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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


Aristotle, in praise of singing, quoted the bard Musaeus (whom Greek legend claimed to be the son of Orpheus): 'song is man's sweetest joy', and added his own warning against using musical instruments which would interfere with or even inhibit the act of singing. In a curious 2nd century compendium of manners and opinion, Athenaeus claims it to be no disgrace to confess knowing nothing, but a great disgrace to decline to sing.

From these ancient judgments arose, over centuries, the belief that singing was not only of enormous benefit to the soul, but had a fundamental part to play in the education of children. State schools in England recognised the fact when, on 22 March 1872, it was decreed that 'the art and practice of singing be taught in all schools as a branch of elementary education'. Instructors and inspectors were appointed, and 25 years later a great musical gala was held at London's Crystal Palace involving some 5,000 singing children.

Festivals, both competitive and otherwise, materialized everywhere, and through both Wars there was singing and song-books and singing teachers in schools. There were even choirs for teachers too. But standards are only improved if they are first maintained.

Sadly, over the last few decades, the number of musically able primary teachers has declined drastically. The repertoire of traditional English folk and community song, through which young children once experienced literacy, numeracy, social history, disciplined learning, co-ordinated teamwork and even physical exercise -- as well as music -- is practically extinct. Without organised singing sessions beginning for five-year olds, we have no capable 11-year olds, and no 18-year olds entering teacher training who appreciate the value of singing; and well within two decades we have another generation of primary teachers who have no experience of the value of music or the way it can be taught to children.

Even caring parents who will teach their infants to look at everything and observe, will rarely induce them to listen to the world around them and sing -- for children would as quickly imitate sounds as anything. It is a predicament that will not be solved by money. It will only be addressed by perceptive teachers and the wonderful free-of-charge resource of our voices.

Copyright © 30 June 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Malcolm Tattersall, Australia

I agree entirely with everything in your 'Singing' column except one sentence, and that is a crucial one: 'It is a predicament that will not be solved by money.'

Unless the schools (and the teacher-education institutions behind them) have adequate money allocated to the teaching of music, the teachers who do have the skills are not given the time and professional development opportunities to maintain, extend and pass on those skills, nor the classroom time to maintain and extend their students' skills. And the new teachers who don't have the skills will never acquire them, so that, as you say, the next generation will not even know what is possible.

I have witnessed a classic example in my own back yard. (Townsville is an excellent sociological laboratory -- big enough to be fairly representative of a whole society, and small and isolated enough that one can easily observe its workings.)

A local education authority responsible for half a dozen primary schools and a few secondary schools decided fifteen years ago to make the effort to improve music education. They appointed a dedicated, highly skilled music co-ordinator and gave her the resources to recruit the best staff she could find, to extend the skills of teachers already working in the system, and to establish instrumental tuition in those schools which didn't already have it. And they gave the individual schools money to implement the changes: staff salaries, instruments, textbooks and so on.

In three years, the improvement in all areas was obvious to all. In seven, these schools were blitzing the field in the local Eisteddfod, twelve year olds were sight-singing three part harmony, the best secondary school choir was planning to tour to Hungary, and the powers that be said, in almost as many words, 'Great. We've fixed the music programme; now let's put our resources into ... ,' [fill in gap with subject area of choice] and the whole music programme unravelled.

Schools increased non-music demands on music teachers' time; the co-ordinator's position was abolished; good teachers who left were replaced by the nearest, rather than the best, available person; important extras like music camps and teachers' in-service workshops were not funded and so didn't happen; equipment was not replaced, let alone upgraded; and the students' skills stagnated for a year or two before starting to trickle steadily downhill. I reckon that in another two years the primary schools will be back where they started, and in another five the secondary schools will have followed them -- and this is in spite of the very best efforts of every individual music teacher still employed in the system.

So, Patric, it is a predicament that will, and will only, be solved by money: money as a demonstration of real priorities and, more fundamentally, money for resources.


From: Alistair Hinton, UK

Patric Standford's historical information on the importance of the art of singing is indeed informative; as the latter part of it concentrates on England from the 1870s, I will confine my response to the same period and place.

