Concerts arguably represent the biggest interface between a school and the community it serves. Many participants display the fruits of years of instrumental tuition. However, there is a way in for those not involved in formal musical education: the school choir.

© North Lanarkshire Council
© North Lanarkshire Council

In addition to a sense of belonging, membership of a school choir confers many benefits on those willing to attend a weekly rehearsal. In choirs where seated rehearsal alternates with standing 'performance', members soon come to appreciate the connection between posture, breathing, freedom of movement and voice projection. Learning this as a fact is one thing; feeling it in your body is quite another.

A felt awareness of the finite nature of a single human breath might well develop a sense of phrasing for existing musicians, whose plucked or struck instrument may not offer the best expression of the bel canto ideal.

Heightened awareness of diction and language hopefully soon follows. While criticism of a teenager's diction in normal daily life might amount to a counterproductively personal attack, informing a section of the choir that the words are not clear enough is a gentle way of focussing attention on the production and projection of language. It might not always be the native tongue or accent; depending on the formality of the choir, language experience might range from adopting an American accent in a Broadway song to grappling with Latin or a modern foreign language.

It's not inconceivable that a pupil's first encounter with a particular poet may take place in a setting for choir. It was Finzi who introduced me to Wordsworth, and Britten to Owen. However, defaulting to the weighty text may not draw teenagers in droves. Boys' perception of singing as “uncool” is a common problem and skilfully balanced choice of repertoire can be the deciding factor.

If ever there has been an era when choir members need not be discouraged by minimal musical literacy, surely that time is now. Intuitive score-writing software allows quick preparation of sing-along midi files, which can be uploaded to school websites for access and familiarisation at home. Such resources might even be produced by senior pupils themselves.

© National Galleries of Scotland
© National Galleries of Scotland

Of all the musical skills transferable to general life, perhaps listening is the most important. It would not be impossible for those growing up in this age of overly animated, daytime television 'debate' to underestimate the importance of listening in human discourse. Attentive, responsive listening is a prerequisite for choral balance and for timing entries.

These skills, coupled with watching the conductor, are rich examples of multitasking, reminding us that music calls for, and promotes, coordinated involvement of diverse brain regions. The wider educational benefits of active musical participation feature increasingly in neuro-scientific research.

Although it is to be hoped that the music itself is sufficient reward for participation in a school choir, mention of choir membership on university application forms or on a CV suggests several qualities frequently sought by those in the recruitment business. These include: being a team player - increasingly important in the modern workplace; reliable attendance; meeting deadlines - whether this be working quickly or demonstrating the necessary patience to let a larger project flower over an extended period of time. In the case of high school choirs, it also suggests an ability to be at home in, and contribute to, an environment where gender balance is a given.

Schools with a Staff/Senior Choir offer a humanising arena where pupils and teachers can escape their silos and share something meaningful - perhaps even moving. With the notable exception of school trips, staff and pupils lead largely segregated lives, lunching and socialising apart. The simple act of singing together offers something which is at once safe and intimate, a place where strengths and vulnerabilities can be revealed. Musically inexperienced staff often rely upon the confident pitching and timing of musical students - a levelling experience for all.

The most moving evidence I ever witnessed that membership of a school choir has been of lasting importance in pupils' lives occurred in the final school concert of a colleague, a fine pianist who had been the choir's accompanist for many years. Miraculously, the rehearsal and arrival of a huge chorus of former pupils, some now parents in their thirties, remained secret. A fine arrangement of Robbie Williams' Angels, performed with neck-hair-raising warmth, touched not only our outgoing colleague; all present seemed moved by this illustration of the circle of life.