And Just Keep Going!
I am hoping that the phrase “world class” is not losing its meaning through over use, because it’s the one that comes to mind as I write about the outstanding work of Dr Anthony Young and his team at St Laurence College, Brisbane. St Laurence is a large catholic boys’ school and I first met Anthony Young in 2011 on a visit there during my visiting professorial scholarship to the University of Queensland. I was later honoured to be asked to be one of the examiners for his PhD, which is about how boys learn music through singing in the first year of secondary school, and what they think about the process. Well, we’ve just been back to Australia on a month’s holiday, and I was more than delighted to accept the invitation to visit the school again and deliver a lecture on boys’ vocal identity to what turned out to be quite an august gathering.
As part of my preparation I re-read Anthony’s work and arrived at the school with a list of things described in the thesis that I wanted to see happening in classes. I was not in any way disappointed! All my questions were answered, but more than that I was completely knocked back by the standards of musicianship and musical learning being achieved in the school. The boys’ confidence with their voices was also an object lesson for anybody who worries about potential difficulties brought about by voice change. Edwin Gordon, writing about the development of music aptitude, said somewhat discouragingly “After a boy’s voice changes, the physical aspect of the problem becomes almost insurmountable.” I have searched over the years for evidence in support of or against this pessimistic assessment. In Young’s classes, I found much evidence against it. The work at St Laurence’s shows what can happen if the Kodaly approach is begun with eleven-year-olds and continued throughout the secondary years.
I observed classes in Y6, Y8, Y9 and Y10 (equivalent to Y7, 9, 10 and 11 in UK) and it’s from that series of observations that I’ve derived this blog title – “and just keep going”. Elsewhere on this site, you’ll find a film called “Just get on with it”. The film shows how a teacher in England at a school where the music is very good has no qualms about getting his Y7s singing straightaway. This is in marked contrast to the rather depressing reading in Chapter 8 of Singing in the Lower Secondary School which describes the endless procrastination of teachers whose barely concealed singing anxiety results in any amount of talking and worksheets to avoid actually singing. “Just get on with it” – simple but far-reaching advice adopted by amongst others, the Voices Foundation.
So why add “and just keep going”? The graph is from Singing in the Lower Secondary School and it shows a common phenomenon in English schools, even those where the music is good and singing strong. They get on with it in Y7, but as Y9 approaches there is progressively less and less class singing until it perhaps disappears altogether by Y10 (if any students elect for music, that is). Not so at St Laurence! Full steam ahead right through to Y11 – in fact, the singing just gets stronger and stronger. The resultant understanding of tonality and harmonic structure shown by fifteen-year- olds was at a very high level. I don’t know how many of the PGCE music students I’ve lectured over the years would be able to match it – it never occurred me to ask since I’ve never seen an English music class working at anything near the same level. As one would expect with Kodaly, audiation and practical understanding precedes theory and naming. The Y10 boys were given a note, asked to sing a minor second above it, then invert that interval and sing the resultant note. Not a problem! What would some choir directors give for pitching skills of that level in their adult singers?
One thing I’d never seen before that impressed – a melody was played (Blown’ in the Wind) and the boys harmonised it in their heads as it was played, indicating the bass notes they’ve chosen by hand signs. Noted!
Kodaly works so well and can result in very high levels of musicianship if carried right through to Y10, but what of the thorny issue of voice change? In the Y8 class there was, as one might expect, a complete assortment of every stage of voice. All the tasks were carefully pitched (commonly in the key of D). Some boys quite happily participated in the treble octave (some rather nice treble tone from one or two), others in the tenor octave. Those pitching in the tenor octave included a few baritone voices, but a majority of cambiati, the awkward stage 3 voice. Nobody seemed to have a problem and all voices were accepted. Elsewhere, the Y9s were singing Early One Morning. The teacher asked how it could be made more interesting and one student volunteered “we could sing the maiden’s words in head voice”. All went up an octave into their treble falsetto as though it were the most natural thing in the world! If there is a lesson to learn here (and I think there is) it is that we must not over-problematise voice change. Provided there is a strong culture of singing that plays a fundamental role in what students perceive as worthwhile learning, and provided tasks are pitched in the zone that can be reached by all voices whether up or down an octave, there isn’t really a problem. For those who worry about what’s “cool” to use as repertoire for the general music class, I heard the following during my day in classes: Ode to Joy (Beethoven), Passion Chorale (Bach), Blown’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan), Early One Morning (trad English), Pachelbel’s Canon, two pop songs I didn’t know, Some Aussie folksongs unknown to poms, Merrily, merrily sing (canon), several singing and dancing games with much action. All sung without question.
There is a problem, however, with how the excellent practice of St Laurence might be spread. Aside from being an issue of leadership, it’s a fundamental issue of teacher training – both initial and in-service. A conversation with the music staff over lunch time appeared to suggest that teacher training in Australia is where it was in England thirty years ago. All university based, little practical work in schools and the possibility of two or three years’ study before you even meet a child and discover that teaching isn’t for you. The highly skilled staff I observed at work had learned their craft on the job at St Laurence and through in-service attendance at courses run by the Australian Kodaly Association. My thinking went along these lines. There are schools in England – not many, but some, where music graduates are trained in an environment where they “just get on with it” (learning music through singing, that is) even if they don’t all “just keep going” through to Y11. In those schools, there will be boys and girls who will be inspired to become the next generation of young music graduates wanting to teach. I can’t say that I am shedding too many tears for the demise of university-based training in one sense, though in another school-based training will only increase the patchiness of the post-code lottery of secondary music education. There is most certainly a really important role for those organisations such as ABCD, Voices Foundation and BKA that are providing in-service training. How do we get that message out there?
Finally, I do have to confess that my visit to St Laurence left me wondering quite what society might do with an influx of young men who are musically highly literate, possess advanced musicianship skills and high levels of musical knowledge equal in intellectual demand to any “proper” subject. I suppose that’s rather a good problem to have.
Harrison, S., & Young, A. 2017. Choral Pedagogy and the Construction of Identity: Boys. In Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy (pp. 149–166).
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