01 September 2009

On choirs and communities

(The link may not work outside the UK.)

The Times called this BBC2 series, the first episode of which aired tonight (that's a verb I never thought I would use in real life), "engrossing and life-enhancing". It's about a talented and engaging choirmaster, Gareth Malone (who--despite his achievements, looks hardly old enough to have left school. You know you are getting old when the choirmasters start looking young...) starting apparently from scratch to build a community choir in a run-down suburb "ten miles north of London". I'm sure the back-story is more complicated and manipulated than the programme suggests, but for once that doesn't matter very much.

Community singing is a powerful activity. It was a powerful component in the Reformation, as the tradition of communal hymn-singing involved the congregation in the liturgy. Methodism, as a Protestant denomination, was built as much on the hymns of Charles Wesley as on the preaching of his brother John. In a secular context, sponsored community singing arose as a way of encouraging community involvement between the world wars. Not to mention its role in the Nuremberg rallies... "Powerful" is independent of "good/bad".

It has declined in recent years, it appears. I'm not sure what has happened to singing in school assemblies, which used to provide daily--if much derided--training in singing hymns and songs in unison, but as the programme points out, it survives only (for non-church-goers) in the raucous bellowing of the football terraces. A few years ago, one of our students suddenly died in his mid-thirties, in the middle of his course. His funeral was an impressive event. It was held in a small church in the middle of nowhere, but it was overflowing with mourners. But the singing of the two quite traditional hymns was sadly execrable--no-one of his generation seemed to know how to do it any more. In this programme, this decline seems to serve as a proxy for an overall decline in "community spirit".  

Here singing together is being enlisted as a form of community development, and the programme (to date) makes a very good case for it. Unfortunately it succumbs in some measure to the cult of personality. And that suggests (later episodes may, I hope, prove me wrong) that the benefits follow from the charismatic leadership of Gareth Malone.

The initial impetus may be his (and the BBC's). When someone presents themselves on your doorstep saying "I want to set up a choir!", the presence of a camera crew does hint that this is not merely a personal whim. My own research experience testifies to the impact of sound recorders--let alone video cameras--on the scene.

I don't in any way wish to detract from the BBC story. But I would like to set another, equally encouraging, story alongside it.

A standard exercise on our teacher education course, as on many others, is "micro-teaching". There are many variants, but essentially a student has to teach a short and focused topic or skill for a few minutes to his or her peers or perhaps to an imported group of learners. The lesson is then critiqued first by the "teacher", then by their peers, and finally by the tutor.

(Names may have been changed in the following account, but since it is wholly positive, this is merely a gesture to preserve the putative anonymity of a student whom I have not been able to contact to clear her permission... I hope you are now thoroughly confused.)

Sharon teaches business studies. I don't know the background but I suspect that confronted with the micro-teaching exercise she wondered what kind of free-standing topic she could tackle in 20 minutes. She decided to do something completely different (always a good sign!)

She sings in a gospel choir at her church. As far as I know she does not conduct or train it. But she undertook, in 20 minutes, to get the rest of the class to sing a chorus in  four-part harmony. And she did it. It was a little ragged, admittedly, but it was an impressive performance given the constraints. Apart from the participants, the only audience was me.

A few months on, we had our intensive residential block, leavened by elective sessions, offered by participants on the basis of their distinctive skills. Sharon agreed (rather than volunteered; such was the nature of the event) to do a 90-minute elective workshop for whoever turned up, on gospel ensemble singing. A dozen or so people turned up.

The conclusion of the block was a plenary presentation of findings from the subject-specific Interest Groups. Electives were side-shows, not featured. But my colleague directing the whole event was approached by a student--not Sharon--asking for a chance to perform before the whole 160-member group. He, of course, agreed.

They performed "Lean on me" in four-part harmony. And got a standing ovation. After 90 minutes from scratch (OK, they may have practised surreptitiously behind the bike sheds...) Sharon was gratified but (my inference) a little bewildered. She did not fully grasp what she had unleashed. She never set out to teach anything as powerful...

I can think of at least six plonking banal morals from this story---but none are as potent as the story itself.

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