The Story of School 21's Community Choir

Emily Crowhurst Head of 4-18 Performing Arts, School 21

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

[The Community Choir] is a fantastic way to feel part of the school community and to become more involved in our children’s life at school. We love singing the songs and talking about them at home. A very positive experience for us all round.’

School21 Parent, 2017

THE COMMUNITY CHOIR: SHIFTING THE POWER DYNAMIC 

Setting up our School21 community choir has been a life-affirming endeavour. Friday afternoons in our school hall are an embodiment of our school value of community and model the power of music to promote (amongst other things) non-hierarchical social cohesion, build relationships and provide a vehicle for social action. The existence and celebration of our community choir also reflects a more expansive view of education and the role of school beyond examination success. A typical rehearsal captures some familiar snapshots of family and school life; a father bouncing his pre-school child along to the music, a mother and 12-year-old daughter singing out from opposite sides of the choir (because it’s unfashionable to be seen with your parents at that age), a handful of teachers rolling in to expend their last drops of energy, a 9-year-old stood next to our Headteacher, helping him clap in time to the beat, and enthusiastic middle school choir members modelling the joy of singing without inhibition, and leading warm-ups and pieces with increasing confidence. This creates an altogether different dynamic for interacting with our families and students, devoid of power plays and one-way interactions more typically experienced by parents and students in schools. A done with, rather than a done to, venture. But why should we bother with such endeavours? And what possibilities does it open up for our schools?

SCHOOL IS ABOUT THE PRESENT, NOT JUST THE PAST AND THE FUTURE… 

Traditional models of schooling tend not to value ‘in the moment’ or ‘real-world’ experiences that do not obviously or directly link to improved academic outcomes. Experiences like being part of a school musical, where students work as a company with directors and choreographers, professional scores and scripts, and as part of an authentic process of rigorous rehearsal over a 3-6month period. Experiences like completing a 12-week work placement during GCSE curriculum time, collaborating with professionals in sectors from law to media, solving live problems that the students are held accountable for. Experiences like attending the after-school hip-hop brass band, working weekly with professional musicians and performing in concerts. But, ask the music and drama teachers in your school how many times their students’ participation in a concert or show has been threatened or even stopped because they’re falling behind in science, or they’ve been repeatedly disruptive in geography lately, and you’ll notice the tension. These activities are too often seen as frivolous extras or distractions from the ‘actual’ role of school – uploading content into our students; content that is mostly influenced by exam specifications, in order to prepare them for the future, or specifically, SATs, GCSEs, A Levels and, ultimately, the world of work. We must not neglect this, of course, but in isolation, this view of education confines students to holding pens for the future, rather than encouraging and empowering them to create work of value now, be part of collaborative endeavours that are important now, and make a difference to the world and indeed their world right now too. 

At School21, we believe in providing an education of the head, heart, and hand, which means our curriculum, core pedagogies and values promote a holistic education centred around the child. We believe that the power to craft, to explore, to make a change; to speak eloquently, understand yourself and others better, and actively grapple with the big challenges of our society, are of equal importance, and complementary, to building subject knowledge.

Our music curriculum is similarly expansive, built around five core values/practices (ensemble, mastery, community, creativity, and flow), which we believe embody a rich 4-18 music education and enable our students to experience music authentically and meaningfully, without neglecting their right to access the very best exam grades and future opportunities in the field and beyond. The two, in fact, go hand in hand. One of these core five is community, because we believe in the social power of music to connect people, to bring authenticity and accountability to music making, to tell stories, break down barriers, share ideas and make a stand. And, by building our curriculum from values such as this, rather than fixed content, every year we can be responsive to what’s happening in the world and our local community right now. One way we consistently live out our value of community (and others) is through our annual Festival of Light event, which celebrates the curriculum music project outcomes of every child (including GCSE/A Level music classes) in our 4-18 school, in a month-long programme of four concerts, in which 900 performers (including the 50 strong staff choir!) will share their work with the local community as part of a number of ensembles. Projects are rigorous in process, designed to be authentic and driven by an enquiry question and end project goal. The outward community lens is a core part of this, providing accountability, and connecting the knowledge and skills they acquire during the 12-week process to something and someone real, in a setting that allows the students to exist and be seen in a different way. But this does not need to be just the students’ experience… Here’s the journey of our school’s community choir so far, and the opportunities it gave us to exist and collaborate in a different dimension with its participants. 

