‘As long as we live, there is never enough singing …’
Aristotle, in praise of singing and quoting the bard Musaeus (whom Greek legend claimed to be the son of Orpheus) said: ‘song is man’s sweetest joy‘, and added his own warning against using musical instruments which would severely interfere with – and even inhibit – the act of singing.
In a curious 2nd century compendium of manners and opinion, the Greek writer Athenaeus claims it to be no disgrace to confess knowing nothing, but a great disgrace to decline to sing.
The early church claimed that singing brought the people closer to God. Primitive societies established a strong sense of their own community with song, and still the exuberance of common enthusiasms in national pride or national mourning, victory in war or in sport, can be celebrated spontaneously in song. From those ancient judgments arose, over centuries, the belief that singing was not only of enormous benefit to the soul, but also had a fundamental part to play in the education of children.
State schools in England recognised the fact when, on 22nd March 1872, it was decreed that ‘the art and practice of singing be taught in all schools as a branch of elementary education’. Instructors and inspectors were appointed, and 25 years later a great musical gala was held at London’s Crystal Palace involving some 5,000 singing children celebrating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Festivals, both competitive and otherwise, materialized everywhere, and through both Wars there was singing, community song-books were published and singing teachers in schools taught genuine British folk songs to British children. There were even choirs for teachers too.
But standards are only improved if they are first maintained. Sadly, over the last few decades, the number of musically able primary teachers has declined drastically. The repertoire of traditional English folk and community song, through which young children once experience literacy, numeracy, social history, disciplined learning, co-ordinated teamwork and even physical exercise – as well as music – is practically extinct. Without organised singing session beginning for five-year olds, we have no capable 11-year olds, and no 18-year olds entering teacher training who appreciate the value of singing; and well within two decades we have another generation of primary teachers who have no experience of the value of music or the way it can be taught to children.
Even caring parents who will teach their infants to look at everything and observe, will rarely induce them to listen to the world around them and sing – for children would as quickly imitate sounds as they do anything. This reluctance to sing – or even embarrassment to try – is a predicament that will not be solved by money.
But it could be addressed by lively teachers who are fully aware of the benefits of singing and use the wonderful free-of-charge resource that we all have in our own voices.