Choirs invisible

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Patrick Salisbury on the efforts to halt the decline of singing, one of the most socially fulfilling and culturally enriching of school activities

MARK TWAIN considered singing to be "one of the most entrancing and bewitching and moving and eloquent of all the vehicles invented by man for the conveying of feeling". Our own William Byrd held that singing was "so good a thing" that he wished "all men would learn to sing".

Unfortunately, too few of us now follow this excellent advice. The decline in church and chapel attendance has had something to do with it. In many schools, the advent of instrumental tuition has proved a strong counter-attraction to singing in the choir. The shortage of musically qualified primary teachers is a further contributory factor.

But, for whatever reasons, schools and society seem to have lost the urge to pursue what used to be seen as one of the more pleasurable and culturally enriching social activities.

The Forster Education Act of 1870 declared singing to be an integral part of the curriculum and therefore eligible for grant! It was during this period of our cultural history that the foundations of our great choral tradition were laid - a tradition which, I suggest, is now seriously at risk.

In September next, national curriculum requirements for non-core subjects in primary schools are to be suspended with obvious implications for the status of music. It is cold comfort to read in the Office for Standards in Education report The Arts Inspected, published earlier this year, that national inspections during the years 1993-1997 concluded that "there is much to celebrate about music in schools" and that "music is the best taught subject in primary schools".

Regrettably, there is compelling evidence to suggest that opportunities for singing are diminishing; and because of teachers' contractual obligations, choirs, as part of an "extended curriculum", are gradually disappearing from many schools.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith's proposed injection of Pounds 10 million "to fund extra-curricular activitiesIand to pay for choral and instrumental teaching" (TES, June 26) is certainly welcome, but it is not yet clear whether the Youth Music Trust set up under the chairmanship of Gavin Henderson will actually benefit music departments in schools, or only talented individuals.

Since 1991, the British Federation of Young Choirs has been "planting" experienced choral animateurs to work alongside teachers in selected clusters of primary schools and in Years 7-9 in secondary schools, giving inspiration and encouragement; such projects have usually culminated in a combined choral performance before parents and friends, often incorporating other musical resources available in the area.

The federation has so far initiated "pump-priming" schemes of this kind in some 13 areas; others will follow. Projects are of three years' duration and have proved so successful that, when completed, local initiatives have usually ensured that the work begun by the animateurs has been carried on by other agencies.

To see and hear a choir of young people in action, each member collaborating in every aspect of the interpretation in response to the direction of a trusted conductor, is to observe a very precious manifestation of youth culture. Such choristers are privileged to explore a rich and varied repertoire, ranging from simple folk song arrangements to the great choral masterpieces of the European cultural heritage. Their experience is further intensified when, on special occasions, the music is rehearsed and performed with the added excitement of authentic instrumental accompaniment and under the inspired direction of an acclaimed conductor.

Convinced of the enormous aesthetic satisfaction and social fulfilment obtained from participation in well-ordered choral singing, the federation is striving to make such opportunities more generally accessible to young people. It provides expert advice and training for its members, is expanding its animation schemes and is widening the scope of its Singing Days and Singing Weeks.

The federation's second Adolescent Voice Conference will be held at Loughborough University next weekend (September 11-13). The federation is also resolved that the projected National Youth Choral Centre, soon to be established on the campus of Loughborough University, will be up and running in good time for the millennium.

Many dedicated people are trying very hard to keep choral singing at the heart of Britain's proud musical tradition. But, as The TES's Music for the Millennium campaign has shown, we cannot afford to be complacent. The Culture Secretary may have gone as far as his brief allows to ensure the survival of the more gifted young musicians, but some sort of complementary action by the Education Secretary is now urgently needed to revitalise and advance the case of choral singing for the many.

Patrick Salisbury is chairman of the British Federation of Young Choirs.

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