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En-choir-ing minds… October 21, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education, Magazines.
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Robert Gullifer, Headmaster of New College School, Oxford, looks at the benefits for all pupils of being in a specialist choir school in this article which first appeared in the autumn 2010 issue of Prep School magazine.

One of the questions I am most often asked is how the choral foundation, aside from the work of the choristers themselves, impacts on the daily work of the School. In reflecting on this I have become more and more conscious of how a group of gifted and talented pupils in whatever sphere can engage and inspire the whole school.

Choristers at New College School spend 12 hours a week during term-time practising for services, recordings and tours: they work with international orchestras and soloists and are expected to have a professional discipline in all they do. And so, one of the most evident examples they set is that careful time management means you can fit a lot into the day: homework is completed within set times; breaktimes and activities get off to a prompt start; books/equipment are generally in the right place the first time round.

Many other pupils see the benefits of operating in this way: it’s not geeky, it’s just efficient; the example is pupil-led, rather than teacher-led.

Many educationalists would find it hard to believe the standards that can be achieved by children of this age within a pretty standard day prep school setting. The key to it, for me, lies in setting their aspirations high and not imposing our own (adult) artificial ceilings.

The choristers see professional musicians in action and these are role models from an early age; the younger choristers see that the older choristers can sing with confidence and they in turn adopt the role model of the older boys.  There is a healthy mixture of competition to be at the top and the real understanding that the whole enterprise would fail if there were not for the support of the whole team.

There is also a sense of being healthily self-critical: it’s no shame to raise your hand to acknowledge a mistake in choir; it merely means that time is not wasted for the whole group and each boy learns to take responsibility for his own performance. Again, with a little care, this model can be applied to sport, drama, and academic work.

It might be thought that having a group of gifted and talented musicians would discourage others from approaching these standards. My experience has been quite the reverse. Partly because of the more celebrity aspect of what choristers do (award-winning recordings, foreign travel, for example) and partly because they talk about it with unaffected enjoyment, it’s ‘cool’ to do music here and all want to join in the experience of music-making at whatever level and, crucially, from an early age. It’s a question of valuing all contributions.

Equally, we can recruit outstanding music teachers because they want to be part of the New College musical experience. The result is that over 90% of the school learns a musical instrument and we have two school choirs in addition to the College choir. We’ve also worked hard at fostering appreciation of each others’ talents; it’s a mixture of aspiring to high standards, but also recognising that these can be achieved in a variety of ways in the musical world, as in all aspects of school life.

Click here to visit the Prep School magazine ezine website to read the rest of this article.

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