Guest Blog: Sophie Amstell, Learning and Participation Manager at Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival, reflects on the Wiltshire-wide schools project Singing Together 2016.

Once in a while a project comes along that makes your heart soar. The funding falls into place, the partners all click and the participants have the experience of a lifetime. Singing Together was one of those projects.

It started some 18 months ago when Mark Powell (Artistic Director, Prime Theatre) approached us at the Festival to ask if we’d like to work with him to develop a project that would celebrate the much-loved BBC Schools Radio programme Singing Together.

Photo: Adrian Harris

Photo: Adrian Harris

For those who don’t remember it, Singing Together was a weekly radio broadcast that, for more than 60 years, got generations of children singing in classrooms across the country. It began in 1939 as a practical response to the difficulties of teaching during the war.  Every Monday morning at 11am schools would turn on the radio and for the next hour children would belt out a range of songs such as Cockles and Mussels, Over the Hills and Far Away and The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies.  For decades Singing Together was a central part of school life in Britain.

Our project set out to celebrate everything that was great about Singing Together.  We wanted to introduce today’s school children in Wiltshire and Swindon to the disappearing genre of community singing, to explore songs that inspire nostalgia in adults, tell something of the social history of the UK and celebrate the joy of singing.

We selected 15 schools across Wiltshire and Swindon (more than 30 applied to take part) and we sent expert Singing Leaders into each school to teach the children a range of British folk songs. Meanwhile, we commissioned celebrated theatre writer Vicky Ireland MBE to write a brand new radio play that would feature the songs the children were learning.

Prime Theatre and Salisbury Festival led on the project design and delivery but we were pleased as punch when BBC Wiltshire came on board as our media partner. They agreed to record and broadcast Vicky’s new play and to feature the project on their day-time shows for the two months leading up to the broadcast.

Photo: Adrian Harris

Photo: Adrian Harris

We were lucky to secure another great partner when Wiltshire Music Centre came on board. They offered us the chance to bring together all 400 of the participating children to record the songs in their beautiful concert hall. The sound the children created on that day was simply magical.

After a lot of work behind the scenes the radio play was broadcast, right in the middle of Salisbury Festival, on Monday 6 June at 11am (the same day and time that the original Singing Together show used to be aired.) The cast was made up of three professional actors and six young actors from Prime Youth Theatre.  Children from the 15 participating schools tuned in to hear Vicky Ireland’s story about war-time evacuees arriving in Wiltshire and, of course, to hear themselves singing.

Teachers, pupils and parents were delighted to hear the children on the radio. But they also enjoyed the traditional folk repertoire.  Parents found, to their surprise, that they remembered most of the songs.  Grandparents found they could sing along with their grand-children.  And BBC Wiltshire received very positive feedback from the general public.  Their listeners remembered the original Singing Together programme and enjoyed hearing it revived.  People started phoning in with their own song requests and sharing their own childhood memories of Singing Together.

It was one of those projects with serious feel-good factor. But there were some great learning outcomes as well.  Many of the schools used the project to launch a new school choir, others used it to recruit new singers for existing choirs.  The children developed their singing technique and performance skills and gained valuable experience of ensemble singing.  And we created excellent singing resources that are now available for any school to access for free.  You can listen to the radio play, and download the teaching resource pack here.

So what were the ingredients of this success story?

  1. The partnerships were key. All of the project partners brought something unique and important to the project and were valued for their different roles. And this includes our funding partners, Wiltshire Music Connect, who not only saw the potential of the project but provided follow-up support and advice throughout.
  2. The subject matter was appealing to a broad range of people. Adults who remembered the original radio programme loved taking a trip down memory lane, while those who were new to it quickly fell in love with it.
  3. We gave the children a high-profile platform to showcase their achievements by commissioning a playwright of national standing and then broadcasting the play on BBC radio as a prominent part of our International Arts Festival.
  4. It was locally rooted. Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre helped to identify those places in the county that actually took evacuees. This meant that the writer could focus on Wiltshire locations and stories so that our audience felt an immediate connection to the project.
  5. And finally, the songs were simply brilliant. We are still singing them here in the Festival office months after the project came to an end. They are songs that have been sung by generations of children.  Why?  The answer is simple: it’s because they’re really good.  Why not download the resource pack and see for yourself?

We are starting to make plans for a follow-up project in 2018. Singing Together 2016 was a project that needs to be cherished, developed and grown.  So watch this space.

Sophie Amstell, Learning and Participation Manager, Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival

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