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“Everyone can be taught to sing” – Make The Most Of Your Primary School Choir

School choirs help children grow in stature and achieve something special as they learn to sing – even those who are told they can’t...

  • “Everyone can be taught to sing” – Make The Most Of Your Primary School Choir

You’re surrounded by darkness. Music starts to swell as you wait in anticipation. Countless torches flicker into existence like fireflies in a summer’s night. You feel the tension, the energy, the excitement.

As the house lights come back up, a wave of voices fills the air; a colossal chorus in harmony, thousands of young souls together for the same reason. The pure joy of singing.

These were the opening scenes at last year’s Young Voices concert, where school choirs from across the country came together to perform simultaneously in numbers ranging from 4500 to 8500 children, on grand stages such as the Manchester Arena and London’s O2, to capacity audiences of friends and family. It’s a powerful experience for all involved.

But what makes this many people come from miles around to sing together? Surely that many children can’t be dragged there against their will by teachers…?

Heart and soul

You only need to look at the videos on the Young Voices website to see that’s not the case – the kids are putting heart, soul, lungs, vocal chords and everything else into it.

But why not just stay at school and perform there? Mums and dads can pick out their little darlings much easier on a smaller stage, and everyone can be home in time for dinner. Better yet, let the ‘talented’ children sing alone. Those who are embarrassed, or feel like they can’t sing, can just do what the rest of us do – refrain from singing altogether. After all, your teacher told you couldn’t sing, so you simply avoided it your whole life, sitting quietly at karaokes, too afraid to unleash your drunken renditions of Blondie.

“I hear really sad stories, particularly from adults, of people who were told they cannot sing,” says Katie Usher, of St Peter’s Primary School in Coggeshall, Essex. “I don’t believe that’s true. I believe that everyone can sing, and that everyone can be taught to sing. Whenever I ask someone why they think they can’t sing, it’s almost always because they were told they couldn’t when they were young.”

All together now

Katie teaches Y5 and Y6, in addition to teaching music across the school, and took her school choir to a Young Voices concert for the first time last year. You might think a school trip for 45 primary school children with a 10.30am start and 9.30pm finish (they didn’t arrive back at the school until nearly midnight) would be a test of patience and endurance on teachers and children alike – but then you would be underestimating the power of communal singing.

“It was absolutely amazing,” says Katie. “Just the volume of sound was astonishing. When the lights went off at the beginning and they all turned on the torches they were given, that sense of awe and wonder, and the shared experience of singing with thousands of other people – it was truly something special. I got numerous cards from the children saying it had been the most amazing experience.”

A few days later, the choir sang in assembly at the request of the head, prompting many other children to ask if they could join. “Showing what they can do is a real benefit for them,” says Katie. “Children often surprise you, and it can be children from all ends of the academic spectrum who shine at singing.

“It goes back to that shared experience, being part of something. Children who might be too scared to sing on their own can find their voice, confidence and self esteem with others. I’ve got children with quite severe special needs who come along, and what’s pleasing is that they’re able to concentrate for an extended period of time, which they might struggle to do in class.”

Perfect harmony

How else do the benefits of communal singing extend beyond the practice hall? Well, you’re no doubt familiar with the benefits of using a song to create a hook for memorising facts – whether it be singing out your times tables or a story from history.

“I was once told by somebody that they used to teach French phrases to the tune of ‘Club Tropicana’ by Wham,” says Baz Chapman, General Manager of the National Teachers’ Choir. “But there are also many health benefits. Singing helps with the heart rate and is very good for breathing. It also releases oxytocin, which helps give the body an energised feeling. Doing a singing exercise at the beginning of the lesson, for example, can really help kids to focus, get their brains in the right space and get them in a positive atmosphere.”

On top of confidence, camaraderie and concentration, communal singing helps children gain an understanding of music (not just singing), teamwork and the value of different abilities. The Voices Foundation, for example, is an organisation that aims to give all young people up to the age of 11 the skills and understanding to make music.

“We’re very focused on exploring music as a language with children,” says Chief Executive, Rebecca Walsh. “Whether it’s reading language, speaking it, hearing it, understanding it, we’re trying to get away from being stuck with just notation – but of course, we’re making sure they have that set of skills too.”

The Voices Foundation works with primary schools by training staff to deliver the very basics of a music education through singing. While being a good leader for your choir takes knowledge, passion and a desire to improve, the benefits of starting a school choir – or developing the one you have – can be huge for all involved.

“What’s great about choral work is the way you can bring together a set of children who have all got different levels of skill and different areas of skill and create something amazing together,” says Rebecca. “It’s really about collective, non-competitive activity. And the power of music in terms of the aesthetic beauty, praising something that’s good for other people to enjoy – that’s brilliant.”

What makes a good choir?

Baz Chapman of the National Teachers’ Choir offers some advice on starting or improving your own choir, and where to go for help

  • Confident leadership
    People who know how to lead choirs and are reasonably assured standing in front of a group of kids and knowing how to get the best out of them.
  • The right repertoire
    There is a lot of repertoire out there. People sometimes choose a popular repertoire, but it’s more important to find some repertoire that’s been carefully matched to children’s voices at various ages. Thankfully, you don’t need to look far.
  • High expectations
    Choirs can become great through enthusiastic leaders developing themselves to develop the children.
  • Singing culture
    There needs to be a culture that supports singing as part of the everyday life of the school and part of the curriculum – particularly with support from heads and governors.Check out Sing for Pleasure (singforpleasure.org.uk) which provides outstanding-quality vocal leadership training, resources and songs.

Also look into Sing Up (singup.org), the national singing programme for primary schools, which has an awesome range of repertoire and is a really good hub for all things singing in primary.

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