Jan 31, 2017
by George Bevan. I am passionate about singing, and it always intrigues me when I find someone who tells me that they can’t sing. When I enquire further, the story is almost invariably the same: they were told as a child that they couldn’t sing. They went along to choir and were told to mime, or else just to go away, ‘singing clearly isn’t your thing.’
I find that most people who can’t sing don’t sing. There are a few who are proud of their voice, despite the protestations of those around them, and I love these people! But on the whole, those who can’t sing keep a low profile because they really believe that they are a hopeless case. They have been made to feel ashamed of their voice. Words are powerful. Words, even said in jest, can close doors forever.
Some children don’t like math, and some aren’t very good at it. But can you imagine a math teacher saying to a child “You’re no good at math, please don’t come back to any more lessons”? Can you imagine a school getting away with that?
So, why do we send them away from choir? We’re supposed to be in the business of teaching. If a child can’t sing, we should be teaching them to sing, not sending them packing. I’m not talking about sophisticated vocal coaching, just the basics of pitching accurately to get them up and running.
What is a school choir for? As far as I’m concerned, choir is about developing a huge range of skills, and not all of them musical.
Actually, I’d go so far as to say it’s the ultimate music lesson — listening and ensemble skills, understanding harmony, following a melodic line, reading notation, inner hearing, breathing, teamwork, confidence, trust, joy, fun, emotional release, physicality, musical structure, word setting, poetry, control, to name but a few. If a child needs a little extra help to get on the first rung of this ladder, as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth taking the time to help them up.
Is choir to impress the parents, or is it a means to developing the abilities of our children? There is undoubtedly great joy to be gained in working with children who are really able — I’ve been there myself. There is nothing wrong with excellence, but it is so important in education to keep the door open for everyone if we can. For me, teaching is about enabling those who can’t, and not just working with those who already can!
So, how about this for a radical idea? How about having a choir for students who can’t sing?!
I have been running our Choir who can’t sing for five years now. In that time, I have almost lost count of the number of teenage boys whose singing has gone from hopeless to pretty respectable. For most, singing unison songs is fulfilling enough; but a few have ‘graduated’ to Chapel Choir, and one even sang in our fully staged production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last year! This choir opens doors.
What I like most about the Choir who can’t sing concept is this: whilst a ‘regular’ choir will turn away a bad singer, this one positively welcomes them! Better still, surrounded by another 30+ boys who started out the same way but who now sing well and with confidence and joy, it doesn’t take long for new recruits to get the hang of it.
So, what do you do with the child who can’t sing? Help them to unlock a gift which will bring them joy and which will last them a lifetime.
George Bevan is director of music at Monkton Senior School near Bath, UK.