GETTING STARTED…

We set up our community choir in October 2017. It had been something I had wanted to do for years, but like many ideas that spring up in a busy teacher’s brain, turning thought into action took a little time. At the start of the new academic year, we promoted our idea by displaying posters on the outside of our primary and middle school classroom doors to encourage conversation amongst parents and teachers during the school drop-off/pick-up. We handed out flyers to students, advertised the choir in the newsletter and texted out to all our parents, with the added promise of free tea and biscuits. We didn’t know what the appetite would be (for the singing, not the biscuits), or how well our proposed time and day would work for our families, but on Thursday 19th October at 16:00 (we would later move to Fridays) we got the hall set-up and waited expectantly.

Much to our excitement, parents and children started coming in, a variety of ages and backgrounds, and our resident middle school choir, who we continue to invite along as ambassadors of the choir, greeted their parents and carers or offered to make tea for members of the community they were meeting for the first time. A handful of teachers, including our Headteacher, also arrived, and our community choir was officially launched.

We had thought carefully about the way we would run the rehearsal and the repertoire we would choose initially, and we knew we were onto something when, as the weeks went on, more people joined us than left. In the coming weeks, we would see students leading warm-ups and giving short performances, parents stepping forward to take solos and teachers making the time to come and sing with their students. Before long, parents started sending emails suggesting songs we could perform, some which represented cultures in our local community often overlooked and asking to collaborate with the community choir on work based projects dealing with local issues; teachers wanted to build the community choir into extra-curricular projects, and student composers wanted to use the community choir to workshop their GCSE coursework, and perform/lead it authentically. We had created a new context for students, parents and teachers to collaborate regularly that was not explicitly linked to academic progress, but not at odds with it either.

And like our music curriculum in 2014, our community choir would make its first public stand on the Festival of Light stage, performing both as a distinct ensemble, and as part of our grand finale amongst 300 other performers. That year’s finale was a song called ‘Umoja’, from the South African musical of the same name. Umoja, aptly, is Swahili for ‘unity’. Check out our first term video here.

From here, more project opportunities emerged…

PROJECT 1: WOMEN & WORK

‘Dear Ms Crowhurst,

I am Ava and Dara’s mum and have been in the community choir. My practice just won a public art commission for the Olympic park… The commission is about Women and Work and the £1tln women give to the UK economy a year through care, domestic labour, volunteering etc… we would love the choir, if possible, to deliver the music of the parade.’

Torange Khonsari – Community Choir Parent & Project Manager of Women Work, 2018

The community choir has value and meaning in and of itself, but soon into its existence came an opportunity for it to use its voice in another way. The Women Work project enabled us to collaborate with a number of School21 parents (particularly women who, project manager, Torange had deliberately sought to collaborate with) and local artists in Newham, discuss issues surrounding women in the local community and beyond, and finally connect with the public on these issues through a performative parade.

  After an initial meeting with Torange about the contributions we could make, we co-presented the vision to the choir members, commissioning them to devise six musical pieces to be performed at relevant landmarks along the parade route. The first, an abandoned plot in Bow, where we would create a marching drum line to accompany the vocal stimulus “Why can’t we just switch positions?”. The second location, beside a giant mural of Sylvia Pankhurst, a performance of Nina Simone’s Chain Gang would take place. Another, a poem, She’s being judged, written by a Year 10 student, would be set to music and performed outside a modernist housing association. The final stop was to be opposite an old mint factory at which 90% of people employed were women, where we would create and perform celebratory samba music, also played whenever we were on the move.

During the project process we collaborated with the other artists involved in the project, who had also engaged other students in the school to be involved in the parade from a design perspective.

The process was enriching and empowering, and for those who could attend the event itself, a vibrant experience, captured beautifully through the photography of another School21 parent, Monika Szolle, was shared and the role of community was clear to see. This was an opportunity to stand up with and for others and deepen our relationship with the local community.

