He sings!

Today has been a memorable day. An amazing 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.

A school which is learning to sing

When asked by a prospective parent earlier this week whether we have a choir, I found myself quietly pleased to be able to tell her that we have five; and then I realised that actually we now have six – Chapel Choir, Girls’ Choir, the Choir who can’t sing, Chamber Choir, Junior Chamber Choir and, new this term, Year 9 Choir.

It’s been a long climb over six years, but singing is happening everywhere now. The House Music Festival this September was the best I’ve heard, and Farm House choir’s performance of It’s all about you (McFly) made our adjudicator “envious that [he] can’t (quite yet) get a group of lads to sing as well as this.” Chamber Choir sang Stanford’s Beati quorum via in Chapel this Saturday, and the school listened attentively and in silence. I have a real sense that, as a whole school, we are on the cusp of something really very exciting. On the back of House Music, and with more and more pupils in choirs – not least the Choir who can’t sing who are so proud of their newly found voices – I believe that we are approaching a critical mass of pupils who between them could be capable of shifting the equilibrium of school singing.

CWCS Oct15

One of the difficulties with whole school singing until now has been how to persuade a considerable number of boys not to sing ‘in the undergrowth’ [ie an octave too low – in the same way that teenagers speak down here too, and don’t exhibit too much of their emotion through their voices!] A fortnight ago, in whole school singing practice, I managed for the first time ever to get the huge majority of them out of the depths and up into the right range, and the result was thrilling. It has long been my dream that one day it will be the norm for the whole school to come to Chapel and experience the joy of singing together, uninhibited. Perhaps we’re getting close….

To help them along, I’ve set myself a target for the coming months; to voice test every boy in the school. About 80 are either in a choir or else I already know that they can sing, so that leaves about 160 to hunt down, one by one! They all know that I’m passionate about getting them singing, and hopefully they’ll be willing to go along with me on this one. Just a quick assessment to see 1) whether they can sing back a couple of notes and 2) to see whether they can sing something around the middle C mark. And in all seriousness, at the same time I hope to gather a few stats on something which has bothered me for a long time. It is claimed that about 4% of the population is tone deaf, and I simply can’t accept that. I’ve read a few papers on the subject, and there seems to be very little reference in any of them to nurture.

I have had some amazing successes with boys in the Choir who can’t sing, boys who were all over the shop with their pitching who have learned to sing in tune. One School House lad springs immediately to mind, who was incredibly weak to begin with, and now, several years on, sings wonderfully – and happens to have been blessed with a naturally beautiful voice. And another boy who had always believed himself to be tone deaf because he was told that as a child. He sang a full range of notes beautifully in tune, and when I pointed this out, and told him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his singing, he wept.

I’m looking forward to finding more like him.

Reading list

Not a very exciting post this – just a list of the books that I have read over the past couple of years or so. Not sure what this list says about me, other than that I have an ongoing fascination with certain topics: memory, synesthesia, thinking, teaching  and numbers.

Carey, Benedict. How we learn. 2014.
Chabris, C & Simons, D. The Invisible Gorilla. 2010.
Cytowic, R. The man who tasted shapes. 1993
Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit. 2012.
Gladwell, M. Blink. 2005.
Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point. 2000.
Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. 2008.
Gladwell, M. David & Goliath. 2013.
Harris, P. Simultaneous learning. 2012.
Harris, P. The practice process. 2014.
Harris, P. The virtuoso teacher. 2012.
Johnson, S. Who moved my cheese? 1998.
Kahneman, D. Thinking fast and slow. 2011.
Luria, A R. The mind of a mnemonist. 1968
Marsh, H. Do no harm. 2014.
Mlodinow, L. Subliminal. 2012.
Mlodinow, L. The drunkard’s walk. 2008.
Rusbridger, A. Play it again. 2014.
Sacks, O. The man who mistook his wife for a hat. 1985
Syed, M. Bounce. 2010.
Walker, S. The undefended leader. 2011.

Permission to sing badly

Instrumentalists have a lot to deal with when learning a new piece of music. Not only do they have to read the notes – both pitch and rhythm – but they also need to deal with the technical demands of playing them, which amongst other things may include fingers, arm movement and breath control. If they are finding the rhythm difficult, I’d like to suggest that we can make it a lot easier by removing the technical aspect, at least temporarily.

Can you juggle whilst riding a *unicycle? If you can’t do either, what are the chances of you learning, simultaneously, to do both? One of these alone would be quite enough to be dealing with, and you’d really need to be a master of each skill before you contemplated putting them together.

So if it’s understanding the rhythm of a piece of music which is causing the difficulty, put the instrument down! It seems so obvious, if you consider the unicycle scenario, and yet how many of us fail to do this? Perhaps it depends on whether we see ourselves principally as an instrumental teacher or a music teacher…. Fixing the rhythm is a musical problem.

