An inspirational week of singing

It has been a busy but extremely fulfilling week, and one which has been truly inspiring.

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Chamber Choir with Dominic Peckham

Dominic Peckham spent the day at Monkton last Friday, and both senior and prep schools were transfixed by his dynamic and engaging style, as well as his moving account of the formation of the National Youth Choir of Kenya. The whole school was left in no doubt that singing brings people together in a way that little else does. In the afternoon he worked with four of Monkton’s choirs, including an improvisation workshop with our senior Chamber Choir which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen! He has opened our eyes and ears to new possibilities, and there was much talk of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the London A Cappella Festival. It was a genuine privilege to spend the day with such a fantastic musician and teacher.

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Genesis Choir at The Holburne Museum

On Wednesday the Genesis Choir gave their second public performance, at a fundraising event held at the Holburne Museum in Bath. The Garden Cafe has a vibrant acoustic and the choir was thrilled to sing in a venue which did so much to enhance their sound, and this helped their confidence hugely. We sang two songs – Singin’ in the Rain and Here comes the sun, both warmly received by our audience. I am so proud to be a part of this project, and to see how the confidence of each of the choir members has grown in the past six months is simply amazing. I don’t think I could have taken this on without the experience that I have gained working with The Choir who can’t sing at Monkton.

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Chapel Choir outside Bath Abbey

The following day our Chapel Choir sang evensong at Bath Abbey, the first time we’ve done this since I’ve been at Monkton. Anglican chant is not standard repertoire for the average Monktonian but they did a wonderful job with the psalm, as well as Dyson’s Mag & Nunc in F and the anthem Love Divine set by Howard Goodall, which we had worked on with Dominic a few days before. This will have been the first ever experience of choral evensong for many in the choir, and they really rose to the occasion.

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Francis Faux

On Friday we were visited by Joseph Fort, Director of Choral Music at King’s College, London, who came to hear a few of our sixth formers sing before heading off to Prior Park to work with their Chapel Choir. In the evening we took several of our pupils to hear them perform Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. As well as being sublime music, it was great for our students to see and hear a real live university choir!

Yesterday, a Saturday ‘Open Door morning’ with numerous families visiting the school, the Chamber Choir had a workshop with Francis Faux and the Noctis Chamber Choir. As well as singing to each other (we performed The King’s Singer’s I’m a train!) we rehearsed pieces by Morley and Ola Gjeilo together, and this culminated in the performance of the Gjeilo piece in whole school chapel at the end of the morning. So thrilling for us to join up with such a fine choir, and although I say so myself, I thought we sounded fantastic!

Looking back, I’m not sure I planned a week like this – several of these events were rescheduled, so it is largely coincidence that they all came together in such a short space of time. But it has made me reflect on how important it is to connect our pupils up with the outside world. We can work hard with them in choirs in school, but it is seeing the likes of Dominic and Francis in action, and aspiring one day to be in NYCGB, a university choir or a local chamber choir, which will really fire them up for the future.

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Finding courage

I remember a piano pupil, many years ago now, who wouldn’t sing in her lessons. I tried week after week, ever so gently, to try to persuade her to sing even the quietest of notes, but the more I tried the more of an ordeal it became for her. She came close several times, and I do believe that she wanted to – but in the end she just couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Like getting to the end of the diving board but ultimately lacking the courage to take the plunge…diving2

Due to the whole of year 9 being away on a trip, only five year 10 girls came along to the Choir who won’t sing rehearsal last week, a group of five good friends. All exhibited the very same tendency described above, something which I have seen countless times in girls ever since. When I asked one of them to sing, her first response was to turn to her friend and say ‘No, you go first.’ No, you go first.‘ And so on. Eventually, one of them managed to sing back a note: it was almost inaudible, but a triumph nonetheless. Each in turn summoned up the courage, except for the one who was quite clear that she couldn’t sing – at which point one of the others produced a video on her phone of the girl singing along with her friends, full voice, to a pop song! Her cover blown, and with assurance from me that this was evidence that she could sing, she too sang a very quiet note back to me. Success!

Fifteen minutes later they were all singing Somewhere over the rainbow at the tops of their voices, faces about three inches from each other, and loving every moment of it. Perhaps they’d forgotten that I was there. Or perhaps they’d jumped off the diving board and realised that actually this was really good fun after all.

