Singing the benefits of a musical education for all

Conductor Lynsey Callaghan believes every child should be given the opportunity to find their voice

Lyndsey Callaghan with the Dublin Youth Choir.

Lyndsey Callaghan with the Dublin Youth Choir.

 

Many children from well-off and educated backgrounds reap the proven benefits of musical training which, as well as helping creative development, can also improve academic attainment.

However, with some music schools charging €1,000 for a year’s tuition, depending on what’s available in their area, many families don’t have the disposable income for training outside what is taught at school.

While some initiatives are doing good – the national music education programme, Music Generation, gives access to tuition to about 50,000 children with plans to expand – for every child learning the cello, there are many missing out.

Conductor Lynsey Callaghan believes if there was more focus on music, specifically choral music, in primary schools, it would level the playing field. Making choirs and regular quality opportunities to sing available to every child would be a first step in properly engaging all children in music.

“Every single child has inherent music ability and the voice is the first instrument. I believe a choral music education with an appropriate repertoire of songs will ensure every child achieves basic music competency.”

Callaghan is passionate about providing opportunities for excellence in youth choral music, having founded the award-winning Dublin Youth Choir (DYC) in 2017 which now includes a Chamber Choir, Youth Choir, Male Voice Choir, Junior Choir, and a Training Choir to start in September. All the choirs are actively recruiting from second class up to late teens.

There is no limit to the potential of a child – a musical training introduces them to new ideas and different ways of thinking

It is important to Callaghan, who is also artistic director of the Belfast Philharmonic Youth and Chamber Choirs, that children from every background get a chance to learn music and she recognises how that opportunity shaped her own life.

“I had a music teacher in secondary school, Dr Lorraine O’Connell, who was a huge influence. It was through my friends in choir and orchestra and my musical experiences that I learned to set my aspirations so high. There is no limit to the potential of a child – a musical training introduces them to new ideas and different ways of thinking.”

Callaghan bases her teaching methods on the child-led Kodály approach, devised by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, which teaches children to learn subconsciously at first – by playing games and using tools such as rhythm syllables, hand signs, solfa and movement. This approach encourages the development of musical concepts in a fun manner, which also makes learning an instrument easier.

Dublin Youth Choir busy practising.
Dublin Youth Choir busy practising.

With her Junior Choir intake of 2nd class children last September, Callaghan says she can already see a big improvement in the children’s concentration with the weekly progressive music lessons of one hour developing her singers effectively in musicianship skills in an enjoyable atmosphere.

She draws a parallel with increased memory skills as the children have already learned 25 songs this year, both in solfa and in a multitude of languages. Their aural skills have improved and they are learning new songs quicker than when they began.

Callaghan also points out they are learning the concept of delayed gratification and resilience by seeing the pay-off that comes from steady work, practice and a determination to improve.

“I will introduce a song incrementally. We might work first in hand signs and with solfa and then add on the lyrics once the melody has been learned. The satisfaction and joy the children get when they finally sing the song together is so lovely to see.”

Callaghan adds that along with the learned discipline, there is the increased social skills of singing with others and the improved confidence through public performance, important for all from the youngest children to the teenagers of the youth and chamber choirs.

It would be good value to steer more investment towards music training which has shown to improve academic attainment in numeracy, literacy and language

Callaghan says that while the Government is ploughing money into literacy and numeracy, it would be good value to steer more investment towards music training which has shown to improve academic attainment in numeracy, literacy and language and would be of huge benefit to all children – in particular to those with difficulties who might need some variety away from academic learning or those who could excel at the arts given the right exposure.

In the current Primary School Curriculum (PSC) there are three strands to teaching music – composing, performance and listening and responding – with music getting on average one hour out of the school week.

While many schools do wonderful work, last year Orla McDonagh, of the Technological University Dublin conservatory of music and drama, highlighted that most children in Ireland are not musically literate leaving primary school. She has called for intervention either by supporting teachers to reach the goal of a basic standard of literacy in music or by employing specialist music teachers with pedagogy training in school. It can be challenging for primary teachers with an ongoing survey from resource company Dabbledoomusic showing only 12 per cent found music easy to teach.

Having examined the PSC for her undergraduate thesis, Callaghan thinks there is a space for more choral music education though she acknowledges it is complex and that more resources and training are needed to support primary school teachers.

“Many schools do not employ specialist music teachers and the many demands on teachers have to be weighed against the ideal version of music education for all,” she says.

Callaghan admits there are no easy answers. “I believe in the importance of a high level of training for conductors and music teachers. The idea of bringing in specialist teachers can jar with the child-centred nature of the primary school curriculum, whereby the child is at the centre of the learning rather than any particular subject.”

Does a music specialist teacher then jeopardise the child-centred focus of the PSC? “Technically, yes. But is it worth it?” she asks.

“Firstly, to make learning music enjoyable, engagement is key. Always choose songs of the highest quality; keep in mind the appropriate range for children’s voices and ensure the songs are content-appropriate.

“It is important to prepare the musical concepts through songs and games and then present the concept when enough groundwork has been done. It is then really important to keep practising the concept.”

Callaghan believes it is never too late to join a choir and to enjoy the shared sense of humanity it will bring.

“It really lifts the spirits and gives a sense of community. My mum last year joined Tallaght Choral Society without any formal musical training and has got so much joy out of it and has even picked up the geography of a score. She has also made so many new friends.”

Callaghan says she has found her niche to contribute to music education in Ireland by actively getting out there and offering opportunities.

“I just want to make a difference in the small but significant way that I can. I want to create the most valuable, diverse, equitable, focused, beautiful experience for every child and young person whom I come in contact with. I am realising this dream through DYC and the culture that we have created there.

“I now know it’s my role to be out there and facilitating these experiences for as many young people as I can reach, from all different backgrounds, just as I was afforded these opportunities. And then, in time, hopefully my DYC singers will bring these experiences to even more children, and on and on.”

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