Singing as a way of school life: a note from the past

Part I

Two hundred years ago in 1817 the very idea of ‘the future of music education for all’ would have been barely conceivable.

While the European Enlightenment had given a twinkle in the eye of progressive educational thinkers, there were few signs of enthusiasm in England for establishing a system of schooling for all children in which music would play a part. Yet within fifty years not only had the idea of education itself become immensely popular but the term popular music education had become widespread. And, of course, it was singing that counted as music education. Singing as a communal activity had caught the popular imagination.

There were Joseph Mainzer’s mass singing classes for workmen – Singing for the Million, singing classes for children after their long hours of factory work, Sunday School singing, Sarah Glover’s pioneering work with infant children in Norwich, the official approval given to John Hullah’s fixed doh system and John Curwen’s promotion of a rival system.

Music education had been established in the national consciousness. It was here to stay.

For these nineteenth century pioneers justifications were several: there was the desire to improve singing in religious settings, singing for recreation, the moral well-being of the working classes and singing as a means of strengthening national sentiment.

The music education innovators of the time, for the most part, like those of today, were well read in the history of music education. They had engaged critically with ideas of the past and in particular the progressive breaks with sleeping forms of traditionalism.

Part II

You see I have been reading Bernarr Rainbow’s The Land without Music and amongst so much that intrigued I was pleased to find reference to a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi.

I find the image appealing in the light of some of the stringent practices emerging in our own times in schools where ultra-strictness, no excuses and the silent movement between lessons is championed.

This silent obedience comes as a contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago, providing an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for music to permeate the whole life of the school.

So I am wondering, is there a school in 2017 where children sing on their way to lessons? may know or perhaps @EarlyYearsMusic

Is there a school where children arrive at their music lesson singing? @LauraMullaly may know.

As we ponder a future for music education in 2017 I am reminded that the past is always useable.

Next week I will consider John Curwen’s scripted music lessons and not without its topical resonance. See












14 thoughts on “Singing as a way of school life: a note from the past

  1. pepperdog

    The mistake you make is that you think that a strict school with silent corridors has no joy. That is simply not true. What we find time and time again is that children want good discipline because it makes them feel secure so they can really be their true selves and not have to deal with peer pressure and bullying. Strictness means more creativity!

      1. pepperdog

        Yes, children often come to my room singing. We don’t have a silent corridors policy. But I don’t work in a tough school and if I did I can see why the leadership might have to enforce this policy. No one wants to have to be draconian but if the choice is between learning and chaos, any teacher will do what it takes to help children to learn. These teachers in tough schools are working really hard and their leadership teams are just trying to enable their colleagues to teach, often under very difficult circumstances.

      2. pepperdog

        One school I went to had all the children singing “we will rock you” as they got changed for PE. The rule was when the song ended they all had to be ready for PE in a line. The teacher said it worked every time.

  2. ‘This silent obedience comes as a contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago, providing an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for music to permeate the whole life of the school.’

    As you see I was interested in contrasting images related to singing.

    I would very much hope that the strict school will be the harbinger of joyful singing of a disciplined kind and as musical as I imagine was that of the children in their Swiss school who too were feeling secure and being their true selves free from peer pressure and bullying.

    Thanks for the response as always. On to the pioneering work of John Curwen. I’m a particular fan of Sarah Glover by the way. I imagine you are too.

  3. pepperdog

    I mainly work with a Key Stage 1 children. Curwen/Glover Kodaly approach works and find that using fixed “do” improves aural skills and transfers really well onto hand bells and xylophones.

    1. Use of fixed doh is interesting to hear about. I tend to assume that moveable doh as in Curwen and Kodaly had surpassed it. I have only now realised that the term ‘tonic sol fa’ referred specifically to fixed doh system.

      1. pepperdog

        I started using fixed doh because when I worked in Thailand about half the children had perfect pitch. It’s what I wrote my Masters dissertation on. I just find it works and transfers well onto instruments. It does mean most things are in C or F though!

    2. I’m interested in the transfer to hand bells as this naturally has a strong kinaesthetic factor and recognising the gross motor. Do Early Year’s teachers deploy jingles on wrists and ankles in movement responses to music or is that a pedagogy that has been lost?

      1. pepperdog

        I’ve not seen that and I have never done it myself in Early Years. That must explain those wrist bells I saw in the instrument cupboard!

      2. pepperdog

        Talked to lots of colleagues – I was wrong, jingles still going strong. Will try myself if there are any in the cupboard!

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