As the 1996 Sainsbury's Choir of the Year competition reaches its climax, Gerald Haigh looks at the state of singing in Britain's schools
Singing, especially with lots of other people, is a stress-relieving activity, and it is a matter for regret that these days there are not enough opportunities for children to do it. The reasons are not hard to find - the curriculum is crowded; instrumental work eats into what time there is, and even among specialist music teachers there is a dearth of knowledge of and confidence in the teaching of singing.
But let no one suggest that any part of the problem is caused by today's young people either not wanting or being able to sing. There is ample evidence that almost any group of youngsters, given good teaching and leadership, can enjoy singing and achieve musical results.
Just what is possible at the top end of the range is regularly demonstrated by the biennial Sainsbury's Choir of the Year competition, which features youth choirs as well as different styles of adult choral groups. Of all the choral events this is perhaps the best known, because of television coverage by the BBC.
But excellent school and youth choirs are also on show each November at the National Festival of Music for Youth and the Schools Proms. And the British Federation of Young Choirs, which probably does more than any other organisation for grass-roots singing in schools, has an ever-growing membership and runs well attended "singing days" across the UK.
The Choir of the Year competition, given all the limitations of subjective judgment and of parity of standards between regional heats, does a superb job in bringing forward those groups that can act as role models for teachers and pupils. The emphasis, at least in the youth section, is very heavily on the Western choral tradition, which is to say that voices are conventionally trained in the classical manner. The choral sound is richly beautiful and well-balanced, phrasing is spine-tinglingly shaped to the mood of the song, and the words are carefully enunciated with total unanimity of pronunciation and attack.
A good choir of this style is drilled and disciplined. The leadership trick, obviously, is to convince the singers that they can enjoy being worked hard, that anything else would be insulting to them, and that the ultimate prize is the feeling of being part of something which at its best is awe-inspiringly sublime. Martin Cook, director of Chester Music Society Junior Choir, a Choir of the Year semi-finalist, is typical of choral conductors when he speaks of "the need to challenge children all the time, both technically and with the music you choose. Children will rise to a challenge," he says.
A good choral conductor makes demands right from the start - by making the singers warm up their voices properly, for example, a process that not only prepares the physical equipment but primes the mind.
At Buxton, on the semi-finals day of the Choir of the Year competition, I watched Sue Hollingworth doing warm-ups in the rehearsal room with her 100-strong Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir. You could cut the concentration with a knife, and the only people she had to rebuke were some adults standing behind her. "Someone's whispering and I can't cope with it!" Sue runs half-a-dozen choirs in Scunthorpe, as well as being head of music at John Leggott Sixth Form College. Clearly, she has an abundance of the choral director's technique - the ability to translate the printed page into beautiful sounds by reinforcing what is correct and correcting what is wrong, in real time, standing up in front of 100 demanding youngsters. It is this skill that many teachers find daunting.
Yet there are other attributes that less technically qualified teachers may have - which may be even more important. Bob Sheard, a Scunthorpe primary head, calls Sue Hollingworth "a charismatic lady who is a natural communicator with children". And Vivien Pike, who runs the award-winning Sheffield Girls' Choir and who taught voice for the Sheffield education authority for many years, says: "Choirs flourish where there is a person with dedication, interest and knowledge - and the ability to enthuse the singers is almost more important than any of those."
Sue Hollingworth even manages to get teenage boys to sing - she runs a 90-strong mixed choir at her sixth-form college - which is no mean feat, as is sadly demonstrated by the number of mixed schools that have all-girl choirs. "I tell the boys that there are nice girls in the choir, and that they ought to come and see. I also tell the girls to bring their boyfriends, and to bring the new one when they change. They come at first for the laugh, but they pick up that I'm very serious about what I do."
Both Martin Cook and Sue Hollingworth show what can happen when a teacher who is an effective choir director is encouraged and supported in developing choirs beyond his or her own school. In Sue's case the vehicle for doing this was the Co-op, which has a strong tradition, especially in the north, for becoming involved in educational and cultural activities. Martin Cook's choir, by contrast, which draws from a wide area of Cheshire, was developed by the Chester Music Society, with advice from the British Federation of Young Choirs and support from North West Arts.
At one time, of course, much of what is done by the BFYC and by the likes of the Chester Music Society and the Scunthorpe Co-op would have been routine work for a local authority. A good singing teacher would have been spotted by the music adviser and given the opportunity to lead authority-wide courses and singing events, perhaps as an advisory teacher.
Today's budgets, alas, make this more difficult. Former HMI Patrick Salisbury, the chair of the federation, says ruefully: "The BFYC is in the unenviable position of trying to fill in what local authorities were once doing. Our big survey of school singing showed that choral work in schools was being eroded, not least because the qualifications of teachers in primaries were not keeping up - schools were dominated by the needs of the core subjects of the national curriculum."
Hence the federation's "animateurs" - effectively, advisory singing teachers - who work in classrooms across whole regions, and such initiatives as the "Repertoire Hot Line" (if you are, say, starting a choir, or you find yourself taking a class of glowering teenagers for singing, you can phone and ask about suitable music). Coming next year will be a support pack for schools, "Everyone Has a Voice".
One place in the UK where authority support is still very much alive, though, is the Channel Islands. Guernsey Girls' Choir, another Sainsbury's semi-finalist, is one of six choirs on the island run by Christine Dawber, a voice specialist covering all the schools. "I'm backed by a good music service with a good budget," she says.
Any observer of the scene, though, while regretting that local authorities are mostly struggling to help with singing, will also rejoice in the effort and ingenuity that enthusiastic amateurs manage to dedicate to the cause. At the Choir of the Year finals weekend I spent a lot of time talking to the parents and supporters without whom none of these groups, no matter how well financed, could survive.
The Chester Music Society Junior Choir, for example, is typical in the way it demonstrates that a basic necessity for a successful youth choir is a tireless committee which will first find a talented and inspirational conductor and then make sure that he or she has nothing to do but conduct the choir and direct the music policy.
Given the right mixture of leadership and selfless backroom work, a choir eventually reaches the point where it feeds on its own success so that recruitment ceases to be a problem and is replaced by the need for a selection policy. Chester's administrator, Pat Dayananda, places great store by the choir's team-building activities "There is a residential weekend which helps new members to integrate into the team. We have a waiting list of people wanting to join now."
Given all the evidence of quality, I hesitate to inject a note of doubt. What bothers me, though, is that the excellence is all headed in the direction of conventional choral technique. Are there any young people out there who are experimenting with different ways of using the voice - in jazz, gospel music, ethnic music, improvisation? Please let me know through The TES.
* British Federation of Young Choirs, 37 Frederick Street, Loughborough LE11 3BH
* National Festival of Music for Youth, 4 Blade Mews, London SW15 2NN
* Sainsbury's Choir of the Year, 2 Portland Road, Holland Park, London W11 4LA.
(The competiton is biennial. Entry forms for the 1998 competition will be available from Autumn 1997). The last semi-final of this year's competition is today on BBC2 at 4.25pm.The finals are on BBC 2 on Sunday at 4.05pm.