Gareth Malone: 'Music raises people up; they find the best of themselves by performing'

Thursday 18 September 2008 00:00

Arriving at Lancaster School in late April 2007, I met a frazzled-looking Helen Collins. As the head of music she was desperate to get the school singing but felt powerless against a tide of disinterest. So, she called me! It was a brave thing to do: asking for help and saying that you would benefit from professional advice takes confidence.

Of course, she was making it happen on a small scale: the occasional tuneful boy, a willing class and a thriving rock scene, in addition to some successful rap projects (and teaching successful music lessons for five periods a day). But to get the whole school to accept singing was a different matter. That would take more than six months and require the involvement of everybody from the dinner ladies to the head.

At times, setting up a choir can be a thankless task; it requires such energy and commitment from the students as well as the teacher. After-school rehearsals, when everyone is tired, can be a low priority. The music teacher has to be resourceful with the songs chosen or and plan the term carefully. enthusiasm will wane.

If there is more time to focus on the extra-curricular activities, then the school music can thrive. It often comes at a cost to the teacher, who is still there at midnight, lugging drum kits and amplifiers around the school hall. You can bet they'll be expected to be back in at 8am preparing another day's lessons. Music and the arts could slip down the priority list whilst the Head worries about the next Ofsted inspection. But that's skewed thinking, because it's through involvement in these extra-curricular activities that young people learn about pursuing goals and they bring that experience to the classroom. Head teachers know this... but do they know how beneficial singing can be?

People have remarked on my "extraordinary" achievements at Lancaster. We accomplished a lot but it wasn't a miracle. I was given the time and the resources within a school to concentrate on one activity. If we provided the same opportunities to our music teachers they could produce similar results.

I applaud Lancaster for its bravery in opening the doors to the scrutiny of the TV crew. It was a gamble for them and one that we all feel has paid off. The lessons they learnt about the value of a singing culture have left indelible impressions in the hearts of young men and staff alike. But more than that the school has learnt to work with other organisations.

That is the focus of the Government's Music Manifesto – creating hubs – or networks where people can share skills and inspiration. And this is what we have achieved at Lancaster. Helen is now talking several times a week with the local music service. The school is creating singing projects with local primary schools – ensuring a sustainable future for the choir. But most important of all no one is afraid to sing. That represents a sea change.

But why choirs? Getting everyone to sing sounds like a Victorian project. But that's not what music is for – music can raise people up. They find the best in themselves through performing. It's simply an offer; if they don't want to take it, I can't make them.

What are the skills you need for a choir above and beyond singing: teamwork, presentation, focus, confidence and mastering your nerves. These are traits employers are looking for in a candidate.

It's what we all need to be part of society. There is no better model for the utopian society than the choir. The conductor is (ideally) not a dictator – he or she is needed by the choir to bring them all together- it's a symbiotic relationship. Anyone can ruin the finished product by their lack of effort but it takes everyone pulling together to create something excellent. Each has their role. Each is important but no one is more important than anyone else.

The writer is conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra St Luke's Community Choir and recently appeared in the BBC2 series, The Choir

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