'To deny young people the opportunity to sing will hinder their human and social development - and imprison their feelings' - Nigel Williamson discovers how music teaching crept up on Patrick Allen and Kaye Umansky.
Patrick Allen never intended to teach music, let alone write a prize-winning book about it. "The way music was taught to me in school never appealed, so although it was one of my subjects at university I was never interested in it as a classroom subject," says the 40-year-old author of Singing Matters, winner of the Secondary Schoolbook Award for Music.
Ten years ago Allen got a job teaching English and drama at Ifield Community College in Crawley, Sussex. The school offered very little music and because of his training he soon found he had become the de facto music teacher. "The turning point was when I realised that while music classes were very uptight, it was easy to get kids to sing in drama classes. So I started to combine the two."
Importing role-playing games from the drama course and taking out the tables and chairs created a less rigid atmosphere. Next he looked at the materials available and concluded they were mostly written by people who had never had to teach a class of teenagers. "None of the books seemed to contain anything that teenagers would actually want to sing. In our culture music has been cordoned off by an elite."Allen's response was to introduce more popular songs and move the pitch down dramatically so that they suit the voices of modern teenagers. "The old style was always pitched far too high. Then it all fired off. Suddenly they were singing," he says.
Suitably encouraged, he began incorporating music from cultures where singing remains a more central part of community life - Eastern Europe, South Africa and black America. "I couldn't find any books that offered what I wanted to do so I created my own," he says.
The result is the broad musical canvas of Singing Matters, with a range of material from Oasis's "Wonderwall" to Indian chants via "Auld Lang Syne" and "Wimmoweh". A second volume, Developing Singing Matters, is already in the pipeline.
Ifield College has an ethnic minority intake of almost one in five. It is also near the bottom of the county league tables - another factor that has influenced Allen's work. "I don't dispense with the traditional virtues of singing. You have to maintain a standard, tell them when it's bad and the tone needs improving," he says.
"But the establishment view of music doesn't get kids in comprehensives to open up. My approach is about bringing people together rather than confronting them with your skills and making them feel inadequate. To deny young people the opportunity to sing will hinder their human and social development and imprison their feelings."
Kaye Umansky, whose Three Rapping Rats has won The TESEPC Primary Schoolbook Award for Music, also believes that accessibility is the key. "A lot of primary teachers who have to deliver the national curriculum in music have no real experience. They can't read music and I wrote this book for them.They do a very good job, but it shocks me that there isn't a music specialist available to go into every school in the country."
Umansky, who became a full-time writer in 1986 and has since produced 40 titles for young people ranging from fiction to poetry, as well as music books, taught for 15 years in London primaries. "I gradually began to specialise in music before I became a peripatetic music teacher," she says.
Her first music book, Phantasmagoria, was written as a result of looking for material that children would enjoy singing - and not really finding it. "In those days what was available was very folky and dull. That's why I started writing my own songs."
She still spends an average of a day a week in schools. "Authors are always in demand and I do lots of readings, mostly specialising in fiction for eight to 10-year-olds. But I always try and get some music in as well to break up the sessions. The point about Three Rapping Rats is that you can take what you want from it - either a 10-minute afternoon assembly or a term-long project."
Her approach uses traditional stories such as King Midas or the Princess and the Pea, reinventing them in contemporary musical forms such as rap and hip-hop. "Rapping is essential for rhythmic work and all children are exposed to it. They need songs that reflect their lives and are instantly singable."
The greatest thrill still comes when she goes into a classroom and hears pupils singing her material. "When you write the songs it is quite theoretical. It's such a thrill to hear children singing them and see that what you have done actually works. That's the test for any author and I always come out glowing."