These girls love to sing together. But ask them to sing to each other and everything changes. Singing together draws us closer, but singing alone instantly invites judgement from others, and that is a scary place for the huge majority of teenage girls – even, it seems, amongst good friends. This choir isn’t really about the singing, because I know, and they know, that they can sing. It’s about finding the courage to be an individual when life is saying it’s safer to keep your head down.

One of the two pupils in my original tone deaf project, when I asked her why she wanted to be able to sing, said this: I reckon if I can sing in front of someone, I can do anything. My hope is that in time the choir will become a place where more girls can realise this particular dream. In the meantime, Alex, here are five more!

Singing with the homeless

Back in April I was asked whether I might be prepared to form a choir to sing at the Genesis Trust‘s 21st birthday celebration, which takes place this coming Thursday at The Forum in Bath. The Genesis Trust works with the homeless and needy in Bath, and is an amazing set-up; so of course, I said yes!

After all, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to take a little something of what I have learned at Monkton and put it into practice in the wider community. There is no doubting the transformational nature of The choir who can’t sing, and I was genuinely excited at the prospect of sharing that a little further abroad. The reality was rather different….

I think there were about 16, maybe 20 people at the first rehearsal. A mixture of clients – people who have had their fair share of struggles in life, and volunteers, big-hearted people who give freely to the former group, whether by helping out with the soup run, life skills, or one of the many other activities which the Genesis Trust runs each week.

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Photographer: Artur Lesniak/arturlesniak.com

The first rehearsal was, I think it’s fair to say, a steep learning curve for all concerned! The vast majority had never been in a choir before, so the very concept of a rehearsal was new to them. They talked, they sang when I was trying to demonstrate something, and they continued singing even when I gestured for them to stop. And the concept of unison singing was lost of them, with any number of them clearly being woefully inexperienced singers. It felt a little like the blind leading the blind, or perhaps the blind leading the deaf….

It’s difficult to know quite what to say when you’re trying to shape a vowel, and meanwhile someone wants to open a theological debate on the difference between a ‘wretch’ and a ‘soul’! Then again, there are people in this choir who find themselves in a place where life is really tough, but who in this hour on a Wednesday afternoon find a release that I can’t begin to comprehend. Music is a real leveller, and here I have seen people who, despite battling with life, are getting alongside others perhaps more fortunate than themselves and are inspiring them to achieve things which they didn’t think they could manage.

It has been humbling to see these people put their trust in me as the weeks have gone by, but even more wonderful to see them put their trust in each other. Several weeks in, I asked the choir whether they were concentrating purely on what they were doing, or whether they had a little spare capacity to listen to the person next to them; on acknowledgement of the latter, I pointed out that this surely meant that someone else was listening to them! I’ve written about it elsewhere, but there is something about the shared vulnerability of singing together which is difficult to compare to anything else, and we have found this in the Genesis Choir. Lots of it.

Last week we sang Amazing Grace together, and one choir member stood with her eyes closed as she sang. I found it extraordinarily moving. She is someone who doesn’t make eye contact easily, and yet here she was, eyes shut, and her whole face so animated, so clearly expressive. Life is tough – but here she inspires those around her.

Thursday is going to be rather daunting for us all. I’ve reminded the choir that the process is much more important that the outcome, but I think it’s still going to be potentially quite overwhelming for them. Please pray for us! In the meantime, I keep asking myself whether I will have fulfilled my obligation by putting forward a choir for this celebration, or whether the Genesis Choir should continue to meet after Thursday. Trouble is, these people – each one of them, regardless of their ability to sing or not – have got under my skin.

Singing update: we’re making progress

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a blog here. Why? Well, partly I guess because as a music department develops, there will be times when it is just a question of allowing time for things to bed down and become established. There has been a lot of change, and looking back, the past year has been a great time as we have watched so many things taking shape. And also, it’s just been ridiculously busy and there is only so much that one can do….!

Always a worry at the beginning of the new academic year is what state the whole school singing will be in. Our outgoing year 13 gave a great lead in this regard, not least in supporting the Choir who can’t sing in great numbers. Singing in Chapel at the end of last term reached a seven year high, and fortunately the year below have realised what a fine legacy we have built up, and they have managed to maintain the energy into this new year.

