“As I walked out, one bright may morning”; the beginning of many well-known tunes collected by people like Cecil Sharpe for posterity, sadly largely forgotten.
Music “education” in the 1950s Primary school was a bit hit and miss. We sang hymns in assembly and we certainly had Christmas shows, but, for the youngest, this was often only an excuse for Cecil B Demille costumed productions, where I was, one year, a bee and another a “Chinese” person with lampshade style hat. There wasn’t much else that leaves any mark.
From 7-11, we lived in Australia, where song was popular, particularly the folk songs of Australia, like “Waltzing Matilda” and “The wild colonial boy”, so we had the printed song books and were encouraged to sing lustily, if not always in tune. Memories were being created and memorisation was being practised. Of course, our understanding of the songs was helped by “interpretation” of the words; swagman, billy, jumbuck, tuckerbag, troopers and billabong. And that is some of the great value of songs. They hold the language of their time and place.
Returning from Australia, and starting at Grammar School, during one of the first music lessons, the teacher used the lesson as an audition for the school choir, lined us all up and each was asked to sing “Early One Morning, just as the sun was rising… etc”. This seemed to be known to the early singers, but not to me. With panic rising, I could feel, with each rendition, my listening becoming more acute, for both the words and the tune. My turn came and I managed to “perform” adequately and was surprised to be asked to join the choir. None of us knew the importance to the school at the time, but, when we went to the South West Choir Festival and won, it became apparent. “Hoppy” Hopwood was delighted, for himself as well as us. Then my voice broke… and I had to leave the choir…
My next singing memory comes from Churston Grammar, where the librarian was in charge of the school production. I was asked out of the blue if I would like to play the part of the policeman in that year’s production, “Salad Days”. I must have been taken by surprise and said yes. From time to time, the lines come back, “We’re looking for a piano, a piano, yes a piano…” These particular memories are from fifty years ago. The words are part of my past but can be drawn into memory.
I didn’t do a lot of singing between that experience and starting as a teacher, apart from singing on the coach before or after sporting matches.
Singing Together and other radio programmes were the bread and butter of singing and music education in the early 1970s. Based on folk and other traditional songs and tunes, a booklet of words accompanying the broadcast. Listened to live, you had to be in the hall at the right time, ready with books in hand for the start of the programme. If the school secretary remembered to set the reel to reel tape recorder, there might be a copy for a repeat.
At the age of 28, I learned to strum enough chords on the guitar, having joined the beginner group for a term, to take the next term’s beginners and also to accompany quite a surprising range of songs. From that point, building a collection of songs for children, I was able to add songs to any topic theme.
Being the time of the Overhead Projector, photocopying the words onto acetate meant that song lyrics could be interrogated as a part of an English lesson, as a reading exercise, dictionary work and oral exploration. This, probably, was the position until 2005, when the Interactive White Board was available, if only to do projection in a different way.
Songs often have a historical and geographical context. There are protest songs, songs that use comedy to make a serious point. These songs, of their time, can help children to understand the feelings of people living through, sometimes, very serious changes. Communal song helped people get through two world wars.
For a few years before headship, I was a part of the band for Woodfidley, a social dance group, and, in between dances, different members of the band filled the interludes with folk song. Part of the band moped into Pogles Wood, a barn dance group, with similar intermissions. This extended the repertoire of learned songs.
As a HT, I instituted a regular half hour (plus) singing slot with both the Infants and junior halves of the school, singing folk (UK and international), fun and hymns, depending on the needs of that part of the school year. The staff had a form of PPA before that became a reality. Our school “choirs” for village events were simply invitations for whoever was available. All were welcome.
A few weeks ago, a message came through my blog from someone who had been in my 1988 class, reminiscing about songs that we had sung, having found a blog on the Triantiwontigongolope. That’s not unique. Still living in a town where my 32-year school teaching career was within 14 miles of home (SE Hants has around 240 primary schools), I can meet ex-class members or their parents who will similarly recall songs that were sung and are being shared with their children or grandchildren.
Being able to join in with song turns you from an onlooker to a participant. Knowing the words is important. We talk of “Cultural Capital”. Songs often embed this in spades. And it you think you “can’t sing”, interpret and learn the words as poetry, “borrow” someone else’s voice for the tune and go back to how I started, with a disembodied voice leading singing through audio media.
Just don’t lose the music… Every topic can have a tune…