Songs of praise for The Choir

The BBC2 show demonstrates movingly that you don't need to be posh to appreciate traditional, ‘difficult’ music.

Alka Sehgal

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In a society that so often tries to pretend there is no difference between high and low culture or that a classical-based education is irrelevant, it is a joy to see BBC2 show a series like The Choir, a programme that unashamedly celebrates Culture and Music with capital letters.

The programme follows passionate choirmaster Gareth Malone as he works to create choirs in unlikely quarters. Malone, educated at a grammar school, university and the Royal College of Music and now working as a conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, uses his considerable personal charm to persuade reluctant people of the joys of singing.

In the first series, The Choir: Boys Can’t Sing, Malone created a choir at the all-boys Lancaster School in Leicester. An astute educator, Malone realises that if you can get beyond the usual suspects to people who wouldn’t normally dream of singing, the result can be something new and special. So at the Lancaster School, Malone paid particular attention to getting the physical education staff on board.

In the current series, set in South Oxhey, a post-war suburb just north of London that was created with an eye more to budget limitations than cultural enrichment, Malone soon spots that the local boxing coach would be a useful ally. Alas, the path of the choirmaster is never smooth, and he loses the coach’s initial support. Nevertheless, Malone, determined as ever, proceeds to set up a community and children’s choir in South Oxhey. Watching Malone trying (and re-trying) to persuade people to give it a go and then to teach them how to sing makes for compelling television. I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of the boxing coach, either.

It is a rare treat to watch a programme where people are encouraged to engage with something that is potentially transformative, even though the process will not be easy. Unlike most other reality TV shows, this does not mean transformative at the most banal level (changing what you eat, recycle or the decor of a room, for example), nor does it offer a spectacular financial fix in the guise of some fairy godfather/mother millionaire. What it gives us was best expressed by the young man whose aspirations to be a singer were rekindled by Malone. He had previously ‘given up’ on his dreams when he realised that studying music at university was not for him.

Call me soppy, but I found the programme profoundly moving. Even if you hold the cynical line that people who join a reality TV show only want their 15 minutes of fame, the fact remains that, through Malone, the participants in The Choir come into contact with a vast body of knowledge and experience of music. Their moments of glory are based upon something more substantial than the acts of public self-humiliation or revelation common to many other reality shows.

There are lessons for all educationalists here, especially those who consider themselves progressive. In the process of promoting a pseudo-egalitarianism, too many educationalists end up doing a profound disservice to those ‘ordinary people’ whose name they invoke when casually dismissing ‘traditional knowledge/subjects’. Attractive, charismatic and engaging as Malone is, these personal qualities would not be enough on their own to enable groups of previously untutored people to be able to sing and produce a sound that can pass muster in venues such as the Royal Albert Hall. The presence of a TV crew might bring in extra people, but it could not teach them how to sing.

It is the knowledge, experience, hard work and passion that Malone has acquired through his own life and education that is the most important ingredient in this particular slice-of-reality TV. That Malone went to grammar school and university before receiving private tuition in order to get into Royal College of Music, and now works as a conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra does not just mean he has had what could be called a priviliged education. It also means he has engaged with, absorbed and been challenged by, some of the best ideas and cultural creations that humans have produced. And because Malone is so enthusiastic and passionate about his subject, he thinks it is possible and desirable for others to learn it, too, whatever their background and reasons for joining. Because he is classically trained, he is able to be creative and flexible in what and how he teaches. So, for example, Malone can incorporate elements of popular music into a classical form.

This is a world apart from music lessons today where pupils are generally taught de-contextualised technical information about classical music or are encouraged to perform variations of music from popular culture with which they are already familiar. Rarely are pupils expected to learn more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, tasks such as sight-reading or formal singing. When faced with a growing listlessness and lack of focus in the children’s choir, Malone responds by taking them to see a performance of one of the best children’s choirs in Britain. What he does not do is give up on either music or the children by saying: ‘Oh well, never mind, let’s stick with the pop you know, its just as good really…’

When Malone enthuses about peoples’ spirit and enjoyment, it is as a starting point for going further and beyond their everyday knowledge and experiences. This stands in stark contrast to current orthodoxies in most British classrooms today where phrases such as ‘personal enjoyment’ and ‘self-expression’ are actually a substitute for engaging with subjects based upon the type of knowledge and work without which pupils are left stranded within the mental worlds they are born into by chance. Malone’s high expectations pay off; both the community and children’s choirs are clearly delighted at being able to show off their work and effort in their public performances.

Herein lies an important truth that The Choir captures, wittingly or unwittingly, and that lies behind its near universal appeal (it’s beaten Top Gear and Jamie Oliver at the BAFTA awards twice). That is, the best knowledge and art is just as relevant and potentially transformative for everyone, whatever the particular social or economic conditions he or she is born into. In other words, there is absolutely no intrinsic reason why a window cleaner from Oxhey could, or should, benefit less from a traditional liberal education than a grammar school pupil.

Access to the best knowledge has always been restricted largely according the criteria arising from a stratified society, but this does not mean that knowledge itself creates a stratified society. Until recently, most teachers would have had more experience of some type of liberal education. And the potential for such education to have an emancipatory effect on individuals would have been widely accepted. Today, however, the opposite view dominates, and a liberal education is seen as a cause of social inequality rather than embodying a commitment to equality.

Those concerned with equality and education would do better to ensure more of our teachers have the kind of deep knowledge about their subject that Malone clearly has about Music rather than try and continually conjure up courses that ‘fit in with where pupils are already at’ and summarily condemn traditional subjects as either irrelevant or fit only for the few. This process condemns pupils to what the educational philosopher Charles Bailey calls ‘the present and particular’.

Alka Sehgal is reading for a PhD in the disappearance of British identity.

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