Praise of songs

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Sarah Farley finds that teachers can use techniques learned from experienced musicians in classes and school choirs

Here is an exercise for the mouth. Say: "The lips the teeth the tip of the tongue." Now say it quickly, three times, speaking clearly but quietly. Say it twice again, once on an in-breath going up, then on an out-breath going down.

Now, with your mouth warmed up, you are ready to start your singing lesson.

This technique is used by Mervyn Cousins, out-reach worker and former director of music at Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral, to begin his weekly lesson with the choir at St Matthew's Catholic Primary School, Liverpool (pictured above). It is one of the tips that Mervyn has passed on to Joanne Lewis, the teacher responsible for the choir, who attends his class and uses what she learns from him in her own work with the group.

"We are very proud of our children's singing," says headteacher Veronica McDonnell. "Since Mervyn started visiting us six years ago, the choir has improved immensely. The quality of sound is noticeably better and we have been asked to sing at church events, weddings and also for the DVD made for Liverpool's bid for European Capital of Culture."

Mervyn Cousins's connection with the school is part of a national programme which sends musical directors into schools to encourage singing and advise teachers. It has a parallel agenda, which seeks to boost the number of potential choristers in cathedrals around the country. The scheme, set up by the Choir Schools Association, is working. In 1996, there were 18 auditions for six places at Liverpool's Catholic cathedral; this year there were 49.

Mervyn Cousins says: "It is very much a two-way process. The cathedrals are able to tap into a reserve of possible choristers that might otherwise be hidden but because the children then often leave to go to choir schools, the schools need to be compensated.

"I see a huge amount of latent talent among teachers that is not being used, either through lack of confidence or because they do not have the experience to know how best to use their time. So as well as taking classes and the choir, I have also run a workshop for all the staff." Based on a Year 2 class, the staff's session caused much hilarity as teachers who considered themselves to be tone deaf and without any sense of rhythm gamely tried their best and were surprised by the results.

Playing Chinese clapping - using the principle of Chinese whispers but copying the previous person's clapping pattern - teaches a basic but valuable lesson in rhythm. If someone gets the sequence wrong, the next person has to either copy the wrong pattern or replace it with the original rhythm.

Not all choir schools are participating in the scheme, but it is proving popular with those that are. Offered free, the scheme is now backed by a pound;50,000 grant from the Government and some local education authorities have linked up to make it more widely available. Schools vary in how they use the resource, with some asking for weekly sessions and others requesting one-off workshops or help with a concert or production.

It is a flexible scheme so that schools and musical directors can arrange what suits individual situations best.

The Choir Schools Association is keen to promote becoming a chorister and is concerned by the false image inner-city children might have of choirboys being sissy. It is delighted by St Matthew's, where singing is definitely seen as cool to the extent that 90 children auditioned for 50 choir places.

A second choir is to be started to encourage the remaining 40 children.

Similar problems are besetting the Metropolitan Cathedral, where many boys with good voices narrowly missed being accepted as choristers. Here a junior choir has been set up for boys from any school in Liverpool to come and sing once a week.

But not for girls. "Some cathedrals do have girl choristers but we do not have a choir for girls yet. We do intend to have one in the future," says Mervyn Cousins. Meanwhile he tries hard to recompense the enthusiastic girls and has put some in touch with the Philharmonic Choir in Liverpool.

Singing emanates from rooms all over St Matthew's, from tiny reception voices to tribal chants. Sometimes it is in other languages; the child picked for pupil of the day is serenaded with "L'enfant du jour" and Latin hymns can also be heard.

A final word of advice from Mervyn Cousins: raise your eyebrows while singing. "Not only does it help you produce a better note, but it makes you look more wide-awake." The children and teachers all look slightly astonished for a while, but their rendition of "When I'm Sixty-Four" definitely takes on a better tone.

Further information from Information Officer, Choir Schools Association, Windrush, Church Road, Market Weston, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2NXTel: 01359 221333Email: info@choirschools.org www.choirschools.org.uk

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