Gerald Haigh explores an initiative that shows how non-specialists can make singing a fun learning tool and an integral part of the school day.
It's always irritating to hear an adult profess an inability to sing. "You haven't heard me," they cry. "I'm tone deaf!"
Every person who says this - and there are lots of them - is unwittingly telling a story of inadequate and unsympathetic teaching, of children classified as "groaners" and put to the back of the group, or told to mime, or rejected from the school choir - or all of these. The idea that singing is something that you can learn and improve on, and make progress in year by year, like numeracy or French, and that it's the school's job to tackle it, sits only shakily in our pedagogic tradition.
The starting point, however, is to always show children and their teachers that singing is something to enjoy whenever there's an opportunity and isn't necessarily confined to a formal lesson where disciplinary issues and fears intrude. Once the fun factor is established, the rest - the progression and the challenge - can follow.
That's the message that Maurice Walsh, senior vocal tutor with Manchester Music Service, has striven for some years to get across to the city's teachers. Singing together for enjoyment, he says, has a positive effect on the group, bringing in children who might otherwise feel marginalised. "It draws them together in a particular way," he says. "Other activities do that too, but singing is an instant thing that you can use every day in all sorts of situations."
It's the sheer accessibility of singing that appeals to Maurice - the fact that the children can sing at almost any moment, while they're tidying up, lining up or waiting for a lesson to start. In many cases, the singing can actually be part of the activity - he advocates singing the register, for example, and lots of his songs are about numeracy and literacy.
To support his views, Maurice and his colleagues in the music service have produced "The Singing School", a series of books with accompanying CDs, filled with jolly, highly accessible songs (mostly written by Maurice), together with some traditional ones. You get a flavour of them from a few of the titles in the Year 3 book: "Grandma Grunt", "Dad has Dropped His Fish and Chips", "Time to Tidy Up". Others are clearly tied to the curriculum: "Pairs of Numbers Totalling Ten", "The Punctuation Pyramid" ("Level 1 is just a hop. Capital letter and a big full stop. Level 2? A stroll in the park - can you make a question mark? ...").
The Year 4 book (only two books are available at the moment, but Year 5 is due to be published in September and Year 6 in September next year) has another, slightly more challenging set of songs that still emphasises enjoyment. My favourite is a three-part chant about a blue tropical monkey called Frank Sumatra ("Frank Sumatra, swinging through the trees, Frank Sumatra, scratching at his fleas").
What's striking about the scheme in action is how familiar the children are with the songs and how much they enjoy them. At Heald Place Primary School, a session with Year 4 started with "Everywhere You Go", which metamorphoses into an exaggeratedly posh-voiced version called "Everywhere One Goes".
Maurice kept the children engaged for a full hour, which was quite a challenge.
Then, at Armitage C of E Primary School, the children particularly liked "Manchester City UK!" which, as Maurice carefully explained to the children, is about the place, not the football club, and, to be on the safe side, it ends with a cry of "united".
One of the obstacles to achieving this facility with songs, as Maurice recognises, is that many teachers simply lack the confidence to lead children in singing. That's why the "The Singing School" series comes with CDs of the music, and advice for teachers to allow enthusiastic children to take the lead as "song bosses".
At St John Fisher and St Thomas More Catholic Primary School, for instance, music co-ordinator Deborah Horley makes sure there's a CD-player in each room, and she encourages all teachers to use the songs at odd moments, as well as in more sustained sessions. "They're so varied they can fit just about any subject," she says.
She's enthusiastic about the children's responses. "If you want someone to be a song boss, three quarters of the class will put their hands up. It doesn't really matter how well they sing. Nobody laughs, everyone gets the idea."
She says the cross-curricular potential is endless. "There's reading words, remembering them, talking about them, and then there are the numeracy songs about counting, for example."
Part of the children's city-wide familiarity with the songs comes from taking part in combined singing sessions, or "singarounds", with other schools in bigger venues around the city, such as the Royal Northern College of Music. "Typically, it's six schools," says Maurice. "They all learn six songs to sing together, and each brings one to sing on their own to the others. That kind of singing together and performing for others are all baptisms that serve to strengthen the faith."
The real heart of "The Singing School", though, is that children should sing at the drop of a hat, when the opportunity arises, in their classrooms. Everything else - Maurice's visits and the singarounds - are directed at encouraging that and giving non-specialists the message that if they use the CDs and song bosses, there's no need for them to sing.
The whole scheme is ingenious. It's not a choral music programme - although any children's choir could have fun with much of the repertoire - but a ready-made fund of material to enliven the school day, from registration through dinner time and to day's end ("Thank you for today, thank you for today. See you all tomorrow and thank you for today").
It's cleverly constructed to introduce musical elements progressively at appropriate moments and, crucially, it links to the work of the city's visiting instrumental teachers, who are given accompanying material with which to involve pupils. Where there is a specialist teacher, there are built-in opportunities in the songs for part-singing and reading the score.
Together with the city's acclaimed progressive music scheme, Music in the Classroom, which starts every lesson with some singing, "The Singing School" strives to maintain the reputation of Manchester as a city with a vibrant musical culture.
* For more information contact the Manchester Music Service, Zion Arts Centre, Stretford Road, Manchester, M15 5ZA.
Tel: 0161 226 4422 Email: Musicfirstname.lastname@example.org