MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 9, MARCH 2001  
Online Journal

WHERE HAVE ALL THE SINGERS GONE?

John Woodford questions why singing is not used more as a convenient method of making music in our classrooms.

“The characteristics of a good musician are a well-trained ear, a well-trained intelligence, a well-trained heart and a well-trained hand. All four parts must develop together in constant equilibrium.” Zoltan Kodály


When Zoltan Kodály came to Britain he was so transfixed by the standard of our amateur choral societies that, on his return to his native country, he set about adapting Mrs Curwen’s tonic sol-fa system into one that was to completely revolutionise Hungarian music education. From kindergarten level, every child was introduced to rhythm and pitch notation to the extent that by the age of seven, most were conversant with a language that children in today’s British schools never achieve. And the most natural method of introducing this was through singing, something that seems to be dying out in today’s classrooms in favour of more immediate means of making music.

We can understand how and why the rot has set in; in primary schools, most children are enthusiastic singers and the delight they show in performing selections from, for example, The Lion King, must be evident to proud parents up and down the country. However, singing often has to be approached as a whole-school activity – there are rarely enough teachers, let alone music specialists, in our primary schools. But there remain too many instances where teachers are themselves so embarrassed to sing that they cannot face working with a class of infants, let alone junior or secondary school children. There seems also to be a stigma attached to singing that is not only unnecessary, but which is also counterproductive to the children’s development as a whole: I have come across too many instances where boys will not join a school choir since it is deemed sissy and brings forward questions regarding sexual orientation that might live with a child for the rest of his schooldays.

Things should be better in high schools, but, despite musically-literate staff providing each class with specialist training, few use singing as a basis for composition – or performance-based activities. Go into ten secondary school classrooms and I’ll bet that in eight the children have hardly ever opened their mouths other than to harangue some poor music teacher. Instead, they are provided with a laboratory of keyboards, usually of the single-finger-chord variety, which teach the children neither to be musically literate, nor to understand the basic elements of music.

But what can be done? As things stand, very little, since singing needs to be ingrained into children from an early age, and by ‘singing’ I don’t mean some rather half-hearted attempt to bawl out The Colours of Day in a school assembly, but a formally-devised system, such as Kodály, that teaches the children notation, pitch differentiation and a few social skills to boot. It won’t, as some might think, be boring since it can be an exciting process of discovery and will perhaps even help shape our country’s musical future. So rather than only paying lip-service to the National Curriculum, let us instead embrace it through the voice, retrain our teachers to fulfil their children’s potential…and above all, burn the keyboards and reintroduce them to the delights of being able to sing.


John Woodford  


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