Things the Pelican Primary School Choir learned at their concert

Last night the Pelican Primary School Choir gave their first public performance under my direction. They were invited to sing at a special Mayor’s Community Function, for the local city hall. They were the only child performers (no other schools were there), and they were the only performance item  – the other musical performers were roving jazz musicians.

They performed beautifully, and were incredibly chuffed with themselves. The entire experience was a positive one, in which lots was learned. I rely on these kinds of experiences to make sense of music learning for the children. They provide context for everything they do with me in class, and provide a strong motivation for working hard in music classes. Here are some of the things I think were learned or revealed last night.

1. This was an authentic performance experience.

They performed to an audience of adults. A sympathetic audience, yes, but not made up of parents or teachers or other members of the school community. These were strangers giving the Pelicans their full attention, who responded with delight to the performance. This was not something just for kids, playing at being a performance. This was a real, serious, important, formal event, at which they were the stars.

2. They have to place their trust in the conductor

Before we performed I gave them the little pep talk I give all the child performers I work with. “Once we are on the stage,” I told them, “I want you to give me your whole focus. Look at me. Other people might be taking photos, or smiling, and you might think it is polite to look at them. But I want you to look at me. After we have finished performing, there will be lots of time for smiling and photos. But while we are singing, I want you to only think about the songs, and to keep your eyes on me.”

I think children need to hear this. They need to be reminded that a performance space is a precious, ephemeral space, that they are in control of. They need permission to look away from the eagerly supportive parent who is urging them to smile for the camera.

They also need to trust me, that I will support them and help them give the best possible performance. I reassure them that if they get out there and feel strange or nervous or unsure, all they need to do is look at me, and I will be able to help them. I will be able to mouth the words, to show them where we are up to. I will be able to smile at them, and help them relax. I will not take my eyes away from them for a second.

3. They learned that I can cover any mistakes, so that this is not a burden or stress they need to carry

One girl had an additional role – she played the metalophone at the start of one of the songs. She was very nervous when the time came, and only looked at me for a second before looking down at her instrument. She started to play before I had counted her in, so I joined in with her. She got confused about the number of repetitions in the chord structure, so began to change chords at random.

I could tell she was confused. I accompanied her, following her irregular changes, but all the while, whenever she got back to the first chord in the progression, whispering the repetition numbers to her (as we had practised them) until she got back on track. Then we repeated the progression a few more times, so that she could hear it was indeed solid and steady and fine.

She also learned that she had to keep going, until she found her way through the confusion. I could help her with this, but she also found the confidence to keep going, rather than to falter and stop. That instrumental section returned three times throughout the piece, and every other time she performed it perfectly. At the end she gave me a tiny smile of relief and, I think, pride.

4. They learned the importance of presenting themselves with poise

We organised ourselves into a line to walk out in. We planned how the children playing instruments would leave their places in the formation, and how they would return to them at the end of the song. We talked about standing with two feet evenly on the ground, hands by sides, looking towards me. They did all of this so beautifully, I think the two teachers from the school who’d come with us were quite taken aback.

I think most people in the audience fell a little bit in love with my soloist on the night. This was a little Grade Two boy, with a bright and confident manner, who sang the opening verse to our final song before being joined by the rest of the choir. I asked him to stand in front of the choir when he sang his solo, and to step back into the line when his solo was finished. I never needed to remind him of this, he did it exactly as I had asked, each time. Very professional!

As he sang, he sang out. He sang in a confident voice. He smiled as he stepped back into line. Hearts melted (although I expect his parents’ hearts swelled with pride).

On reflection, he was the perfect choice as a soloist (and to be honest, I am still new enough in the school that I don’t always know how individuals will react when I pose a challenge for them). He took it seriously, and he never once doubted himself. He never giggled or got self-conscious. He never let himself get distracted by other children in rehearsals trying to distract him. And thus, he created the perfect template for the choir of what it means to do a solo, and what it requires of you.

And of course, when we present ourselves with poise and confidence, we enhance our feelings of confidence. Perhaps, even if only on a subtle level, the students also learned this.

5. They learned what they have to offer

This is a school where many students struggle. They may struggle with life skills, or academically, or socially, or because they are under-nourished, or because they don’t get much attention in their big chaotic families. Taking part in this concert, and being applauded, showed them that they have much to offer, especially when they work together. The music for this concert – four songs, all with actions or arrangements to be memorised – was worked on over many weeks. I fervently, strenuously hope that they might now recognise how all of those weeks was a progression towards this kind of outcome, and how great outcomes like this are completely within their reach, when they put in the work.

6. They learned that I have expectations of them…

… and that I won’t accept less. That this is what being in an ensemble means, and that we are only going to do it in an authentic, meaningful way. That the fun comes while you’re working hard. And that I am very proud of them.

They also will soon learn that these kinds of performances bring further rewards. The local council paid us a performance fee and we are going to put that towards some new instruments. Today I talked with one of the local music stores about bringing a selection of instruments up to the school during choir time so that the choir people can help select what we buy with that money. This way, they will get to enjoy the material contribution they have made to the school through their hard word too. I’m planning to put together a price check-list for them, and let them circle the instruments they think we should buy (up to the maximum money we have to spend). I’ll then make the final decision.



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