Progressive differentiation in the singing class

The teacher noted that:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realize that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualized selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [1]

In this we see an important principle at work. I call it ‘progressive differentiation’.

The singing class starts as a cohort but little by little space is created for individual voices to be recognised and nurtured.

In the ‘The Story of Music Education Now’ Fifty Blogs 2012-2013, chapter 5 (blogs 32-37) is devoted to Key Stage 3 singing:

  1. Year 9 boys singing
  2. Mary’s secret
  3. Faye reports from the secret garden
  4. Listening with the voice
  5. ‘You can’t make me sing’
  6. Singing and the protection of masculinity
  7. The voice in a broad and balanced music education

‘32. Mary’s secret’ provides a model of the differentiated singing class where each voice is known and nurtured.

But this is in the classroom, in the school and bounded by the formalities of the school. But what about beyond the school and in another place?

Alresford is a small country town in mid-Hampshire with its watercress beds, steam railway, and since 2013 a community choir now some 130 in number. The choir meets on Monday evenings in the parish church of St John under the direction of Keith Clarke. [2]

The choir is ambitious and this has been recognised by the Hampshire Music Education Hub by awarding the choir its Certificate of Appreciation.

How then does a choir of 130 ‘progressively differentiate’?

From the choir’s website:

‘All of us have the capacity to improve. Our Director is often telling members that they have everything that they need to become great singers. In the future, we want to be able to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to take up the challenge of developing individually, as well as within the choir. To that end, we are beginning to look at ways and means for supporting the training of members in small groups, or as individuals, to help them even better than they already are!’ [3]

The late Janet Mills HMI once wrote a short article for the Music Teacher Magazine titled ‘Differentiation and Integration’ (lost in the Music Teacher Magazine archives alas). Janet set out a simple yet immensely valuable principle of music education. [4]

Both in the case of Year 7’s singing pathway referred to above and the Alresford Community Choir the principle of differentiation and integration is being harnessed ensuring individual development while serving community.

Without progressive differentiation serving whole class community, singing at Key Stage 3 may well continue to be an ‘aspiration outstripping actuality’ as it was in 1989. [5]


[1] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 124.

[2] See

[3] See

[4] Janet was a mathematician as well as a musician. Differentiation and integration is a mathematical concept.

[5] See Swanwick, K. (1989) Music in schools: a study of context and curriculum practice. British Journal of Music Education, 6, pp. 155-171, in which secondary school teachers claimed the centrality of singing in the curriculum yet in practice found little time for it.Advertisements

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