There's no sight more edifying than a group of enthusiastic singers making a beautiful noise. Gerald Haigh sees how personality and enthusiasm can bring that noise about
Longer ago than I'm prepared to admit to, my primary school music teacher cocked his ear to me and announced to the class: "I've found a Haigh who can't sing!"
As a motivational technique it left a lot to be desired, but what really upset me was that he'd failed to realise what I was trying to do. Entirely uninterested in being a piping treble, because my father and uncles were all robust male voice choir singers, I was trying, at the age of 10, to sing bass. Not only that, but I was also making a groping attempt to improvise a bass line.
I was failing miserably on both counts, but recognition for trying would have been welcome. The first lesson is, though, that you should never write off a child as a "groaner". The second is that when it comes to teaching children to sing, one of the most effective methods is to start where they are and build from there.
For example, the Volume group of youth choirs, based on the Roundhouse in Camden, brings together a large number of young people from local schools and the community, trains them and puts them on the stage performing songs that clearly spring first from their own interests - Ramp;B (Rhythm and Blues), soul, rap - but also push the boundaries into world and gospel music. It's a magnificently inclusive exercise that gives time, tuition and the opportunity for healthy self-expression and pride to large numbers of urban teenagers.
At the other end of the age range, you can see the same grass-roots principle at work at Uplands Manor Primary school in Sandwell, where children at lunchtime regularly gather around visiting vocal tutor Rebecca Ledgard to enjoy songs and singing games. They run towards her as she appears, and in no time they're singing - Jump Jim-Joe, John Kanakanaka.
They do it well, too, not least because Rebecca, who's education co-ordinator with the highly accomplished Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra, takes them in rotation for classroom singing.
"There are clear benefits for lunchtime behaviour and commitment to school," says Rebecca, "But we're interested in helping them to use their voices properly, too. Half of each classroom session is about vocal technique."
A project like this will go where it leads - perhaps to an assembly, or a choir, or to classroom singing and, ultimately, to a community where there's more singing.
Rebecca's involvement, in fact, is through Singing Communities, a project run by Youngchoirs.net and the extended schooling organisation ContinYou, with funding from Youth Music. In line with the "start where you are" philosophy, Singing Communities takes many different forms across the country - an Afro-Caribbean a-cappella community choir, also in Sandwell, a performance of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in Derby, workshops for folk, rap, gospel and jazz in Hartlepool - there's no shortage of creative ideas, all of them tapping into local enthusiasms and resources.
The link with Ex Cathedra, for example, builds on that choir's long-standing commitment to securing the future by working with young people - the choir works extensively with massed children's choirs and is now developing a project with children in hospital. Geoffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra's director, is a former secondary head of music, and has a strong vision of the importance of singing for children and young people.
"Singing is a fundamental human activity," he says, reflecting on a recent visit to singers and musicians in Bolivia. "It's vital to our very existence - and to our co-existence in this varied world. We have a duty to develop the grass-roots."
Starting with children's enthusiasms isn't a new idea. So obvious is it that the wheel has turned full circle and once-contemporary arrangements are now choral classics. You don't have to go to many choir concerts up to and including veteran male voice choirs before you hear Bridge Over Troubled Water or any of half a dozen Lennon and McCartney numbers.
Real engagement with contemporary youth culture, though, is a tricky business for the obvious reason that the genuine article is, by definition, beyond adult reach - the work being done at the Roundhouse is clearly the result of some very sensitive, inter-generational engagement. It's a challenge that Cath Roberts, head of music at Sacred Heart Language College in Harrow recognises very well: "It's how you harness it - that's the difficult question. It would be no use my pretending to be an expert on some of the music they're interested in, because I'm not."
She has, though, found the common ground in Ramp;B, which her girls (it's a girls' school) are interested in and which links directly to Cath Roberts's own expertise in gospel and soul. Now, she runs a 50-strong gospel choir drawn from every year group in the school.
Cath Roberts believes that young people's interest in singing is currently on the increase, driven at least partly by TV's preoccupations. "Pop Idol has made a complete difference," she says.
That's a trend the QCA has also noticed. Tony Knight, consultant for music, arts and culture, says: "Singing's been up and down over the years, but it's more healthy now than it's been for some time - and things like Pop Idol have had a major impact. It's a particular kind of singing, of course, but good teachers can take it on."
It's clear though that the real key lies in adult enthusiasm and determination. Every teacher who runs a successful school singing programme will tell of the need for what Geoffrey Skidmore calls: "A fire to survive."
