Back to Basics
That hackneyed cliche “back to basics’ has long been a phrase beloved of politicians with little real knowledge of schooling or education. Though I learned long ago to suppress the inward groan for the sake of my own sanity, I find that I am this month using the phrase myself! I am not, though, referring to the supposed need to teach multiplication tables and spelling (as though schools didn’t) but to teach skills that I think vital but which politicians have all but eradicated from the curriculum. Earlier this week, I found myself in charge of thirty or so Y8 boys in a city comprehensive school. The occasion afforded me none of the professorial deference I have enjoyed in recent years. These were boys, red in tooth and claw, who had never sung before, had no particular desire to do so and who saw me as nothing other than another teacher. The task was to teach them a part from one of the OUP Emerging Voices books. It was clear that the major effort in the lesson was going to be maintaining order and making it explicitly clear that my expectations were that they would sing when I invited them to and remain silent and attentive the rest of the time! I began to worry about the amount of time I was spending on absolute basics of behaviour such as these, as opposed to correcting the pitch of intervals or feeling where the stress came with the anacrusis. This was, in fact, a sectional rehearsal and two other groups were rehearsing elsewhere. The ultimate humiliation would be if we all came together and the boys who had been with me didn’t know the notes!
I must have spent at least 75% of the time on the absolute basics of how to behave when you are learning a choral part, but when we all came together, I began to feel a warm glow. They knew the notes, they watched, they stood up and sat down attentively at my bidding and they actually sang the part quite tunefully and rhythmically. And they all sang! My point seem to be proved – the notes were the easy bit. The hard bit was the attention, concentration and focus. That had been achieved, so the notes then flowed.
Then all the Y8 girls were brought in as an audience. High risk strategy to put it mildly! This time, my boys’ first note was a disaster. I stopped them and accused them of something like cowardice just because there were girls listening (which they denied, of course!). I warmed to the theme and gave a passionate speech to the entire Y8 that they may not all want to be choral singers, but, picture this! Imagine two young people attending for interview at a prestigious medical school. Both have four top grade science A levels. One is from a “posh, private school”, the other from “your school”. “Who will get the place?” I asked them. “The kid from the posh private school” they chorussed in response. Did they know why? I gave them (rising in passion) an explanation something along the lines of I visit lots of different kinds of schools and when I go to “posh, private ones” it’s no big deal to find many of the pupils singing well in all sorts of choirs – which is one of the things that gives them the social confidence to shine at medical school interview. We tried again. This time, the first note was perfect. On time, in tune, all together, nice tone, confident, = they’d even taken a deep breath on the upbeat. Was I conducting choristers here?
So – whoever wins the forthcoming election, my message to politicians is this. If you wish to meddle in education, try introducing the “basics” that are learned through the discipline of choral singing. That way you might give young people something really worthwhile in their lives and promote equality of opportunity and social mobility (rather more effectively than you’d do by bringing back grammar schools).
And, finally, what’s with the painting of the midshipman? Well – a little diversion in that they were learning Andy Brooke’s arrangement of the shanty Haul Away Joe. I explained that boys their age or not much older would have started as midshipmen and a young midshipman might have had to control fifty big, tough hairy sailors through a shanty with a voice in the high cambiata range! Interesting – not one complaint fielded by any of the teachers that “this music isn’t cool”. Read pp134 and 158 onwards in Singing in the Lower Secondary School. What counts for most is not the repertoire, but the relationship and relationships are built upon the basics of discipline and high expectations.
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