The fundamental role of singing in our musical lives has -- as Alan Bush wrote of the greatness of Beethoven -- 'never been in doubt'. Sorabji's observation that 'music begins and ends with singing' illustrates this (the notion of an 'end' to music may be inconceivable, but we know what he meant). His passion for fine singing and vocal writing led him to write about these subjects often, although his deliberately clumsy twist on Byrd's most famous couplet on the subject -

'Since singing is so good a thing
I wish most men (and women) would learn to shut up and appreciate it in its finest manifestations'

- might been seen as suggesting that his views on singing were exclusivist rather than inclusivist (to use current jargon). Sorabji once said that his mother, having undergone an extensive period of nothing but vocal exercises under Enrico delle Sedie's tutelage, misunderstood what was to follow until Signor delle Sedie warned her 'Je ne dis pas "chantez"; je dis "commencez!"'; in this, again, Sorabji demonstrated his belief that development of a singer's technique is necessarily a long-term process which, for several reasons not limited to physiological considerations, cannot be forced.

Sorabji would probably have rebuffed Aristotle's 'warning against using musical instruments which would interfere with or even inhibit the act of singing' by contending that the disciplines of singing should inform and influence approaches not only to instrumental performance but also instrumental composition.

Mr Standford does not specifically advocate return to the situation described in his third and fourth paragraphs as a means of coming to terms with what he rightly identifies as a major problem. This is perhaps just as well; after all, what price 'traditional English folk and community song' in our age of developing multiculturalism wherein every conceivable kind of music emanates from an ever-increasingly wide range of electronic orifices and the dominant factor is pop, rock, techno and the rest? Indeed, the very fact that many infants' and young children's first aural experiences are of electronically generated sounds signifies an unbridgeable gulf between a time when musical life did indeed 'begin with singing' and one overrun by passive reception of musical electronica; there are today some young people who are unaware not only of the art of singing but even of the existence of acoustic musical instruments.

If we then factor in the marketing of a variety of 'singing' 'celebrities' -- some of more tender ages than others (no names -- we all know who they are!) -- we compound the difficulty of persuading young people what fine singing is, let alone its supreme importance in the world of music-making.

Music-making in the home no longer prevails as generally as it once did; it is nowadays confined principally to family groups that include professional or amateur musicians. It does not follow, however, that young people who find the urge to study music necessarily come from 'musical' families. There was, for example, no music in my own background and, even during early musical studies, I never sang, nor was I encouraged to sing, except in occasional aural training classes. My initiation into singing at first hand came later when, out of curiosity, I joined a choral society that was to perform The Dream of Gerontius (and even then I was swiftly pressed into other duties by the indisposition of the rehearsal pianist, so I didn't actually sing until the performance, at which I was so entranced by the music I kept losing my place!).

In English cathedral schools, the fact that a long-standing choral tradition has still somehow managed to survive the social, technological and cultural upheavals of the past century appears to suggest that the death of the art of singing has been grossly exaggerated; certain other musically inclined schools also encourage young people to sing. However, these represent but a very tiny sector of school life as a whole.

So: how do we solve a problem like this one (apologies to Richard Rodgers!)? Should a route to such a solution involve blaming successive governments' education policies or the laziness and/or disinterest of increasing numbers of teachers? For all that there is no smoke without fire, I doubt that this would get us very far, even in our present-day blame culture.

The short answer is that I have no idea how one should realistically approach this issue in order to restore singing to the position it rightfully occupies. Perhaps one solution lies in Mr Standford's final paragraph; after all, it is perhaps a little more likely that a modicum of success may be achieved if the idea puts forward here is acted on at pre-school stage.

Beyond that -- well, why not simply throw the matter open to singers and singing teachers to respond? -- and, while we're at it, might I present a homily to readers to the effect that Mr Standford's occasionally published thoughts are surely not so lacking in provocative content as to inspire the paucity of reader response that they usually attract? Come on -- get writing!




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