Education: 'Singing together? It's just like playing football'

Choral classes transform primary school children, reports Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
In Birmingham, primary school children are learning a new kind of confidence that spills over into their school work, by learning to sing in a choir that performs at the city's Symphony Hall.

Singing together is just like playing football, according to Andy Gray, of Birmingham's Ex Cathedra choir. That is to say, he explains, it is a sport, demanding a great deal of physical energy and skill - and to get a good result, the team has to pull together.

The analogy works well with the 10-year-olds at Woodhouse primary school, in Birmingham, who are limbering up for their first choral session of the term with Andy Gray.

"Make sure your knees are not locked," he instructs. "Nice and relaxed - arms by your sides, weight evenly balanced. It's very important always to start from this position when we sing, OK?"

They exercise arms, necks, eyes and tongues, and practise controlling the breath - and all before they have sung a note. It is a far cry from the kind of singing lessons I remember, with listless children slumped on chairs over dog-eared song books. Soon they are working on bright vowel sounds and projecting their voices in a complicated melody, and then rolling their r's in a 16th-century Spanish song. Perhaps eight or 10 of the 60 children are struggling to pitch the notes, but overall the group's sound grows in strength and confidence as the session progresses.

"It's good doing it with Andy, because he really knows what he's doing," says Ian, aged 10, when the hour is up. "Before, I didn't even know I could sing, and I pretended to sound awful," says Helen, 10. "Now I really like singing."

Jeffrey Skidmore, director of Ex Cathedra, believes that singing is crucial. "It's the key musical activity," he says, "because everybody has a voice; there are no cultural barriers. You can sing badly, and still feel good about it."

A former head of music at a Birmingham comprehensive, he has developed Ex Cathedra's educational work because he shares widespread concern that too many of today's children are not singing in school. But he has high standards and high expectations for these children, just as for his own choir, because he believes this is the way to give them a real sense of achievement and pride in themselves.

"Singing should be fun - but it should not just be fun: there is discipline and hard work, too. Schools we have worked with in Birmingham say it has transformed not just their singing, but also their ethos; the singing gives the children a real sense of purpose. It gives them the feel-good factor, and this rubs off on other children in the school."

Caroline Clarke, music co-ordinator at Woodhouse School, which has worked with Ex Cathedra in the past, agrees that the singing projects work wonders for the children's confidence. "Ex Cathedra helps them to be true performers. They are more willing to have a go at things, and more eager to perform in all sorts of ways. I think it makes them more fulfilled."

Before their performance in Symphony Hall, the Woodhouse pupils will have three more sessions with Andy Gray, as well as twice-weekly practices with Caroline Clarke, and two full-scale rehearsals when they team up with groups from eight or nine Birmingham schools to form a a 300-strong choir, under the direction of Jeffrey Skidmore.

Since 1990, more than 5,000 children from primary and secondary schools have taken part in such projects, which are sponsored by a local engineering company. The schools are chosen in conjunction with the Birmingham Music Service, and range from the musically accomplished to the musically deprived. The repertoire, too, is wide-ranging - from Britten's Noye's Fludde, Puccini and Beethoven, to songs from around the world or from show business - and often more challenging than a competent teacher might think children capable of. "It is to do with raising the children's expectations," says Lyn Collin, Ex Cathedra's education development co-ordinator. "The tutors can focus on aspects of the discipline of singing - such as pronunciation, timing, watching the conductor, breathing correctly - all the artistic elements that really make a performance."

To have a professional singer telling them this makes all the difference, says Caroline Clarke. "The children really begin to take it in, when they realise it's not just 'Mrs Clarke going on again about word endings'."

For the Ex Cathedra members, too, there are benefits. "People say to me, it must drive you mad working with children, after your choir, at that low level," says Jeffrey Skidmore. "But the great thing about working with children is that you have to show them what the real music is. You have to understand what the heart of the music is - and that's an ingredient that is often missing from professional groups, for all their technical expertise"n

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