Hold on to your hymn books

1st December 2006 at 00:00
I am a relatively go-ahead music teacher. I know my way around an electronic keyboard and can do Maori greeting songs with the best of them.

But when I admit to a liking for traditional assemblies and hymns, I'm out on an increasingly lonely limb, which is ironic as I'm not even a Christian.

Church leaders said recently that assemblies are vital for children's spiritual well-being. I totally agree, though for very different reasons.

Lose assemblies - and, in our increasingly secular society, there's no particular reason for them to carry on - and we cast aside the works of some of our greatest composers and writers.

Take William Blake, who wrote the lyrics for "Jerusalem"; Christina Rossetti, "In the bleak Midwinter" and Mendelssohn, who composed the music for "Hark the Herald Angels Sing". And what about the spine-chilling magic of "The Lord's my Shepherd" or "Tallis' Canon"?

We also know that learning facts is easier if you set them to music. Just look at the current vogue for maths-based musical activities. Older hymn books handily arrange the Bible as a musical, celebrating not just Christmas and Easter but everything else from Lent to Jesus' appearance at the wedding feast at Cana, plus a fair sprinkling of saints. It's a musical tradition that informs much of our culture.

"You need to know the Bible inside-out for most historic texts from Shakespeare onwards," says Fiona Boult, a mother of three who studied English at university. "The hymns I sang at school made it much easier to remember."

But with no requirement for a daily act of worship to contain music, nor to involve the whole school, assemblies are becoming increasingly classroom-based and perfunctory. The Church of England connection, too, remains problematic. "The singing of hymns isn't inclusive enough for children from other faiths and backgrounds," says Youth Music, a partnership between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Arts Council England.

There is also a practical issue as schools lose not just the will to hold assemblies but also teachers with the skills to provide the music that brings them alive. Music, once an optional subject at teacher-training colleges, has been jettisoned from many primary school courses as they struggle with a curriculum that is bursting at the seams.

The result, says one primary head in her fifties, is that traditional music in schools will die out as her generation reaches retirement age. She has a point. Of the dozen or so primaries I contacted, almost half were struggling to keep live music going, or simply abandoning it. Some are opting for song collections that come complete with a backing track and require no more than the ability to work an onoff switch.

Some see this as good news - a struggling pianist, says one lecturer, was not a good role model for children - but other schools are staying firmly with live music. At one West Midlands school, half a dozen staff lend their musical talents - whether advanced or not - to a rich programme that includes daily assemblies with songs from many religions, reflecting the school's diverse cultural mix.

So where next? The Music Manifesto, launched in 2004, mentions whole-school singing as an important part of children's access to music. Youth Music is cautiously in favour of what it calls new-style assemblies, though the organisation has ditched traditional hymns in favour of a specially commissioned song-book. So assemblies and whole-school singing may be back - in one form or another. As for traditional hymns, I'd say that the writing is on the wall. Let's just hope that nobody tries to set it to music.

Charlotte Phillips teaches KS1 music at Newland House school in Twickenham

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