Day One. Some thirty new sixth form students arrive in the Bowerman Hall for a brief introduction to music@monkton. I open with a challenge. “Before we get started, would anyone like to sing to us?”
As expected, their expressions say it all, with you’ve got to be joking written loud across incredulous faces. Nobody in their right mind sings in public, and certainly not on the first day of school when everyone is carefully weighing up everyone else!
And then one lad says yes, he’ll give it a go. Looks of utter shock from the rest of the crowd. This confident year 12 lad comes forward, sits at the piano and sings, rather beautifully as it happens, a song which his brother wrote. And the audience looks on, stunned, amazed and pretty much in awe, and his performance is met with very genuine and enthusiastic applause.
“Now tell me, who would have liked to have had the confidence to do that?” It’s a rhetorical question, but gets to the point of what music@monkton is all about. Because if you have the confidence to sing in front of someone else, what can’t you take on? Singing is deeply personal, and singing in front of others can make us feel very vulnerable, especially in a world which is so quick to judge – a world which teenagers are all too familiar with. And this is what drives me more than anything else: not the desire to turn out brilliant musicians, but rather to use music to enable young people to be happy to stand up in their own skin, to be content to be themselves.
In the first few days of each new academic year, many music departments audition new singers, and the lucky few take their place in chapel choirs, destined for exciting opportunities. Meanwhile, at Monkton, I am actively looking for those who really can’t sing. And sure enough, just half an hour after these new year 12 pupils have left, on their very first day at Monkton, one shy lad reappears to tell me that he can’t sing, and what should he do? Well there is no time like the present, and within five minutes I have taught him how to listen critically, and he has sung back a full range of notes which match mine beautifully. Rehearsals for the Choir who can’t sing don’t start until after our House Music Festival at the end of week three – but he has caught up with me several times in the past fortnight to check when he can start choir.
For me, education involves teaching those who can’t do something to be able to do something. If someone is pretty rubbish at maths, we don’t send them away, never to be seen again; we don’t assess our students and say Great, you’re already good at maths, let’s keep going… and then turn the rest away.
Those who already consider themselves to be musicians will generally gravitate towards the music department anyway, and our Chapel Choir [un-auditioned] has a healthy new intake of singers this term. That’s the easy bit. But outside the music department there are young people in abundance who either don’t sing, can’t sing, or in their own heads don’t believe that they can sing, and the potential harvest is huge!