You raise me up

Here it is at last – our video of You raise me up, recorded and filmed at Monkton. Enjoy!

The story behind each and every one of these boys is amazing. Some were told as young children that they were tone deaf, and so quite literally never even learned the basics of singing. Others have ‘discovered’ singing and tell me genuinely that our Thursday evening rehearsal is the high point of their week.

You can read more about how this project has developed by going back to The Tone Deaf Project and then follow the link at the end of each article. I genuinely believe that we are now beginning to see and hear a change in the way the whole school sings in Chapel, and this is in no small part to these boys :)

The Choir who can't sing


Top trumps

Every child has played top trumps at some point: let’s face it, so have most adults too. Whatever your favourite theme – cars, superheroes, dangerous animals – they all work in the same way. Each card has a score for certain characteristics, and the highest score wins.

top trump

Here’s how a game might sound –
Player 1: Height, 182cm
Player 2: Height, 191cm. I win!
Player 1: Oh no, you’ve got Clark Kent haven’t you?!
[Player 1 is a real geek, and has memorised all of the data on all of the cards!!]

I’ve been thinking lately about devising top trump cards for my piano pupils. None of them are superheroes, or even dangerous animals (!) but they do have a variety of rateable skills. Self-assessed (that’s important and I’ll come back to that), a pupil card might look like this:

Attention to detail 40
Aural awareness 85
Theory 25
Note reading 33
Memory 90

My point is this – why is the pupil calling note reading when that’s the weakest number on their card? Surely they’d have a better chance calling on the memory category.

Player 1: Note reading, 33
Player 2: Note reading, 98, I win!
Player 1 (geek): Oh that’s not fair, you must have Mr Bevan!
Player 2: I am Mr Bevan!!

Let’s take an example. A pupil is reading through a piece of music, perhaps for the second or third time, and is still struggling to read the notes. Some are on leger lines, it’s in A major and she keeps forgetting that there are G#s in the key signature. In short, her note reading is pretty weak (33 in fact). Time to draw on a different skill instead. How about memory (90)? After all, having played it through a couple of times now, she ought to have some recollection or either how it felt to play, physically, or maybe visually.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we ignore reading skills altogether; we should be trying to develop all of these skills all of the time. [In this respect, my analogy to top trumps breaks down, as (hopefully) all of these numbers gradually increase as our pupils progress.] What I am suggesting is that we should be encouraging our pupils to draw on a variety of skills rather than just one. When it comes to learning new notes, I find that it can be a huge encouragement when our pupils realise that they don’t have to rely entirely on their reading skills. Discovering that memory, aural or even guess work can give an additional boost to their reading skills, which in turn may well boost their self-esteem.

For me this has also been a really helpful tool for encouraging pupils to make an honest (if approximate) assessment of their general musicianship skills. There is no harm in getting it out in the open that Susie’s note reading leave a little to be desired – we both know that anyway don’t we? But it’s also a lovely opportunity to let her know that you agree that her memory is terrific, and that we should be looking for more ways to use that, since it’s clearly one of her real strengths.

Band Night

We certainly have a diverse range of musical opportunities for our students at Monkton. At the same time as preparing for our production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas this term, we are also gearing up for our eagerly awaiting Band Night on 5th March.

Here’s a video collage of last year’s event, which features a song by Harry (then in year 10). We had nine bands in total, ranging from a year 8 girl band to a couple of sixth form bands who had also written their own material. Plus a few staff too!

Dido & Aeneas

I’ve heard that one of my predecessors, Harold Jones, used to put on operas during his time as Director of Music at Monkton. Was I dreaming or did I hear Boris Godunov mentioned? Surely not?!

Either way, it’s a long time since Monkton produced a opera, and so we are very excited to be staging Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas this February. It’s going to be in an unusual venue too – St Michael’s Church in Monkton Combe, which will add further dramatic potential to our production.

Tickets are now available via our online booking form here.



