LYC Blog #12: The Positive Change Choir

Published 9 May 2024

Ishani O’Connor writes about The Positive Change Choir, LYC’s secondary school project based in Tower Hamlets

As Head of Engagement for LYC I am lucky to be able to create and deliver projects which work with schools in London and their local communities. Although we do not currently have a ‘regional’ choir in the area, LYC has recently been running a really interesting project in Tower Hamlets, supported by the local music service, THAMES (Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service).

Using our team’s expertise in supporting Cambiata or Voice Changing age groups, The Positive Change Choir is working with young people aged 11-16 (in school years 7-9) at two secondary schools in the borough. The majority of the young people taking part have never sung in a choir before. I had the great pleasure of planning and organising these sessions with Naveen Arles, a specialist in the Cambiata pedagogy for this age group and the leader of LYC Cambiata Boys.

When we embarked on the project, we were aiming to enable young people to ‘find their voice’ and give them the opportunity to explore what they can do, as this age group experiences so many physical inhibitions and social changes, including the transition from primary to secondary school and the adjustments that brings. Research shows that musical engagement in year 7 takes a sudden drop, so we understood there was a definite need. But the main goal was to start with singing and get everyone to join in!

The schools taking part for free are in two diverse and geographically different parts of the borough; Morpeth School in Stepney Green at the busy heart of the city and George Green’s School in the Isle of Dogs which is a quieter area on an island-peninsular. There are 50 students taking part in total, supported by their class teachers with 6 workshops at each school, a combined rehearsal when both schools come together and then a final sharing concert when they will perform as a choir for the first time to family and friends, on stage at Rich Mix Cultural Centre in Shoreditch.

We kicked off the whole project back in January with a concert performance by LYC Chamber Choir who acted as peer group mentors to the school students, encouraging them to join the project and talking to them about their own LYC experiences in a Q&A. Many of the Chamber Choir members spoke very movingly about what singing meant to them. Some of these LYC members also had the valuable opportunity to act as a trainee Assistant Leader in a workshop at the schools, supporting Nav and the pupils in the classroom.

Nav’s approach is based on years of experience teaching singing to this adolescent age group and he finds ingenious approaches to connect with the students, sometimes ones that are unexpected! Supported by Ishani and LYC’s team of Pianists and Assistant Leaders, this was the first LYC Experience project working with secondary schools.

We begin each workshop with ‘circle time’ a warm up which helps to reduce barriers to choir, as the young people feel ‘removed from the classroom’ and can change their mindset; there is no hierarchy and it brings them all to the table. This facilitates engagement using a gamified approach, creating a low threat to involvement as they build musicianship skills – rhythm and pitch through play using body percussion and experimenting with the sounds their voices can make. It is an empowerment model, not around Nav telling them to do things but based around musical choices they make for themselves which hopefully increases their agency and challenges them to make their own decisions. Nav says:

“One of my favourite things to do is engage with people who don’t consider themselves musicians. And these young people were wonderful to work with because their journeys were so different from each other and so exciting to witness. I was really proud to bring the level of musicianship and welcoming caring that LYC brings to our projects to these young people and can’t wait till the sharing concert!”

The musicianship exercises help to integrate singers who have voices that are changing, drawing their attention to vocal placement, timbre and colour and breath control for good quality of sound. The songs that Nav has chosen to rehearse and perform with the groups are diverse and powerful with two songs that are not in the English language; instantly democratising the room as this means the majority are learning new lyrics in an additional language. Ya Basta! is a Spanish protest song and Shosholoza is a traditional song sung by gold miners in South Africa. In addition, Can’t Hold Us and My Shot from Hamilton are familiar hits to enable the young people to feel strong, united and energised.

As part of the project we also offered a CPD (professional development) training session for teachers in Tower Hamlets and neighbouring boroughs also led by Nav where they experienced the Cambiata methodology the students have been participating in and learned how to set up and sustain their own school choir. To find out about future events like these, you can subscribe to our mailing list.


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