How to get Ireland’s schools singing
Schoolgirls learning choir sessions can boost numeracy, literacy and concentration
Choir teacher Helen Doyle during rehearsals in St Vincent’s Girl’s School, North William St, Dublin 1. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The schoolgirls in St Vincent’s Girls School in Dublin’s north inner-city aren’t involved in singing, choirs or learning music – but all this is about to change.
“You’re now my choristers and we’re going to sing as Gaeilge in the Mansion House in December,” choir teacher, Helen Doyle tells the 4th and 5th class girls.
This is their first session of their “from scratch” choir session. As part of her doctorate in music education, Doyle has arranged with the principal of this disadvantaged school to come once a week throughout the year to train these 10- and 11-year-old girls, many of whom have never sung in a choir before.
In the first lesson, Doyle trains the girls to sing the tune of Codladh Sámh a Íosa (Sleep Well, Jesus), with playful English lyrics before asking them to sing in Irish.
“She teaches us in a weird way, making us do weird voices and sing about frogs,” says Alanna (10).
Although squashed into one classroom for these weekly choral lessons, the 40 or so girls all seem willing to give it a go.
“It’s really good. I can’t wait to sing in the Mansion House,” says Carly (10).
“I feel more confident singing because all my friends are here and they support me a lot,” adds Sofia (9).
During their break, some of them are still singing Sam Smith’s Stay with Me, one of the pop songs Doyle has included for them to sing.
St Vincent’s Girls School principal, Margaret O’Connor, says many aren’t involved in singing or music.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for them. It will broaden their experience and spark something off in some of them,” she says.
For her doctorate, Doyle is specifically looking at the history of the Feis Ceoil through Ireland’s school choirs.
“I’m interested in looking at which schools take part, what are the benefits to taking part and which schools don’t take part and why not?” says Doyle.
She teaches the girls at St Vincent’s School entirely by ear and doesn’t use sheet music at all.
“It’s all about “watch, copy, do”. I’m not here to give them sight reading or musicianship classes. It’s all about the production of sound,” says Doyle, who is on a career break from her classroom teaching at Wesley College Dublin although she continues to be the school’s choral conductor.
Doyle says teaching singing through sounds and movements taps into various learning styles.
“For some of the girls, the hand movements when they are holding a note, singing in a specific rhythm or singing from loud to soft really helps. Others learn by watching me or watching their peers and others by listening,” she says.
The idea for the Mansion House concert – titled “It’s The Taking Part That Counts’ – is to show a continuum of development.
The “from scratch” choir, for instance, will perform alongside the winning choirs from the 2017 Feis Ceoil – St Brigid’s Primary School, Castleknock, and Wesley College, Ballinteer – and members of the vocal ensembles, Anúna and Ardú and tenor, Eoin Gilhooly.
“I’ve included a ’from scratch’ choir because I believe singing in a choir and music education has an impact on numeracy, literacy, Gaelic, history as well as cognitive functions like memory and concentration. And, it has mental health benefits too,” says Doyle. “They also learn that together, they are greater than the sum of their parts.”
Four weeks after my first visit, I return to St Vincent’s see how they are progressive.
This time, they seem completely at ease singing about bumble bee tuna sandwiches as well as rehearsing their Mansion House solo song, Codladh Sámh to a new rhythm.
Their warm-up includes everything from wiggling their shoulders to clenching their knees, bouncing up and down on the spot and making a host of unusual sounds with different lip movements.
Tuning their voices and getting them into a rhythm, Doyle also encourages the girls to move their arms like robots or spiders or hold a note while imagining they are pulling out a piece of chewing gum horizontally.
In the space of a month, their voices already seem stronger and more confident.
“Singing makes me feel happy and we’ve learned songs in Irish and Latin,” says Charleigh (10).
“She [Helen Doyle] is very good at teaching. She wants to make it perfect but she doesn’t shout at us. She just wants to help us,” says Millie (10).
“When you’re singing, you can express your feelings with sad or happy songs, you don’t have to have a perfect voice to sing,” says Abbi (10).
“It’s fun and it’s good singing in the familiar surroundings of our classroom where we are every day,” says Katie (10).
Sinead Healy, the 5th class teacher at the school, says that while it’s difficult to pinpoint any direct results yet from the girls’ involvement in the choir, their interest has increased with each session.
“They look forward to Thursday mornings and are so enthusiastic. Their concentration is fantastic during that hour and they remember a lot from week to week,” she says.
As well as teaching them to sing, Doyle asks the girls to imagine themselves on stage with other professional choirs, teaching them to stand up quietly before they sing and to bow gracefully after their performance.
By the fourth week, the girls have learned this performance etiquette.
“This sense of discipline has fallen into place quickly and has become the normal way for them to behave,” she says.
“I think it will also help them use their intuition and give them skills in reading situations and following the dynamic of a room.”
Next stop: the Mansion House concert on Wednesday, December 13th, for one night only.
But Doyle hopes the legacy of what they have learned will live on for much longer.
Should singing be part of the school curriculum?
The Association of Irish Choirs (AOIC) believes that whole class and whole school singing could become an integrative part of the primary school music curriculum.
“The primary school music curriculum involves performing, composing and listening and each of these aspects can be delivered by group singing,” says Dermot O’Callaghan, the chief executive of the AOIC.
Currently, some schools have a strong choral singing tradition while others don’t.
The fact that every child has a voice means that singing is easier to incorporate into whole class or whole school activities.
“If more primary school teachers were comfortable with singing in class, this could work,” says O’Callaghan.
The AOIC is currently working with teachers at the teacher training colleges to foster whole class and whole school singing.
To encourage more primary school teachers to incorporate singing at all levels into their classroom activities, the AOIC will launch a primary schools choral singing information booklet at the Ireland’s Schools Choirs and Feis Ceoil 1897-2017 commemorative concert in the Mansion House on December 13th.
The concert, It’s the Taking Part That Counts, is a nationwide initiative to get Ireland’s schools singing.