He sings!

Today has been a memorable day.

I asked Ali (now in year 13) to stay behind at the end of our Choir who can’t sing rehearsal this evening. Following our recent flashmob, we’re preparing to make a studio recording of “You raise me up” which is going to include some solos. The idea is to showcase a few of the boys who have really come from nowhere, to show that they really can sing now.

The trouble is, Ali really struggles to sing. I’ve got some scribbles in my notebook from a one to one session with Ali from December 2013 [ie. nearly two years ago] and it’s evident that I really didn’t have a clue what to do with him. He just couldn’t sing reliably anywhere near any note which I sang to him. I’ve tried several more times with him since, and despite serious effort on both our parts, it’s as if he just hasn’t been able to hear me. In fact, here’s the truth: despite my big claims that anyone can be taught to be sing, I’ve been keeping quiet about Ali because he’s the one boy I’ve had down in my mind as … wait for it … a hopeless case. Tone deaf?

That is, until today.

Actually in last week’s rehearsal he sang one or two notes in tune. I was pleasantly surprised, but put it down to chance. But this evening as I picked out a few soloists, I found myself thinking how amazing it would be if Ali could do one. One last try.

So for five minutes after the rehearsal we sang notes. The same as ever – listen carefully as I sing; now imagine singing it yourself; listen again … and now you sing. And he sang a beautiful D, the same as me. Then an F#, and then an A. We carried on singing, me first and then Ali repeating back, and gradually we started missing out the imagining bit until it was just me singing a note and Ali copying. And all of a sudden, after two years or more, his ears were switched on – note after note in tune with me. With Ali’s consent I videoed this session, but my iPad ran out of memory just as we were getting going. So you’re just going to have to believe me! He can sing! [Waiting for Ali’s consent to post the video, but hopefully something might follow soon].

This has genuinely been one of the single most exciting moments in my professional career. It may have taken a while, but Ali has found his way from being ‘tone deaf’ to being able to sing. It has taken determination, which Ali has in spades, courage, and practice; in this instance, two years worth of practice.

Find me someone who says they can’t sing and I’ll prove them wrong.

Can you sing? Apparently, 34% of people can’t!*

This October I sent a short questionnaire, Can you sing? to the whole school. More specifically, to all pupils at our senior school, and staff of both senior and prep schools.

singing survey

*Sorry about the sensational title! This figure comes from a sample of 359 replies [69% of the pupil body returned the questionnaire] but nonetheless it is a significant number of people, and the data makes for fascinating reading.

My initial intention was to discover how many might call themselves tone deaf, and I’ll come to that in a moment; but what has shocked me is this: 44% have been told by someone that they can’t sing. And in response to the question ‘Can you sing?’ (answer either yes or no), 34% said no, they can’t sing.

I wonder how many of those 122 people who say that they can’t sing have come to that conclusion because they’ve believed someone who has told them that, even if it might not actually be true. Of course teenagers can have a tendency to be down on themselves, and so that figure of 35% might be exaggerated: but then again, look at the numbers for our adult population – 31% of Monkton staff also say that they can’t sing. In a recent assembly our headmaster, Richard Backhouse, talked about the importance of developing into the person we want to be, not into the person which other people want us to be. Thought-provoking, as always, but not easy when those around us can have such a big influence on us, perhaps more often than not without us even realising it.

Arguably, ‘Can you sing?’ might be understood in a number of different ways. Maybe the implication here is ‘Are you allowed to sing?’ In other words, do those around you enable you to sing by allowing you to express yourself, or do they, either deliberately or otherwise, resign you to keeping quiet until singing becomes something you ‘can’t do.’

If it’s not bad enough being told that you can’t sing, 56 people (16%) in this sample described themselves as tone deaf. Of those, 10 have been ‘diagnosed’ by their parents, 25 by friends and 10 by …. their music teacher. How depressing. Sadly I know all too many people who have been silenced by those closest to them. Perhaps they think it’s funny, but I’ve seen reactions from boys in the Choir who can’t sing which would suggest otherwise. Please don’t ever tell anyone they can’t sing – you might just be sentencing them to a life without all of the richness which singing brings.

