Rhinegold Photo credit: Michaela Greene

Michelle James

A school for singing

8:00, 5th March 2018

Sing Up is an organisation that believes passionately in the creative and transformative possibilities singing can bring at any stage in life. In the following pages, we explore why singing is such a rewarding and beneficial activity. Here, chief executive Michelle James introduces the concept of the ‘singing school’, explaining the work that Sing Up is encouraging at the earliest stages of our children’s education

Sing Up is an award-winning organisation which provides songs, teaching resources and training for schools. It was created with the use of government funding in 2007 to support singing in English primary schools. Since 2012 we have been operating as a stand-alone organisation, funded entirely through earned income generated through schools subscribing to an annual membership package. As well as continuing to work with primary schools, Sing Up now also works in secondary schools and internationally. Last year, to mark our tenth birthday, we launched the Sing Up Foundation, a charity which will focus on how singing can help children with special educational needs and disabilities, teenagers with mental health problems, and those with dementia, as well as to improve the lung health of older people.

Singing does ‘something unique to our bodies and minds’, says Michelle James
Singing does ‘something unique to our bodies and minds’, says Michelle James

The UK has a strong history of music education and choral singing rooted in, among other things, its tradition of cathedral choirs. Additionally, until the 1990s there was a strong tradition of a daily assembly where the whole school would come together for a moment of collective worship, during which hymns would be sung. As society in the UK has changed over the past 30 years, aside from in church schools, it became less common for schools to sing regularly as part of collective worship. An unintended consequence of this was that singing began to disappear from some schools altogether.

In 2007 the government announced that there would be funding for a national singing programme for all primary schools in England. The programme was named Sing Up and given the strapline ‘Help kids find their voice’. During its five years of funding Sing Up reached almost 100% of the 20,000 primary schools in England, trained more than 56,000 teachers and vocal leaders, set up a network of 30 area leaders around the country and created an online resource of hundreds of songs.

Sing Up’s overall aim during the funded period was for every primary school-aged child to take part in high-quality singing activity every day. A significant part of the strategy was to define and create ‘singing schools’ around the country – to make every school a singing school.

There are numerous extrinsic and intrinsic benefits associated with singing Photo: Michaela Greene
There are numerous extrinsic and intrinsic benefits associated with singing
Photo: Michaela Greene

A singing school is a place not just where singing happens regularly, but where singing is right in the middle of school life rather than on the periphery. It is a school where singing is an everyday activity for all children. It is a place where the whole school community knows and can describe what difference singing makes to their school.

There is frequently a lot of impassioned discussion about whether the reasons for encouraging and supporting children to sing regularly are fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic. I would argue that they are both, and that the extrinsic and intrinsic benefits are deeply connected to one another.

Extrinsic benefits might include the development of memory and learning aids; supporting the learning of facts and concepts; team-work and collaboration; fostering creative thinking; increase in self-esteem and confidence; and health benefits including neurological, respiratory and immunological benefits, as well as psychological ones. Intrinsic benefits might include learning musicianship skills; becoming a better singer; and enjoying an artistic, expressive and creative experience for its own sake.

My personal belief is that it is the power of the artistic, expressive and creative experience of music-making and singing which explain why it is that the extrinsic benefits are so powerful. Music-making – and singing in particular – does something unique to our bodies and minds, and it is this which we wish to harness for all children to benefit their early development and for lifelong enjoyment.

What we have found is that where the quality of the musical experience is good and progress can be felt and heard by participants, all the benefits, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, are more present in the experience for those taking part.

The quality of the artistic output itself can’t – and shouldn’t – be disregarded. But with children and young people who are going to be varied in their natural ability, previous musical experiences, parental support, and cultural references and backgrounds, it can be unhelpful to set firm benchmarks of what level they should be able to achieve in their singing or music-making by a particular age. This is even more true where teachers are working with children with special educational needs or disabilities, either in a mixed ability group in mainstream school or in special schools. What is important is the journey: that you begin in one place, able to do certain things, and then progress to a point where you can do those things better and learn to tackle new challenges with enjoyment and a sense of achievement, rather than anxiety and pressure.

Sing Up aims to ensure that singing is part of everyday school life Photo: Michaela Greene
Sing Up aims to ensure that singing is part of everyday school life
Photo: Michaela Greene

For the quality of the experience to be good and for musical progress to be made, expert leadership is needed. In singing work, the vocal leader needs first to be able to observe where improvements can be made and second have some strategies ready to go about making those improvements. It is these skills which Sing Up endeavours to support teachers to develop.

I was very fortunate to be given an inspiring and high-quality music education as a child and young adult. I attended a very large state secondary school in north London which happened to have an exceptional music department and school choir. The borough also had a well-funded set of ensembles including a very good youth orchestra whose members were boosted by pupils from a specialist music school. I was also fortunate to be a member of the National Youth Choir. With these ensembles, I performed some fantastic and challenging repertoire, visited other countries, performed in wonderful concert halls and international music festivals and made friends for life. These experiences certainly had a profound and positive effect on my education and career path – I elected to study music for A-level and as an undergraduate degree during a time when it was considered a valid academic and career pathway. Sadly, the valuation of music as a subject to be studied and pursued through school and into higher education has been seriously eroded in recent years, and there are inevitably expertise gaps appearing within the wider education workforce as a result.

While some progress has been made in recent decades in relation to enabling more children to have an introduction to music-making at a young age, something seems to have been lost along the way, with fewer young people than ever choosing to study music at GCSE, A-level and to degree level. It seems to me that in an age when we need to be preparing our children for a world in which artificial intelligence may replace all but the most human forms of creative thought and problem-solving, we need now more than ever to be encouraging and supporting the study of the arts and creative subjects rather than making them subordinate to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

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