And so to House Music last Saturday. For the first time, all four boys houses put forward a House Choir of real quality; all choirs in at least three parts, sung sensitively and with evident enjoyment by the most unlikely of boys across the school. Something has happened here – it really is perfectly acceptable for pupils to sing, and to take pride in singing at Monkton.

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Needless to say, the girls’ choirs in House Music were excellent. So then, why is it that in Chapel the boys sing with commitment and enthusiasm, whilst on the whole the girls don’t?

Part of the reason, I fear, is due to me having spent the best part of five years focusing on boys’ singing! The starting point was that boys can’t sing, or don’t know how to sing, and I really do think that through the Choir who can’t sing we have gone a long way to disapproving that in a way which is very clear for the whole school to see. The boys’ choirs in House Music have shown that ordinary, not particularly musical boys can sing, and sing well, and the majority have come to the conclusion that they can too. And they’ve proved themselves right. In fact, no boy at Monkton really has a leg to stand on in arguing against this case now.

This positive attitude to singing  is spreading fast this term. In our year 9 classes we have already – in week five – broken through the traditional non-singing attitude of young teenagers. They are new into the school, but having experienced House Music first hand they already seem quite happy to assume that singing is fine, and they’re getting on with it, boys and girls together in class. Here comes the sun [complete with ukuleles!] And it doesn’t end there: today the entire play cast for this term’s senior production came together to learn a vocal arrangement in four part harmony. Nobody tried to sell me the ‘I can’t sing, sir’ line – they just got on with it.

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that in my enthusiasm to get the boys singing, I haven’t really asked the same question of the girls. In fact, I had kind of assumed that girls can sing. But actually, some of them can’t. And many of them won’t. Enter the Choir who won’t sing! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this is going to work. We had our first rehearsal last week, with about 16 girls, and one of the girls just wouldn’t sing. [For the others, we started by spreading out in the room, closing eyes, and turning around very slowly as we sung, so that nobody would be able to identify who was singing what.] But I found myself getting quite frustrated with our non-singer. I asked her if she could scream – she said yes. But she wouldn’t!! But then again, that is exactly the kind of pupil who I am keen to get alongside; for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel able to express herself with her voice, and it’s very unlikely to be a musical or even a vocal problem, and very much more likely to do with her self-esteem. Enabling every pupil to find their own voice. My hope is – and it may take another five years – that this new choir might be able to do the same for the girls as the boys’ equivalent has. If it does, our pupils at Monkton will have found something very special indeed.

Cambiata – the changing voice

Here’s the next chapter in my desire to enable every pupil to find their own voice. The last few weeks have seen an amazing series of personal discoveries, largely through reading some of Dr Martin Ashley’s extensive research both here and in his book Singing in the Lower Secondary School. Don’t be put off by what sounds like a rather unexciting title – this is a must read for everyone who teaches music. The issue – how to keep boys singing.

Voices don’t break, they change. The problems with getting 13/14 year olds singing are numerous – it’s embarrassing, it’s not cool, and many claim not to be able to sing. But actually, that last claim is quite legitimate. As the voice changes the accessible vocal range is massively reduced (and less reliable) and is also very specific. So if you don’t choose repertoire very carefully, they actually can’t sing it because it’s outside their range. This seems so obvious now that it has been pointed out.

We have a healthy number of year 10 boys in the Choir who can’t sing, but the fact is that some of the songs we have been singing go too low for them at the moment. And my solution has been ….? Well, I’ve just ignored the problem with a ‘Don’t worry if you can’t get down there just yet.’ How is that helping them to find their voice? It isn’t. The actual solution is to have them sing in a range which they can manage; it might only be in a range of a perfect fifth, but that’s fine. And it’s a beautiful sound, and unusual. Unusual because we don’t often hear our 14 year olds singing.

At the moment, the few boys who do sing treble in the Chapel Choir move down the SATB structure as their voices change – but this doesn’t work, and never really has. Alto is right in the gap where they quite possibly have no notes at all; tenor goes both too high and too low and the changing voice it too unreliable to cope with this. We’re asking them to sing in a place where they have little or no voice. I’m guessing they stay because they feel loyal to the choir and are hanging on, looking forward to the day when they can sing properly again. It’s far from ideal, but it’s what we do anyway, perhaps because it’s all we have or know.

cambiata rangesI’m reluctant to change the Choir who can’t sing format because it has worked really well, but at the same time I’m keen to explore the possibilities of getting, and keeping, our younger boys singing in a choir with the line-up specified here. Look out for Cambiata Choir, coming soon! I put together a quick arrangement of Fields of Gold yesterday [which we sung through with the Bevan family choir!] and a certain 14 year old sounded just gorgeous – although of course I’m biased. But he did really enjoy it, not least of all because he could sing it.

