Developing Singing Matters reviewed in the British Journal of Music Education

Developing Singing Matters

Reviewed by Andrew Peggie in British Journal of Music Education


Two years after Allen’s ground-breaking first volume Singing Matters, comes this follow-up. The format is the same: an A4 loose-leaf binder containing, along with an introduction, background information on technical matters affecting the voice and a set of warm-up exercises, thirty choral projects for use at key stages 3, 4 and beyond. The volume is progressive with respect to the previous in two senses. It is aimed at a slightly older age range (and deals specifically  with issues concerning the changing voice) and the projects taken as a whole assume an increase in technical and musical refinement over the first volume repertoire. This does not imply a restriction in the range and breadth of material (pop songs, Bulgarian chants, gospel hymns, medieval and renaissance part songs, African anthems-and a single nineteenth century parlour song) but more challenging arrangements, almost all of which require two-, three- and four-part singing.


However the question of repertoire prompts some thoughts. On the one hand Allen’s eclectic approach constitutes a rich and varied diet, some of which is certain to hit the spot with even the most reluctant of adolescent singers. On the other hand, it also signals the lack of any national canon of vocal music which a multi-cultural Britain might take as its own. This volume is a veritable supermarket of vocal produce imported from many corners of the globe. It might not matter in educational terms, though it surely must say something about the nature of contemporary culture in Britain.


The material is well chosen-often because it resonates profoundly in the communities from which it has been lifted (this includes the pop songs from previous decades). Some will doubtless dismiss cultural dislocation as being of no consequence (‘so long as it’s good, let’s use it’;); others may prefer to question, or at least investigate, the cultural context of the material more fully. It does seem a disturbing irony, however that Allen’s persuasive and effective attempt to re-establish the voice at the heart of  school music education requires the importation of songs from other cultures.


By way of contrast one thinks of Kodaly, whose even more extensive and rigorous vocal syllabus never strayed beyond the distinctive Hungarian traditions known to virtually all of his intended recipients.


In one major respect Developing Singing Matters differs from its predecessor. Here, Allen concentrates in his introduction on the ethics and mechanics of running extra-curricular choirs (although the materials is all perfectly capable of fruitful exploitation in the classroom). He builds on the essential preparations for choral singing, dealing with strategies for encouraging participation, motivating adolescent boys, organising and managing rehearsals, establishing a broad range of singing activities and preparing for performances. Much of this will be self-evident to the experienced music teacher cum Kapellmeister, but it is nonetheless worth reading, if only for Allen’s balanced and thoughtful approach, clearly derived from daily experience. And there are especially helpful chapters on aspects less likely to be part of a music teacher’s expertise. Part 2 contains an outline of the physiology of singing, dealing with posture, breathing, voice production, resonance and vocal ranges. There is also a section on health matters with reference to singing. Additionally, he sets out some concise detail on how and when to use p.a. amplification for voices.


We find, as before, useful practical advice for dealing with choral problems such as slack tempi, poor pitching, unfocused diction and vocal blend, followed up with a comprehensive set of warm-up exercises. Sensible (and often inspiring) advice is all very well, but in some cases a less experienced teacher or (dare I say it ) a less accomplished musician will not be able to achieve his reasonable demands simply by reading them.


At £50 the volume is expressly designed for photocopying and so there is no need to buy vocal sets. And the high price also reflects the high royalty count in a volume containing many current or recent pop and rock songs.