Sing A New Song? – (We can but try).

Hello and welcome to blog 2 of: ‘Some Thoughts On The Goings On In My Music World November/December 2014’.

I’m all about the catchy titles, me.

2. CHOIR

I work with a cross-community primary choir comprising two schools in North Belfast. I have worked with these schools, and others in the vincinity for over three years now. Last year we entered a schools choir competition in City Hall and won in our category. We didn’t win this year and I have to admit to being a little disappointed, as I thought they gave a stellar performance. I knew too, that despite our efforts to reassure them, they felt the legacy of the previous year upon them and were disappointed too.
Leaving the rights and wrongs of competitive singing aside, an important, positive process has come about as part of this joint school venture. It is one which can and should continue. That will only happen, however, if the choir is supported financially, and is valued as an integral part of the school and students development and learning.

The talk recently has been of cuts to arts organisations already on the very fringes of their existence. Better minds that mine have spoken of the brilliant Culture Night, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Open House Festival, Out-To-Lunch and Festival of Fools. In everything they do, these events and organisations try to consign the image and story of this place to the past, simply by telling another, new one.

I wanted to speak a bit about my own experience of delivering arts work at a grass roots level, i.e. with young children. It is my take on the importance of arts engagement, education, opportunity. It is one where sectarian misconceptions are firmly embedded and allowed to endure. Because they are passed on to children. The marvellous vibrant arts culture that exists in Belfast will have, I believe, less impact without a proper and sustained programme of arts and sports/cultural engagement that starts early on in primary school.

When I started working with these schools a few years back – they came to rehearsals and sat in their own groups, unwilling to mix. Not so unusual, you might say, for a group of 7-11 year olds. But I’ve visited about sixty schools in England, and I never heard them refer to each other as ‘themmuns’, or worse. I did an exercise one day and I asked them to walk around the room, find someone they didn’t know and tell me three things about them; (Where they go on holiday, who is their favourite band? etc.) – Some children were fine about this. Some were genuinely distressed at the prospect. Their lack of confidence made the unknown too big a thing.

A choir is useful as it allows one to move people around, encourages small group learning, and gives opportunities for sporadic music making. Over time the boundaries between the groups have broken down. Firm friendships have been created. There is always a rush for seats and child A will determinedly hold a seat for child B, who is on her way from another school.

But this has taken time.

This our third year of singing, and it is the first where I really see the companionship that has grown between the children. Of course, there are the benefits that access to arts education brings. Children are learning music and singing. They are performing for peers, teachers, parents, and complete strangers with confidence, and a realisation of what they are capable of.
I am not suggesting that this is a perfect model, there are difficulties inherent within it. But I believe that this choir has been a very positive thing for the children involved and has contributed to the school life as a whole.

I leave you with a little story from rehearsals one day. I was feeling frustrated as I noticed four members of a 21-strong choir were missing. I asked a young boy if he knew where they were. He said that they were gone to ‘Gaelic’ and would be along soon….’What’s Gaelic?’ was the response of a good number of the group.

I spent the next few minutes listening to that boy explaining the differences between Gaelic football and soccer to a very interested audience.

Small victories, but there’s work to be done.

Singing learning

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