Meanwhile, what about the girls? I think it’s fair to say that Monkton girls have probably felt a little neglected with all my attention on getting the boys singing, but Ashley has something to say here too. Doubtless encouraged by popular vocal models, many only use their modal (speaking) voice – in short, they don’t even realise that they have a singing voice! This is certainly an issue to be addressed, unlocking the girls’ singing voices: again, the problem is going to be persuading them that it’s a safe and exciting place to be. Challenge to self accepted!

In the meantime, composers of both educational and choral music, take note – there is a big gap in the UK market for repertoire for changing voices choirs.

Concert Posters

Over the past couple of years we have amassed a wonderful selection of posters for the numerous music events which we put on. Thanks Caroline!
[Click on an individual poster to enlarge]

How we learn

Not so long ago I read a fascinating book called How we learn, written by Benedict Carey, a reported for the NYT.

Our brains take in a huge amount of information – that’s not news to me. But what really caught my interest here is this: it’s not just about what we can store and recall, but also about what we need to forget. This is not the place to go into the complexities of the different areas of the brain and their functions, but suffice to say, we filter everything (subconsciously and pretty well instantly) and this information is stored in different ways, dependant on how useful it is. And in general, random stuff – stuff which doesn’t appear to relate to anything else – is pretty quickly sifted out. [It is in fact stored as well, but retrieval can be hard because it is seen as uneccesary so it’s put somewhere at the back I guess!] There is so much that we need to have access to that it would be impossible if our brains had everything immediately to hand, so actually it’s vital that these filters work well.

In the 1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus developed a series of more than 2300 three-letter nonsense syllables, such as RUR, HAL, MEK, BES, SOK, DUS. And then spent months learning lists of up to thirty-six of them! He then tested his memory of them at specific time periods – 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 48 hours etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as time passed, his recall was less and less successful, and after 12 days he could remember little more than 25%. [I can vouch for this with my own experience of learning digits of Pi!]

luriaIn the 1920s, the Russian neuropsycologist Alexander Luria began a series of experiments on Solomon Shereshevsky, who had a seemingly endless memory. Once he had studied a chart like the one here for about 3 minutes, he could recall it – reading up, down, backwards – not just for a few days, but for years! Shereshevsky was a synesthete, and for him numbers, letters and words were tinted with associations of colour, taste, shape etc which enhanced his recall.  He might have had an amazing memory, but because his ‘memory filters’ were effectively switched off, he found day to day life very difficult because he found it impossible to sift out the constant conflict of associations attached to just about everything.

Aside from the fact that learning lists like these would appear to be pretty pointless, I suspect that most of us would look at both of these scenarios and think it unlikely that we could remember them – the main reason being, of course, that they are totally random.

Contrast this then with work done by Philip Ballard in the early 1900s, who conducted experiments on memorising Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

In short, unlike with Ebbinghaus’ random syllables, he found that people’s recall actually improved at successive intervals; there is so much here of imagery and story that the brain recognises it as useful and so it is not assigned immediately to the trash!

So where is the musical application is this?

Whether notated music is written for a single line, or in the case of pianists and others, several notes simultaneously, in one respect it can be seen simply as a series of events.

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On these three lines there are 110 note events. My question is this: How random are they? The answer is, undoubtedly, that these notes aren’t at all random, quite the opposite. To a young musician, however, learning a new piece of music, it is often the case that they don’t yet have the experience to place a new piece of music in context, and therefore much of what is before them might well appear, to them, to be random.  Rather like the list of numbers above. Wow, imagine how horrible that would be: to go to a maths lesson and wade through all of those random numbers, in the knowledge that you are to be quizzed on them the following week… No thank you!

Somehow we need to be sure that we help our pupils to access the imagery, the story [theory maybe?] or whatever else they might need to help them to make sense of the notes in the piece of music which they are learning. Otherwise, perhaps it’s no wonder that, although we think we’ve spent time teaching them a piece, we sometimes find ourselves frustrated that they don’t seem to have taken anything in…..