Fine tuning

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Are you and your class singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to music lessons, or are you out of tune? Stephen Manning offers advice to get you working in harmony

Can't sing, won't sing! The supposed decline of singing in British schools is centre-stage once again with the Government's unveiling of new measures to boost music in schools. Singing was made a priority in the Music Manifesto, the government-backed campaign to increase music-making in primary schools, and last month Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, responded to its recommendations by announcing an extra pound;10 million will be spent on music education.

He unveiled the creation of a national singing campaign for primary schools, a three-year programme focusing on flagship schools to show others how it can be done, and to train the trainers. Labour also wants to see the development of a "21st-century songbook" with several hundred songs across a range of musical genres that all primary schools will have access to. The selections will be nominated by teachers and pupils, though by no means will they all be famous songs.

Howard Goodall, composer, broadcaster and the campaign's new singing ambassador, feels that the importance of the campaign cannot be overstated.

"I believe passionately that singing is the best activity for children to cohere as a group," he says. "In sport, there are winners and losers, and quite a few who don't want to do it. But there are few kids who don't like some form of singing.

"If you have a society that is fractured and complicated, like our modern Western society is, and you have a way of bringing people together, you have a duty to do it."

The figures appear rather bleak. Youth Music's omnibus survey, conducted last May and based on interviews with a representative sample of 1,295 children, found that only 8 per cent of seven to 19-year-olds in the UK sing during school hours.

But there are still schools where singing permeates the curriculum, like St Mary's Roman Catholic Primary, in Clapham, south London. Out of 85 Year 5 and 6 pupils, 70 are in the lower junior choir. "We have a lot of kids of Portuguese, South American and West African origin," says Julie McCann, the school's music co-ordinator. "Kids who have no English find singing is a good way to help them learn."

Last year they performed at the Schools Proms, the annual event held at the Royal Albert Hall, which The TES sponsors, each November. Julie regards the emotional impact for both singer and listener as crucial. "When we perform, I say to the kids, what do you want to do to an audience?" she says. "Do you want to move them, challenge them, surprise them? They get puzzled when people, including adults, cry when they sing. It's interesting to discover the effect that the human voice can have."

She holds X-Factor-style auditions at lunchtimes where the choir votes for prospective soloists. Her appraisals are not of the Simon Cowell variety.

"I discuss applying different tones of voice for different songs," she says. "For example, for a hymn I might say that it should sound like clear water."

It seems that the drive and passion of at least one person is essential to get a school singing, and this is perhaps more of a challenge at secondary level. Northampton School for Boys, a foundation state secondary in Northampton, has four choirs including two for male voices as well as a 24-strong jazz vocal group for the more advanced singers. This features singers from the neighbouring girls' school. They specialise in advanced close harmony music.

Where did the jazz come from? "I was inspired by American school groups that I heard at the International Association for Jazz Education," says Barrie Johnson, the school's music director. "The range of material, from jazz to barbershop to traditional, made me want to import that back into our school." He took the jazz group to New York two years ago where they performed in local schools and, at lunchtimes, in shopping areas. They are about make a similar visit to Los Angeles.

Following a much more traditional approach, the Choir Schools Association runs an outreach programme sending choristers, aged between eight and 12, into primary schools around the country to sing with - not at - the pupils.

Funded by the Department for Education and Skills' Music and Dance Scheme, the outreach visits began in Truro, Cornwall, six years ago and have now spread around the country.

The choristers will sing anything the kids want, it might be an African round, or it might be My Old Man's A Dustman. It doesn't matter what - the idea is that children have a chance to discover real singing. "There might be parents who are supportive but who might not suspect that some kids might be musical," says Richard White, the association's development director.

"The great thing about singing is that it is cheap, and that you can reach a good standard much faster than, for example, if you were learning the piano."

To see the full music survey visit

How to get your school singing

Jenny Mason, deputy head of Staffordshire Performing Arts, is the organiser of this year's Singposium, Music For Youth's annual choral training day held at the National Choral Festival.

"Firstly, singing needs to be timetabled effectively in school hours," she says. "When you have non-qualified staff to do it, it can easily be forgotten about. I think it would be great to do it every day, but it's not always possible.

"Both class and whole school singing sessions should include warm-ups and vocal development. In assemblies the kids are sitting down, yet they are expected to sing hymns properly. In primary schools, all the teaching staff should ideally be seen to be joining in, and should be encouraged to sing with their own class regularly.

"Schools could ask their local authorities for INSET sessions, or might consider bringing in an experienced singing workshop leader or singing organisation such as the Voices Foundation, the music education charity for primary schools. (Visit"

She adds: "You might look out for free events or training that staff could be encouraged to take part in, for example Music Leader (, an initiative supported and funded by Youth Music.

And, of course, performances in and out of school are invaluable."

The Singposium is being held on July 10 as part of the National Festival of Music for Youth in Birmingham. The event runs from July 9 to 14. More details are available at

'The school got me where I am today'

Katherine Jenkins, pictured, was briefly a singing teacher and might still be had operatic superstardom not got in the way.

As a peripatetic she went into primary and secondary schools in Hertfordshire during the week, and a stage school at the weekend, taking all ages of pupils in singing lessons.

"Studying at the Royal Academy of Music had been intense so it was wonderfully refreshing to go into a primary school and witness the energy and enthusiasm of the young," she says. "It reminded me why I wanted to sing in the first place."

"The way I would get them singing was to start on pop songs in the charts, as they have to begin with something they know and want to sing.

"At that time, that meant Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Then I would introduce songs from musical theatre such as Grease or Guys and Dolls."

The 26-year-old mezzo-soprano credits her primary school, Alderman Primary in Neath, south Wales, as the most crucial influence on her choice of career. "The school gave me everything that got me where I am today. Our headteacher used to take each class for an hour's singing a week. It was his way of getting to know us all."

"We had a great choir and we sang everything from traditional Welsh songs to hymns to interpretations of current pop songs. I think that a school choir is the best way to develop young people's musical skills in reading music and singing as part of a group." And what song would she nominate for the 21st century songbook? "Bridge Over Troubled Water is a good one, it's a familiar tune with a wide harmonic range. I used to teach that one and the kids loved it."

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