Wikipedia will tell you that about 4% of the population suffer from tone deafness, aka Congenital amusia. Don’t believe it. I’d love to know where this statistic comes from – maybe it’s the proportion of people who think they are tone deaf. But I’m up for proving them wrong either way! Of the 56 in my survey, 19 say that they’d love to be able to sing, and 26 describe themselves as ‘hopeless’. From my experience with the Choir who can’t sing and others,  I’d be very surprised if most of these aren’t prepared to permit me to give them a slightly more professional opinion on their ‘diagnosis’.

Not sure when I’m going to find the time to do this, but the plan now is to see as many of these so-called tone deaf people as possible, and to see whether I can bring that supposed 16% down to a realistic much less than 4%. I’ll report back in due course….

music@monkton – enabling every pupil to find their own voice

Why do we sing together?

Yesterday evening Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing did a flash mob during supper! Pupils realised something was up when the strains of the intro to “You raise me up” became audible over the usual background conversation noise in the school Dining Hall, which has a very lively acoustic. A few boys stood up to sing the first phrase, and then a few more, and then a few more until about 25 boys stood in various groups around the hall, singing for all they were worth. I admire their courage so much.

Several of them told me afterwards, as they have done many times before, that choir rehearsals are genuinely the highlight of their week. And they mean it. Of course I agreed that they were the high point of my week too, but then I found myself questioning whether that’s entirely honest. After all, Chamber Choir rehearsals are also the highlight of my week …. and so are Monkton Combe Choral Society rehearsals on Tuesday evenings. And many of the members of these choirs feel the same way too.

Singing is a complex thing. It makes us vulnerable. If you stand face to face with someone, even a good friend, and ask them to sing, chances are they’ll decline the invitation. Singing is deeply personal. Hence the many people who tell me that they can’t sing – it’s a safety mechanism: what they really mean is “I don’t want to share that with you.” Sadly, for all too many it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; they tell themselves that they are inadequate, that they can’t sing, and so they don’t. How many other aspects of their lives suffer the same fate?

Last week I took singing practice at our prep school, and for one of our warm ups I had them stand and do ‘jazz hands’. Of course, that’s actually a silent activity, since waving your hands doesn’t make any noise. Very swiftly the whole school became aware that not only were they, individually, being silent, but that they were collectively silent. It was a very powerful moment. In Choral Society last Tuesday we rehearsed the chorus Since by man came death, which is unaccompanied and which requires very carefully attention to tuning. We sang softly, not because Handel asks for it to be soft, but so that we could listen to each other. Their tuning was superb. Singing in a choir is not about people singing at the same time; it’s about singing together. The result on Tuesday was thrilling, for all of us. The Monteverdi Choir might sound better, but nobody missed the extraordinary intimacy of ninety people making themselves vulnerable to each other  – by singing together.

Herein lies the magic of singing in a choir. It’s not just the music (although of course that’s also an important factor). It is, I believe, to do with finding our own voice, and in knowing that those around us are equally prepared to make themselves vulnerable to us as well. There are few things which come closer to defining being human.

I was deeply upset by a series of articles in the press earlier this year; whilst adult choirs seem never to have been more popular [thank you Mr Malone and others!] it really worries me that our children are not being taught to sing. I am gradually working my way through the entire pupil body at Monkton, literally one by one, and although I love every moment, ultimately it is immensely depressing to discover just how many boys don’t know the basic mechanics of how to sing a single note in tune. What has happened? If there is a single argument to put singing back into the curriculum, for our children to sing every day together, it is this: to enable them to discover and develop their self-confidence and their sensitivity to others. I believe that our children need this more than just about anything else.