The trouble, though, is this –  we do have a significant problem if we put down the instrument, because now we’re going to have to ….. SING! Most teenagers would naturally run away at this point, but I have a solution which seems to work really well; permission to sing badly!

In order for rhythm to be secure what we really need to do is internalise it – and singing is just an outward demonstration of what is going on inside our head. For this purpose the singing doesn’t need to be perfect, but the important thing is to learn the rhythm without having to focus on something else at the same time.

Earlier this week I was working on Ian Clarke’s Sunstreams with a flautist:


In this passage, there are a lot of notes to concentrate on playing. Up until this point her pulse had been rock solid, but all of a sudden in bar 24 it just disappeared and everything went very vague; it’s as if the volume had been turned right down on her internal metronome so that she was no longer aware of it.

First step: put down the flute. We then re-established the pulse, and made sure that she knew where each of the crotchet beats fell – she’s a quick student, so no problems here. And then we sang it – badly, but in time. Without inserting a sound file it’s difficult to describe bad singing, but basically you need to put enough inflection in the voice to show the rise and fall of the pitches, but with none of the precision need to sing it properly in tune. In effect it’s like an aural sketch – near enough to be recognisable, but without the need for all the detail.

With just a couple of repetitions she had built for herself an aural sketch of what this passage should sound like, in time. So when she picked her flute up again and played, it was, unsurprisingly, in time, because she now knew what she was aiming at.

This technique works so well, and I put it down to pupils enjoying having permission to do something badly! We so often feel judged on the quality of our singing, and indeed it’s a very personal thing. But to ask a student to singing badly, in this context at least, removes that pressure, because you’ve actually given them permission to get it sort of wrong, and where’s the stress in that? And they also see, almost instantly, how much easier it can sometimes be to learn without the complications of controlling the instrument as well.

*Funnily enough, not long after I’d written the first draft of this article, a pupil came to find me, with one arm in a sling, to say that he wouldn’t be able to go to his saxophone lesson – because he’d fallen backwards off his unicycle!!

Chamber Choir: developing the vision

In May last year our newly formed Chamber Choir gave a short recital, and looking back now I can see that, despite being a fairly low key event, it marked a big step in the development of our music department, certainly from a choral perspective.

The initial purpose of writing here at music@monkton was to chart the development of a music department. In particular, changing aspirations, not just of those falling within the immediate reach of the music department, but for the wider school community as well. Over the past five years singing has been a primary focus; the Choir who can’t sing has engaged the wider school community, as have whole school singing practices, and both of these have had a considerable impact in raising the standard of singing in the House Music Festival. At this level, the most important seed to sow in changing those aspirations has been this: anyone can sing [- enabling every pupil to find their own voice.]

At the same time, at a higher level, the Chapel Choir has gone from strength to strength, and last year I was finally able to form the Chamber Choir, an elite group of sixth form students, many of whom arrived at Monkton at the same time as I did. Don’t misunderstand the word elite here: few, if any, of the founder members of the Chamber Choir had any experience of singing choral music outside Monkton. By elite, I mean the best that we can offer, and more importantly, something for others to aspire to.

The self-imposed brief for the Chamber Choir is very clear – to stretch our most able musicians. This year’s choir has consisted of eleven pupils and two staff, and all of the repertoire which we have covered has been a cappella. And although we have a piano to hand, most of our rehearsal time is also unaccompanied, and so from the start the pupils have to work out for themselves what is going on [aka sight-reading!] The joy of rehearsing in this way is that it forces everyone to focus not only on their own line, but also on the wider context of harmony [vital for intonation] and line in the rest of the choir as well; it sharpens the listening skills and the mind like little else. Our hope is, of course, is to be able to give high quality performances; but this outcome is surely secondary to the learning process itself.

The aspirations of the choir are already very different from those they started with in September. In rehearsal, they expect me to expect them to keep going, so if they get lost it is their responsibility to do their best to join in again. If they’re really struggling I’ll throw them a line, but there is certainly no ‘note-bashing’ in this choir. It’s an exciting way to rehearse; spontaneous, motivating and purposeful.

We have given a number of notable performances this year; in Bath Abbey, Bath’s Salvation Army Citadel, Wingfield Church, the annual MidSomerset Festival, our Summer Concert, and most recently in a concert with Monkton Combe Choral Society. Our first piece in this concert was Philip Stopford’s If ye love me, and I think it’s fair to say that I have never stood before a choir which looked so focused ahead of a performance; a remarkable and thrilling experience which I will genuinely never forget.

We have also formed a Junior Chamber Choir this year, ten boys [!] and ten girls, mainly year 10 and 11, all of whom aspire to progressing up to the main Chamber Choir. Mr Wilson-Lambert is doing a fine job with them, and I’m excited that this first group have a head start on their older peers; our senior Chamber Choir in two years time could be very exciting indeed.

Moving with the times, we haven’t made a CD this year, but you can hear our Chamber Choir here on SoundCloud. Please do feel free to forward to friends!