I do not enjoy the many, many end of term assemblies or carol concerts I attend as a parent. It troubles me, this dissatisfaction. After all, I think my children are the bees knees, and I want to join with them in these celebrations, but, somehow, it doesn’t work for me. Something always jars. Part of it is down to the fact that at my children’s school, I am an outsider. I am fully aware of this. As a teacher my emotions are fully engaged with all of the children, as a parent I only really care about three amongst the assembled throng. As a parent it’s not my job to interact, to share conspiratorial grins or shush loudly, raise my eyebrows or apologise from the piano keys. As a parent, it is my job to be entirely passive, to sit, to stand, to clap when I am told to, and it’s not a job I do well, I’m afraid.
There always seems to be, at the back of my mind, the awful feeling that my children are missing out. As one of the pianists at school, a large part of my job-before-the-kids-arrived was to direct and teach the singing. I’ve got books and books of parts written for chime bars, recorders and a whole plethora of un-tuned percussion sitting, unused, on my bookshelves and yet, this aspect, this part that was writ large in my teaching life, seems to have touched my children not one little bit.
They don’t know about invisible string. (That’s the stuff that starts at the base of your spine, goes up your backbone and comes out the top of your head and pulls you to sitting up straight when you are singing.) They don’t know how many fingers you need to get into your mouth to show you how wide to open it to let the sound out. They don’t know which parts of their ribs move when they breathe, or how they should be able to sing the alphabet on one breath. They don’t know to just carry on when the piano playing goes wrong. In fact, half the time I’m not even sure if I am listening to my own children sing or not, because the canned music is so loud.
And all this makes me unbearably sad. I couldn’t understand it at first. I couldn’t understand why the production values were so low, but now that I am back in the game I think I’ve got a better handle on what’s going on.
It used to be, back when I was teaching full time and had a class of my own, that you could pretty much write off the last few days leading up to a production. Or weeks even, if it was a really big show. There wasn’t much point planning PE in the hall because you were never sure if you’d be able to get in there, what with all the rehearsals. Take Christmas. We’d start learning the carols in November in our weekly singing assemblies, and the timetable, from being predictable in its routine, was liable to fly out of the window at a moments’ notice – usually the point at which the head teacher decided that it was going to be a disaster and no mistake if we didn’t do something drastic.
These days, I don’t think anyone would dare. Somehow, somewhere, it seems that the only valuable things to learn are those we write down in exercise books, in particular in English and Maths. Somehow, we seem to have forgotten the other things we learn when there is a school play, or concert, end of term assembly or service. Somehow, in schools stuffed with teachers who play musical instruments, it has become easier to stick a CD on rather than open the lid of the piano. Or worse, have no-one who can play it all on the staff.
I’ve never been a particularly sporty person (I always have a good idea of the game, but never had the physical capabilities to take part properly); I learned how to be in a team through the school orchestra, the choir and the play. I’ve watched children internalise song after song after song (who needs poetry recitals?!), I’ve seen them practice and practice until they got it right, take parts that pushed them out of their comfort zone because they trusted their teachers and rose to the challenge. I’ve refused to accept singing that slides all over the place instead of hitting the right notes, and have insisted on practising that little bit again and again and again, slowing down the melody and simplifying it so that the children could really hear it, really listen. I’ve shown children how to enunciate properly so that the audience could make out the words – either sung or spoken.
I’ve felt the buzz of excitement in the room designated ‘back stage’, and I’ve seen how the children take a first tentative step out into the unknown, with no teacher or conductor there to support them, and how they grow when the audience laughs at the jokes and applauds with enthusiasm at the end.
And more than anything else, I’ve experienced how these team events bind us together. They create a community, a shared sense of ‘do you remember when Johnny Smith fell off the stage and Mr Williams saved the day?’ The magic of going out in the dark, the spotlights that mean you can’t see the audience, but you know that they can see you, creates more enthusiasm for school than anything else I’ve known, especially when it is the kind of performance where everyone has a part to play.
I feel a palpable sense of grief that for my own children, this experience is almost an entirely alien one. Maybe it’s because they go to a school that isn’t especially musical, but I’m not so sure. I think it’s got more to do with levels and OfSTED and performance of an entirely different kind. I wish someone would convince Our Great Leader that there is more to learning, and there is certainly more to school learning, than what goes on in formal lessons.