Oh, for the full voice of children

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
The Music Manifesto is tuning up nicely - and looks set to restore the joy of singing to primary schools

On October 18, BBC Radio 4's Today programme gave us a real treat. The children of St John Fisher and St Thomas More primary, a Manchester school, sang to us to introduce an item on the need for more singing in schools.

Sure enough, right on cue, and in perfect illustration of why singing is good for the soul, the programme's website later carried a message from one Marc Davies, who complained about the inclusion of such a lightweight item, in view of the "state of the nationglobal tensioneconomics etc". In fact, Mr Davies was so annoyed by the sound of children's voices that he intended to stop listening to Today for the rest of the week. Did I mention, by the way, that the song the children sang was called "When you're feeling grumpy"?

The news item was covering the launch of the second report of the government-sponsored Music Manifesto. This report is a weighty tome, and the call for more singing, especially in primary schools, is just one of its recommendations. For my money, though, it's probably the most important.

It's not so long ago - and certainly within the experience of most adults - that singing was at the heart of primary school life. You sang in class at the drop of a hat, especially in the infants, and you sang in assembly and in music lessons. The chances are, you also had a hymn practice led by the head which served three purposes (at least in my experience): it taught children new songs to sing in assembly; gave teachers some non-contact time; and was a bit of an ego-trip for the head. Now, in many schools, all that has gone. There is hardly time for assembly, let alone hymn practice.

Music, along with other arts subjects, has been put into an all-purpose creative slot. That's not just a shame, but a tragedy.

It's not difficult to make out a utilitarian case for singing as an aid to other kinds of learning. Robin Dunbar at Liverpool university is just one researcher who believes music, especially singing, is inextricably linked to the development of language and literacy.

Really, though, you feel that you shouldn't have to fall back on that lame "helps with their reading" argument. Children singing together have a nobility and emotional presence that is inexpressibly moving and is sufficient unto itself. On that Today programme item, Marc Jaffrey, champion of the Music Manifesto, spoke passionately on this theme.

"It brings real quality experiences to children, helping them to be confident, to work together," he said. "Singing is a real elemental power in our culture and we want to see singing it back in every primary school."

But let's keep some balance, because many of you are now protesting that in your neck of the woods at least, singing is alive and well. And that's true. Those children on the radio, participants in a lively local authority music service project called Manchester Singing School, bear witness to it. And in the Schools Proms next month, on three nights (November 14-16) a different massed choir of 500 primary pupils will perform, representing schools in Northamptonshire, Richmond and Bristol.

Since the massed choirs were introduced to the Schools Proms, 11 have taken part, putting some 5,500 primary children from different parts of the country on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, in addition to the other prom participants.

Richmond's choir is under the wing of Sheila Johnson, primary consultant with Richmond Music Trust. She works with a curriculum leader for singing and four other singing teachers. Together they run projects, workshops, concerts and a showcase singing festival which together involve nearly all the primaries in the borough.

Ms Johnson believes fervently in the inclusive approach and is conscious of the fact that many adults have been discouraged from singing. "I do some work with undergraduates," she says. "I always ask how many of them have been told at some point that they can't sing. The hands go up and it horrifies me, and people are still being told that."

When she introduces singing with students, there is always tension. "Once you break that down, you can get them singing," she says. "It should be very natural. It's not something you can or can't do."

(You can't help but conclude that some of the musicians, teachers and academics now regretting the decline of singing were of the generation that made singing seem hard, something you could only do if you passed an audition. Just a thought.) This half-term I'm doing something for school singing (and in truth, for myself) by teaching songs to a Year 5 class in Coventry. It is a rare privilege. You have to be very impervious to the power of the emotions if you can face a class of children singing - really singing with heart and commitment - and not be moved. It's not a matter of sentimentality; it's about being in the presence of something potentially transforming and empowering, Ms Johnson says.

"I watched a little boy in our choir last week," she recalls. "He was transfixed. You can't tick a box, you can't quantify it, but you know something happens. It's 'enriching' - that's the word."

Music Manifesto:www.musicmanifesto.co.ukwww.richmondmusictrust.org.ukFor details of the Schools Proms see: www.mfy.org.ukBritish Federation of Young Choirs (for advice, courses, and information about singing events, see www.youngchoirs.net

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