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Opinion8th December 2017

‘Our all-day singing lesson for male pupils transforms them’

Margaret O'Shea

Margaret O’Shea is Director of Music at Ark. Margaret qualified with a Bachelor of Music Education from Trinity College, Dublin University before going on to pursue a Masters in Music Performance at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester.

Designed to build confidence, ability and harness a life-long love of a variety of music, the Ark Music Programme offers a wealth of experience for all pupils at all levels. In this blog, Margaret talks about a new event for the programme – a singing day for boys.

“My gender doesn’t mean that I’m not good at certain things. A boy doesn’t need to be good at basketball or football to be a boy – and a girl doesn’t need to be good at dancing or singing or whatever. Anyone can be anything.” Deno, year 8 pupil.

From the mouths of babes, as they say. I could fill this page with quotes from our young men about how music – and singing, in particular – makes them feel “connected”, “free” and “expressive”.

And really, that’s what the Ark boys singing day was all about. A team of male vocal leaders guided around 270 boys from 14 schools in the Ark network through a day of singing music written by men, for men and boys of all ages.

A safe space for singing
We’re providing a safe space for our boys to connect through song. Too often we hear about young males being disenfranchised or showing challenging behaviours. Through music-making, we’re part of a different narrative – one that showcases and celebrates their shared strength, passion and inherent creativity.

When you see boys take part in singing and music, sometimes you see amazing transformations. We often get students who are at risk of being excluded, and they are so engaged – singing everything from Bartok to Marvin Gaye. You just wonder: how are these the same children?

From the outset, it’s felt really important to us that schools would bring not only their “superstar” vocalists, but also those who they felt would benefit from a day surrounded by like-minded peers and inspirational role models. Many of the boys coming to us today will be brand new to singing and we suspect that the majority of them won’t know if they can sing or not – we’re here to show them that they can and when they do, they’ll love it.

A group of men singing together makes a very different sound than a mixed group or a group of women. By taking all the boys together, on their own, we can dig into the beauty of that sound and explore some issues unique to the age and gender. The rep we’ll explore includes a song called All the Fine Young Men, which is about men the same age as many of our singers today going off to fight in a war. This afternoon, we’ll be supporting the boys to pen their own song in response to that idea and how it connects with their own experiences.

The importance of diversity
Our team are a diverse mix of vocalists drawn from all corners of the music industry – some of them are alumni of the Ark music programme who have gone on to pursue a career in music. That diversity is a really important thread in everything we do and we hope that each singer coming to us today will in some way see themselves reflected in the inspirational leaders around them.

The idea of peer mentorship and role modelling is proven to be hugely important to adolescent males in particular and is something we’ve looked to cultivate over the last number of years within the Ark music programme. This is why we’ve deliberately invited singers from Ark’s primary and secondary schools today. Over the course of the day, they’ll sing in a number of different formations and have multiple opportunities to connect with singers younger and older than themselves.

Today isn’t in any way intended to exclude girls from the singing experience, but rather to acknowledge that in many cases, young men and boys face unique challenges in expressing themselves through artistic endeavours. We’re looking to meet some of those challenge head on and where we can offer a solution. Our boys deserve it.

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This blog was first published on the Tes website on 30 November 2017.