Singing is widespread in most primary schools, and the benefits it brings are well understood. However, once students move into Year 7 musical progress and enthusiasm which has been developed during the primary years can dissipate for individual pupils, and talent can be lost to the secondary school to which they’ve moved. Why is that? And what can schools and teachers do to prevent it from happening?
Well first of all, I believe the key to success is to see where it is happening already – in other words, where singing and music are thriving – and to work out what it is that those music departments and schools generally are doing right. It is by no means universally true that secondary school students “won’t sing”, even teenage boys! So what are the magic ingredients, and can we sprinkle them a little more liberally over even more schools?
Let’s start at the very beginning
Start singing from day 1 of Year 7 and make it a part of every music lesson. Students will arrive at secondary school accustomed to singing fairly regularly. They will most likely have worked towards a final summer concert or leavers’ assembly. Secondary schools can capitalise on this by picking up the singing again as soon as these young people arrive to start KS3.
If you have feeder primary schools, why not find out from them what songs their Year 6s have sung in the preceding summer term and find ways to build on those, starting with something familiar and then moving to related but more challenging songs over the course of the first term?
Even better, your feeder primary schools might be delighted to have you be involved in their leavers’ concerts. Perhaps you could provide opportunities for your more senior students as singing leaders in the primaries. Or maybe you could invite your feeder primary schools to come to give a performance of their leavers’ concert at your school to introduce them to their new surroundings and show you what they can do.
Top tip: Take care not to underestimate what your year 7s can do vocally. This will switch them off singing. Give them something within their reach but slightly challenging so that they feel they are moving forward now they are in secondary school.
Very often I hear secondary school teachers say that they need ‘cool’ songs for the boys to sing otherwise they won’t take part. I know where they are coming from, but this isn’t really the whole issue for boys. A much bigger challenge is the songs being written appropriately for the stage of voice change they are in. Boys go through phases of change, during which they have quite a limited vocal range, and if you try to get them to sing songs that go outside of that range they will find it difficult and might feel like they are sounding bad and be embarrassed. Try getting hold of some songs which are specially written with a part for changing voice (sometimes called a Cambiata part). And definitely try out a song or vocal warm-up with them and listen to where their voices sound comfortable and where they don’t. You can always split the group into higher and lower voices and share out the vocal lines between them so that no one has to sing a line that their voice can’t quite manage. You can also experiment with allowing older boys to sing an octave lower and have the girls and boys who still have high voices sing the octave above. Be sensitive to not making the boys feel like they still ‘sing like a girl’ though! If you have enough of them who are confident singers, you could even give them their own lines or verses to sing without the girls. They’ll enjoy having their own moment.
Top tip: check out Professor Martin Ashley’s website (martin-ashley.com) for advice and guidance about working with boys’ voices.
All together now
Set up some singing groups as after school and lunchtime clubs. You don’t have to call them all choirs; some students may find the name off-putting. I’ve come across schools who use all kinds of inventive naming to get their students to get involved in singing. Again, strike while the iron is hot with your incoming Year 7s. Invite them to come along to an all-comers-welcome singing group from day one and have a Christmas concert in the diary that they are working towards from the off.
Top tip: If you can, find a small group of older talented singers in your school and work with them so that they can perform in assemblies and concerts and provide a target for the younger students to aspire to. Seeing their older peers singing confidently and well is likely to work wonders for enthusiasm for singing lower down the school. Make sure you have both boys and girls represented if you are in a mixed school.