Given that all is possible, there couldn't be a more striking example than the story of SFX, the choir of St Francis Xavier's College, a boys' Roman Catholic comprehensive in Liverpool. SFX is a robed male choir in the Anglican Cathedral tradition - 24 trebles, 6 each of altos, tenors and basses. Standards of performance are entirely without compromise. Among the CDs the choir has issued is Heavenly Anthems which includes such Everest-like challenges as the legendary Allegri "Miserere" and Sir Hubert Parry's spine-tingling "I Was Glad". That it succeeds triumphantly is demonstrated by the eagerness with which the choir is invited to perform.
SFX has sung in every single Anglican Cathedral in the UK, and numerous famous churches in Europe, and this summer they're off on tour to Washington, New York and Boston.
All of this is down to the enthusiasm and drive of the school's head of music, supported by colleagues and school management. Notwithstanding the advice about starting with music familiar to the pupils, Keith Knowles went to the school in 1994 with the specific aim of starting a robed traditional choir. "I was asked at interview what I could do for the school," he says, "and I said I could make a choir that would be famous in the city."
Always in a venture of this kind, there's a breakthrough point, beyond which success breeds success and people clamour to join. SFX achieved this quite quickly - in the first year of the choir's existence they sang at a service "away from home" in Bury - and the signal to prospective members was that being in the choir meant you got out and about.
Now, of the 225 boys who come into the school each year, over 100 audition for a handful of vacancies. "They have to join in Year 7 - there are no vacancies further on," says Keith Knowles.
Everything you learn about SFX is mind-boggling. Rehearsals, twice a week, go on for up to three hours. Every member sight-reads. How? "I teach them, at lunchtimes, when they first join," Keith Knowles explains.
His secret? "Personality," he says, "You have to have a sense of humour, and make it enjoyable."
It's clear that in all of these activities on Uplands playground, in the Roundhouse, at Sacred Heart, or wherever children sing, enjoyment is the key. A miserable choir, or singing lesson, or primary school hymn practice, is a contradiction in terms.
Geoffrey Skidmore says, "Singing gives you that spiritual dimension that we all need. We don't understand how it works, but it's there, and once you've had that feeling, you can't get enough of it."
* Recent new units on classroom music in the QCA KS2 Scheme of work will be available at www.standards.dfes.gov.ukschemes or tel: 01787 884444
Youngchoirs.net - the British Federation of Young Choirs. A huge national programme of singing activities, advice and support, including regional "animateurs" and the "Singing Communities" initiative
ContinYou (formerly Education Extra and the CEDC) a charity supporting out of hours learning. Also involved in "Singing Communities
Music for Youth runs the National Festival of Music for Youth and the Schools Proms. On July 6 there's a Singposium in association with the NFMY at the South Bank
Ex Cathedra choir
Voiceworks - a singing resource from OUP, one of the resources used by Rebecca Ledgard.
For excellent repertoire, Alan Simmons Music (Alan Simmons, as a teacher and composer, is a leading exponent of how to motivate children, especially secondary school boys, to sing)
The QCA "Arts alive!" site has good case studies across the arts, at www.qca.org.ukartsalivecase_studiesindex.htm
* Use your local authority music service. Some (Manchester for example) have specialist singing staff. All can provide advice, help and resources (keep up to date as singing has a higher profile now in many authorities)
* You don't have to be an excellent singer. Confidence and good humour are more important.
* Don't worry if you can't play the piano. The percussive sound isn't a good model for the voice anyway.
* Every child has a singing voice - the skill lies in helping them to find it.
* With young children, do playground songs. Collect them from the children and parents, involve lunchtime supervisors.
* Encourage everyone to be soloists - many playground games have "solos" in them, as do gospel songs.
* Never underestimate children. The best youth choirs show that nothing is beyond them.
* Solicit the support of senior management. Without full backing from the top, life will be difficult especially during the building-up period.
* Be deeply appreciative of colleagues who, for example, cover classes while you're rehearsing, or come with you to help at concerts.
* Keep parents involved. You'll need their support more and more if your choir becomes successful.
* Do "More of less". Tony Knight explains - "It's better to something in depth. There's still a wrong impression that teachers have to do everything in every lesson. So when someone asked me the other day, 'Does that mean I can do a year's programme on singing?' the answer is that of course you can."
* Gospel music is a rich field - it links adult and youth interests, it's rhythmic, it encourages solos, it can be done either accompanied or a capella, it can involve movement and it has a spiritual dimension.
* Make a link to an active and interested adult choir.
* Find expert help, funding, and support. There's more out there than ever before.