Musical youth: How can we get boys singing?

Exclusive new research suggests that many schoolboys never do any singing – even at home – because of peer pressure. But a Government campaign aims to change that.

By James Morrison
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:53

It's the end of morning break in a south London primary school, and a group of eight to 11-year-olds is trooping into the hall for choir practice. To see the lines of concentration on their faces – boy and girl alike – as they break into the chorus of Labi Siffre's "Something Inside So Strong", it's hard to believe there could ever be a problem getting children to sing.

But the example of Lambeth's Kingswood Primary School belies a reality music teachers and choirmasters have been battling to change for years: that fewer and fewer boys are willing to sing, and even those who start out keen have a tendency to stop when they reach puberty.

The perception that male participation in choirs and concerts has tailed off more than that of girls was for a long time largely anecdotal. But thanks to recent research we now know it to be true. Figures released exclusively to The Independent by Sing Up – the £40m campaign launched nearly a year ago by the Government's singing tsar, Howard Goodall, to make singing integral to every primary school curriculum by 2011 – reveal more than one in 10 boys still don't sing at all, compared to just two per cent of girls.

While nearly half the girls surveyed for the campaign say they sing regularly in the school playground, this applies to barely a fifth of boys. The only time most boys admit to singing at school is in assembly, when it is all but compulsory, and even then fewer than half do so. Even in the privacy of their homes, where three-quarters of girls break into song, 48 per cent of boys claim they never sing a note.

Sing Up's findings strike a familiar chord. Last autumn, Dr Martin Ashley, professor of education at Edge Hill University, published a study based on interviews with 400 boys aged eight to 14, in which the majority confessed they were afraid to continue singing into secondary school because of concerns about seeming effeminate.

Coining the term "melancholic boys" to describe those silenced by the fear of "homophobic bullying", Ashley also criticised TV talent show The X Factor for fostering a climate in which aspiring singers were subjected to public humiliation. In a separate study, he found that many schoolboys associated the term "boys" with adult boy bands like Westlife, and were worried their own voices sounded girlish.

So what can be done to dispel these fears? Ashley identifies two influences capable of transforming boys' attitudes: enthusiastic teaching, and suitable male role models. But far from advocating schools put up posters of teen pop stars or cherubic chart-toppers The Choir Boys, he says for most schoolboys the best examples are other boys like them.

"If you want 13-year-olds to sing they've got to see 16-year-olds singing," he says. "One idea is using 'singing leaders' – secondary school pupils who visit primary schools to demonstrate the benefits of singing."

He cites the good practice of the government-backed Choir Schools Scholarship Scheme, set up in 1991 to provide financial support for children from poorer households to attend one of Britain's 36 independent choir schools, which sends choristers into primary schools on recruiting missions. Similarly, specialist performing arts schools are increasingly undertaking singing outreach work with feeder primaries.

Dr Ashley's conviction that peer pressure can be countered by peer example and leadership is shared by Gareth Malone, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra St Luke's Youth Choir. Malone is best known for BBC2's The Choir: Boys Don't Sing – in which he was seen begging, cajoling, and ultimately inspiring 90 pupils from an all-boy Leicester comprehensive with varying vocal abilities to perform at the 2007 Music for Youth Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall.

"Having been to a boys' school myself, I understood the problems there, but actually when boys are all together there isn't the awkwardness of being around girls, which is an issue in mixed schools," he says. "There are real gender issues around that difficult age when change is looming. You don't want to be perceived as unmanly."

Malone, who recently completed a residency for the Barbican's arts outreach team at Oaklands School in Bethnal Green, where he spent two testing weeks coaxing high notes out of truculent 12-year-olds, adds: "Getting children engaged in singing, and keeping them engaged as they get older, depends on who the inspirational figure is. If you've got a music teacher who likes singing it makes a huge difference."

Professor Graham Welch, chair of music education at the University of London's Institute of Education, is the man charged with assessing whether Sing Up is succeeding in introducing a choral culture into schools where previous attempts have fallen on deaf ears.

He created a "baseline" against which to measure the programme's success by visiting participating schools before its launch, and in doing so found that in schools where singing was heavily encouraged boys were usually as involved in choirs – right up to their final years – as girls: "Our hypothesis is that where singing is promoted, boys are singing, and singing well. We don't expect any gender difference."

Similar findings were published in 2006 by Keele University academics Geraldine Leighton and Alexandra Lamont, who concluded that, while girls often sing more accurately than boys by the ages of eight or nine, boys who overcome their inhibitions and continue singing after their voices "break" can emerge the strongest singers in their peer group.

One school that has inculcated the idea that singing is acceptable for both sexes is Kingswood, where 13 members of the 28-strong choir are boys. Six years ago, it was in special measures following a withering Ofsted report. According to the current head Craig Tunstall, who joined around that time, it was like a war zone, with "children ripping things off the walls, extreme violence, the emergency services being called". Its last inspection, in 2006, rated its behaviour "outstanding", and it seems a model of calm as the hall trills to the sound of choir practice on my visit.

The school is a big supporter of Sing Up, but its musical revolution was well under way before last autumn – thanks largely to Tunstall, an accomplished clarinettist. He says: "Sing Up has added to what we were doing already. Singing is a core part of our curriculum, with huge benefits: 85 per cent of our pupils are non-white, and 36 languages are spoken other than English. Singing helps us teach vocabulary and sentence structure, and I believe it's contributed directly to our SAT results. We were fifth in the country last year for value added."

Having Tunstall as a role model seems to have made singing among Kingswood boys the norm. Louis Bristow, 11, insists: "It's fun. I've never felt embarrassed, apart from the first time I sang in a church concert. I was shy to start with, but then I realised my friends were around me."

Devon Morrison, also 11, who like Louis now has long-term musical ambitions, concedes part of the attraction is the chance to show off: "I like singing in front of parents, so they know I'm a good singer."

Addressing the role model issue – and the wider one of instilling in teachers the confidence to demonstrate singing – is one of Sing Up's prime purposes. But, as its first year draws to a close, is there any evidence it is making a real impact – given that, at showpiece schools like Kingswood, a singing culture was embedded beforehand?

According to Howard Goodall, Olivier Award-winning musical maestro and composer of theme tunes for TV programmes from Blackadder to The Catherine Tate Show, the early signs are impressive. It already has 10,500 primary schools on its books, supported by regular regional training sessions for teachers and parents, and a deluge of literature and online teaching resources – including a bank of 100 songs, from nursery rhymes and African folk tunes to Beatles anthems.

Though Welch has yet to crunch the numbers, Goodall, wearing his grandiose title "National Singing Ambassador", insists: "Where schools were doing well before they have more support and resources. Where they were failing or struggling we are already making a big difference."

For now we'll have to take his word for it. Meanwhile, Ashley is collaborating with the National Youth Choir on a new £180,000 project to challenge hardened resistance to choral singing, which he blames on a perception that songs typically sung in schools are "posh" or "religious".

"We want to educate boys about why the classical repertoire is sung in the higher register, and that this is acceptable for boys. It isn't only choirboys who do it, but stars like Mika and Justin Timberlake."

Ashley wants schools to promote "real" singing, not dodge the issue by falling back on gimmicks like rap: "We're providing teaching materials to explain what happens to boys' voices in puberty, and finding repertoire that uses those voices well, but isn't posh or religious.

"We also want to promote singing as something you do with your mates – just as, when boys scream at football matches, they enter the falsetto register."

So what do girls think of all this fuss? Over to Kingswood pupil Kalysha Stapleton, eight: "If joining the choir gets boys off football and fighting and into singing, that's a good thing."

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