Choirs: Spiritual awakenings

Gospel singing is growing in popularity. Rosie Walker visits one school where the children are hooked
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After school at St Andrews Church of England Primary in Stockwell, south London, 30 children are laughing up and down the scale. As the sun streams through the windows, the laughs get louder with every step of the scale, and no one is afraid to throw in their own choreography for extra effect.

Some of the children are as young as four, but their age doesn't stop them tackling the harmonies in Go Tell it on the Mountain, a skill that the national curriculum doesn't expect until Year 4. They do it with spirit, and by the time they get to Let it Shine, everyone is clapping along.

The gospel choir at St Andrews is so popular it's been running for four years. Choir facilitator Talibah Odonkor, a professional singer employed as a peripatetic teacher by Lambeth Music Service, describes the power of gospel as "that walking on air feeling". "In one school, I had a girl who at the start of term would barely open her mouth. By the end, she was doing scat improvisation in front of the group."

The rise in popularity of gospel music in schools is remarkable. Black History Month in schools, October, is the busiest time of year for gospel singers. But students' taste for songs with soul has grown at such a pace that eight years ago the London Community Gospel Choir established a separate educational arm, British Gospel Arts (BGA), to train gospel singers in classroom management and child protection issues.

"I was concerned that the popularity of gospel singers visiting schools to teach choirs was rising faster than the infrastructure allowed," says Andrea Encinas, arts consultant at BGA. Now there are hundreds of professional gospel singers visiting schools every week. The Singbook, compiled by the charity Youth Music as part of the new, £10m national singing programme, contains many gospel numbers and teachers say these are the ones that students choose again and again.

The benefits of singing are well known, but what is gospel's extra appeal? Choir leaders suggest that its overlap with R&B, funk and hip-hop links it to what students have on their MP3 players, and its accessibility means that even beginners can make a strong sound with rich harmonies – and move to it too.

But its inspirational qualities are what all consider the most important: it can encourage, soothe, even intoxicate. Sharon St Lucie, a teacher at Central Foundation School for Girls, organises gospel workshops for her students for the start of the GCSE exam period. Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now is a favourite, she says.

Encinas thinks gospel music and young people make a good match. "They are both vibrant, full of passion and excitement, and always examining questions about purpose, identity and relationship," she says.

But it is these questions that require teachers to tread with care. Rachel Thomas, who co-ordinates a choir linking six schools in Poplar, east London, says choosing songs is a delicate process. "We always have a lot of discussion about lyrics," she says. "We'll do ones that refer to a god, because that's fairly universal, but we avoid lyrics that refer to anything specifically Christian because we don't want anyone to feel that it's not for them."

And while no choir organiser says they have had overt complaints from parents, whether on atheist grounds or religious, the Orchard School in Lambeth was forced recently to pull out of an inter-school mass choir project at the last minute because parents felt it was a step too far for their Muslim ethos.

Pupils at this Muslim voluntary-aided school had already spent time practising for the big performance at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall when the decision was made. "It was very disappointing for the children, and for us too," says Brendan Le Page, director of Lambeth Music Service.

So are most objections theological or cultural? While very few people would believe that simply singing the words "Jesus" or "Lord" could transform anyone's world view overnight, the ardent atheist might sense danger in attaching a religious figure to the uplifting feelings that gospel arouses. Vernetta Lynch of BGA thinks these fears are unjustified, and points out that nobody has to sing lyrics they don't like. But, taking Christianity out of gospel is to deny its very essence, she says. "We can't compromise what gospel music's about. You'll find that the lyrics are about the principles of humanity: to love and respect each other, to work together, to let your light shine. There's so much music out there that praises gun crime and sex, but a lot of parents don't mind children listening to that."

Another concern for some children is the idea that gospel is associated with a specific, Afro-Caribbean culture. Rachel Thomas of the Poplar Partnership, working in an area with a large Bengali community, says children of all ethnic backgrounds opt to join the choir. But if, say, noticeably fewer Muslim children attend, it may not be because of reservations about gospel so much as a cultural perception of singing itself.

"One Bengali boy laughed when I invited him to join the choir," she says. "He said 'But Bengalis don't sing!' Of course, there are plenty who do, and who are as keen on making up dance routines in the playground as any other, but it's interesting to explore how culture affects childrens' relationship to music."

One thing on which everyone agrees is that gospel singing is powerful stuff, and as young people keep coming in ever-greater numbers, it must be connecting with them in a way other singing isn't. "It's more than just faith music," says Encinas of BGA. "It is music of resistance, music of coded messages, music of strength, music of freedom. Gospel music is life-changing music: the spirit of man responds passionately to it because God is in it.

"It is this call of spirit to spirit that is mainly responsible for its increase. As schools try to help our youth find purpose, they know instinctively that engaging them is one way forward."