Sing or Play

As a string player who works primarily in string groups, and who has happily spent decades of my musical life within that community, it might be assumed that I would advocate string teaching above all other musical instruction. However, when it comes to primary music education I feel that the emphasis should be on singing. Frequently – when tackling questions of musical phrasing or rhetoric, articulation or even intonation – I ask myself “how would you sing it?” Singing is arguably the fundamental music, to which all music refers and from which all musical adventures and adventurers might beneficially embark.

Violin teaching is much more fashionable; perhaps it is aspirational (the violin really is the top of the heap in the classical-music hierarchy). And I suspect that the materialistic disposition of our society leads us to value instrumental tuition over vocal because it employs sophisticated tools. I’m not arguing against instrumental tuition, but in favour of singing as the discipline to which children should first be introduced.

There are lots of well-documented rewards for schools where instruments are taught: increased discipline, self-confidence and general academic achievement. All of these are great of course; but it may be years before the average child can express themselves on a string instrument because the technique is very challenging. On the other hand, if young children are taught to sing, they can quickly attain a considerable level of musical facility, and can participate on a much higher plane. Having learned to sing – and to really engage with music – children who then learn instruments will find they are able to aim higher from the outset. And those who do not continue to sing nor subsequently take up instruments will have had a view of music from the inside that is much more intellectually and spiritually rewarding than had they spent a couple of years on the violin.

When we are built with such an extraordinary and versatile internal instrument, why favour a fiddly external alternative?

4 thoughts on “Sing or Play

  1. Nice thoughts! The next discussion could be – sing or move, or both.
    ‘It is nothing less than lunacy to set a child to study an instrument before he has been trained to appreciate rhythm and distinguish sounds. Pianoforte [Instrumental?] lessons, unless preceded by training of the ear and by rhythmic movement, frequently damage the aural and rhythmic faculties.’ Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, at the turn of the 20th century. EJD supported the idea of an initiation into musical expression via whole-body movement, followed by singing.

  2. Ibrahim Aziz just posted this on facebook:
    Seeing something about the benefits of singing just now reminded me of this quote by Byrd in 1588. Most of you know will know it, but if you don’t, here it is, it’s quite wonderful:
    Reasons briefly set down by th’author, to perswade every one to learne to sing.
    First, it is a knowledge safely taught and quickly learned, where
    there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.
    2 The exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, & good
    to preserve the health of Man.
    3 It doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.
    4 It is a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the
    5 It is the best means to procure a perfect pronounciation, & to
    make a good Orator.
    6 It is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the
    benefit of a good voyce : which guift is so rare, as there is not one
    among a thousand, that hath it.
    7 There is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable
    to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are
    good, and the same well sorted and ordered.
    8 The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve
    God there-with : and the voyce of man is chiefely to bee imployed
    to that ende.
    “Omnis Spiritus Laudes Dominum”
    Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.

  3. Thank you Darren. I agree entirely that a deep appreciation of and engagement with rhythm is not emphasised nearly enough. Clapping is a serious business in South American and Flamenco musics for example, and again requires no equipment at all, which may be why we don’t really do it. Dalcroze, Kodaly etc surely have lots to teach us and I confess I am so far only vaguely acquainted with them.

  4. Thanks , a good read and some food for thought. I think the real value of introducing strings in the classroom setting is that it encourages children who might never have considered playing an instrument to take it further. The violin came into my life in this way. I do agree that singing makes the best core of any school music programme .
    My opinion piece in The Irish Examiner here

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