PROJECT 2: HAIRSPRAY 

School21 has just delivered its fifth annual musical, an auditioned extra-curricular project open to all students between the ages of 9-18. In 2019, Hairspray was the chosen work, a vibrant toe-tapper set in 1960s America, where the battle for civil rights is a central theme. Over time we have developed a strong culture of excellence and creativity in our musicals, but the content of this particular show provided an additional opportunity for social action. 

There’s a dream

In the future

There’s a struggle

We have yet to win

And there’s pride

In my heart

‘Cause I know

Where I’m going

And I know where I’ve been

I Know Where I’ve Been is a seminal moment in the show (Watch a video of the performance here), in which a protest march for equal rights and integration is staged around a rousing song highlighting the battle and journey ahead. As the song progresses, increasingly more cast members join the stage with their placards calling for ‘integration not segregation’. Whilst an important and powerful moment in and of itself, many of the sentiments of tolerance and equality being actively fought for at that time are still present in issues surrounding today’s society. Here was an opportunity to promote empathy for the past, through the lens of the present, with, and for, our community.

In the community choir rehearsals building up to the show, adults and children collaborated to decide on local/national/global issues they were passionate about and possible slogans/designs they would create to make their point. 

They learnt the rich three-part harmony and dynamic contrasts that brought the lyrics to life, and eventually rehearsed with placards in hand. The emotion and sense of meaning in the room was palpable, even in the preparatory sessions. The performance itself, where the community choir arose from their seats during the scene in the middle of Act 2, surrounding the audience with banners and passionate singing, left us all in tears. As we battled through the live accompanying music through bleary eyes, singing at full blast ourselves, the atmosphere in the room was intense. We were here, as a community, with our community, singing for our community, and other communities that had used their voices to make a stand.

PROJECT 3: A RECORD FOR CHANGE

Climate change, and more specifically the single-use plastic crisis, is one of the greatest challenges facing our     global society today. But never fear, music teacher Pippa Wall was here to unite our community in speaking (or rather, singing) out about this issue. Originally born out of a 2018 Year 8 curriculum music project exploring how the idea of sound could be taken to its limit, 5p Plastic Bag – The Musical emerged in full form the following year, through the creative work of 75 Year 4 students in their music lessons with Miss Wall. It entered its third iteration in February 2020, when it was learnt and recorded by the community choir, after they had seen it performed with such passion at the previous Festival of Light concert.  

This project aimed to not only make a stand on a global level, but to bring in new members to the community choir, including our wonderful Year 4 advocates and their parents/carers, who were especially encouraged to come and along and share their message with a wider audience, having invested so much already. 

Through a community choir parent contact with the Green Party, we also had the genuine possibility of reaching a National audience. We believed we could make a difference, and were driven by this, as we discussed and devised our strategy, with plans for an accompanying video, and public launch all in formation.

The week after our first draft recording session, another global challenge took hold, and so plans and ambitions for this project were put on ice. But momentum was built, and the relationships formed amongst the community choir would hold until we could come together and drive the project forward again. In the meantime, the power of music would be vital in helping our school and wider community connect amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst many students were robbed of their opportunity to demonstrate an aspect of their academic abilities in end of year examinations, our school vision and culture ensured they still had learning experiences and important achievements born out of endeavours like this that were also of value, both for their present, and in preparation for the future. And the wider community could be with them on this, too. 

CONCLUSION

When we lead from values, when we think of how we do things with rather than to, when we see joining a community choir, engaging in a local project, or being in a play as of equal importance to other educational aims, we promote deeper thinking about our curricula, build stronger relationships with our community, and explore and celebrate the many ways schools can empower students, parents and teachers to make a difference to their world, not only in the future, but today.

Who wrote this article?

Emily Crowhurst Head of 4-18 Performing Arts, School 21

Emily has been teaching music in London state schools since 2010, and currently works as Head of 4-18 Performing Arts at School21. She is passionate about building empowered teams and developing music curriculum design to ensure young people consistently access a high quality, values-based music education with ensemble and community at its heart. Her belief in inclusive excellence, and a community-centred approach to education drive the projects she has designed and developed, which include the community choir, formed in 2017, and a four-year immersive, ensemble-based band project for students across Years 5-8, in which all students receive free weekly two-to-one tuition, weekly curriculum ensemble workshops and multiple performance opportunities from a dedicated team of 16 music staff.

@CrowhurstEmily

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