Secondary music - Singing the same tune

28th November 2008 at 00:00
`It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it', as music teacher Cathy Scott discovered on an eye-opening trip to a Chinese school

Sixty pupils per class, arranged in pairs in rows, and the teacher on a dais, using a microphone to talk to them. That's what I found on a trip with other Warwickshire teachers to Shenzhen in southern China, funded by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and the British Council.

I was based in Haibin Middle School, a "medium-sized" school with about 1,700 pupils aged 12 to 17. Rote learning and repetition featured heavily.

You might think that sounds horrific and it was certainly far from the co- operative, informal atmosphere that prevails in my classes in England. And yet there were some aspects of the teaching that I envied. Despite the scale of things, I found that pupils and teachers seemed to share a warm and relaxed relationship, without the discipline problems and fear of physical contact that we seem to have here.

In China, music is piped throughout the school at intervals throughout the day, as the accompaniment to regular bouts of exercise. First there are the 10-minute morning exercises, performed by every pupil and carefully co-ordinated with music (but loathed by all the pupils I met.) After that, each 40-minute lesson is followed by a 10-minute break, when pupils can either stretch their legs outside the classroom or do "eye exercises".

Haibin School is considered lucky in its arts provision. It has an art gallery and a well-known head of art, a dedicated dance teacher and six music staff, including a band teacher and a Beijing Opera teacher. The Beijing Opera teacher is an ex-performer and runs an extra-curricular opera group that has been successful at competitions in China.

Music lessons have textbooks and CDs that are standard across China. Having recently completed a new key stage 3 scheme of work to comply with the new national curriculum, a set of textbooks that you could just work through struck us as a lovely, easy way of doing things.

But our Chinese colleagues were sometimes frustrated at not being able to introduce as many of their own ideas about music as they would like, although they did supplement the prescribed syllabus with presentations about their own areas of interest.

Just like us, they complained that all the pupils wanted to work on was singing pop music. There was a surprising amount of Western music in the textbooks, ranging from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" all the way to "Doe, a Deer" from the Sound of Music, complete with a photo of Julie Andrews, as well as a great deal of Chinese traditional folk songs.

Class singing was about the only practical work involved in the music lessons. I took a lesson with one Year 8 class, using some songs from the Sing Up resources (

Although some of pupils struggled with the English words, they were still eager to sing, something I envied greatly compared with my experience in many UK secondary schools.

Each day after the lunch break, all pupils sing as a class for 10 minutes before afternoon school begins.

Pupils can also learn to play concert band instruments as a class, practise playing traditional Chinese instruments, to take part in learning Beijing Opera and to sing in a choir - but there were no individual instrumental lessons in the school. Many pupils played Western instruments - the violin and piano seemed very popular - but studied them privately.

Following our visit, we are planning to introduce a unit of work for 11 to 14-year-olds on Chinese music, using some of the materials we acquired in China and looking at the cultural use of music (traditional songs, Beijing Opera, fusion pop) and how it is used in school (lesson change, exercises, rest times). Then we shall look at and listen to traditional Chinese instruments and work on Chinese folk songs as performance work.

We hope to video the results and send them via email to Haibin School, so that pupils can watch (and comment on) the performances in their music lessons.

There is also the possibility of setting up a video link via the Warwickshire Learning Platform. Just one snag: the seven to eight-hour time difference might make it a bit tricky

Cathy Scott is assistant director of music at Aylesford School, a specialist language and music college. For more details of the visit, see

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