with them useful in the classroom? "I certainly do voice production with my Year 7s. I do a lot of solfa work with them, using hand signs, working on differences of pitch, and quality of sound." He is optimistic. The national curriculum has made it hard for schools to see music as a fringe activity. "I really think classroom music is more centre stage than it used to be. In the past music was a showcase department, but now I think the tide has turned."

Mr Simmons is impressed by the skills of the student teachers who come to his department. "I find they are willing to have a go and to use singing in their music lessons. They've been convinced that you don't have to have a wonderful voice - just the courage to get on with it." Above all, he emphasises, "Singing is good fun you know; that's the most important thing about it!"

The British Federation of Young Choirs Choral Animation scheme is now in its third year. There are six "animateurs", who work regularly about two days a week, and and two "tutors" who run specific educational projects in, so far, Dudley, Kent, Northamptonshire, and the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Brent and Camden. In addition, there are educational projects in Ayrshire, Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire. The aim is to develop choral work, in schools and in the community, planned and organised in collaboration with the local authority. Finance comes from a mixture of sponsorship, grants foundations and charities, grants from regional arts boards and direct payments from schools and local authorities.

The BFYC is planning an anthology of songs for key stage 3 and a major conference on 'The Adolescent Voice' will be held at Christ Church College Canterbury in April. Details from the Director, Susan Lansdale at 37 Frederick Street, Loughborough, Leics LE11 3BH.

Gerald Haigh is qualified as a teacher of voice, and is an experienced conductor of adult and children's choirs.

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