Music is a universal language which all human beings possess and understand without needing to study it. We use it to express ourselves and communicate, and it can cause us to feel a range of emotions and feelings. At NACE Schools (Agora International Schools, St George’s and Areteia in Spain, EIB Paris in France, and Stonar in the United Kingdom), we see music education as a fundamental pillar in our pupils’ education, and an integral part of the academic curriculum.
Receiving a music education at school introduces pupils to the world of rhythm, melody, singing, and the use of instruments, which encourages their emotional, social, cognitive, and body equilibrium. Furthermore, the pupils take a more active role in class, develop their spatio-temporal ability, are able to solve complex mathematical operations more easily, and tend to be children who are more civic minded, and maintain a higher average.
Music education also helps them to improve their reading comprehension and verbal skills, particularly in cases which concern bilingual children, like the pupils at NACE Schools. Music alters the organisation of the brain, and prepares it for the development of cognitive skills, a fundamental process for the children to begin to speak and learn words both in their maternal language and in a second one, therefore reinforcing their ability to speak more than one language. Similarly, learning to play an instrument has an impact on other skills such as the understanding of discourse and emotions in the voice, and the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.
In terms of physiological factors, several studies demonstrate that playing an instrument causes an acceleration in the organisation of the cerebral cortex in skills such as attention, managing anxiety and controlling emotions. It has also been shown that it increases the thickness of the parts of the brain responsible for executive function, which controls the cognitive skills which are focused on achieving a goal and oriented to the future. Similarly, the process of rehearsing an instrument, which produces emotional factors of repetition and attention, encourages cerebral plasticity, the change in the structure of the brain from experience.
In the same vein, some researchers maintain that music education and training can work as treatment for cognitive disorders, such as ADHD. In these cases, music reduces levels of anxiety, improves the relationship between the body and the environment, modifies and assimilates behaviour, and activates selective attention.
For all these reasons, music education is a priority at NACE Schools, culminating at the end of each academic year in International Music Week, one of the most important events in which pupils from NACE schools in Spain, France, and the United Kingdom come together to take part in a range of activities, which end with a big concert.
At Agora Portals International School, music is part of our pupils’ comprehensive education. Through music education, the students can more easily develop valuable abilities such as effort, self-improvement, sensitivity, organisation, teamwork, etc. Given its importance, the school is also a conservatoire, an Integrated Music Centre, authorised to teach the Elementary and Professional Diplomas in Music. The Agora Portals choir is part of the school’s educational project in that it provides pupils with an extracurricular activity which enables them to continue with and advance in their music education.
Throughout the last eight years, the choir has given numerous high-level performances both within and outside school, and its participation at well-known places such as the most important auditorium in Mallorca, as well as its collaboration with other choirs and groups, such as the Palma Municipal Band, or the Balearic Symphony Orchestra, stand out. This project goes beyond the pupils’ music education and helps them to develop other skills and areas of knowledge.
In charge of the Agora Portals Choir is Frederique Sizaret, a teacher at the school, who we have had the opportunity to interview.
Frederique Sizaret, French Mezzo-Soprano, finished her studies at the Conservatoire de Tours by coming top of her class in violin, chamber music, and singing. In 1996, she did a Master’s in musicology, and that same year, became part of the “Centre de Formation Lyrique” of the Paris Opera. Federique’s career as an opera singer took place in Germany, in the Wupretal, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Saarbrucjen, and Stuttgart theatres. When she moved to Mallorca she continued with her musical career, but also got involved in the world of education. Over the last three years, she has worked in teaching, both in individual and group vocal technique, running choir classes, such as the Agora Portals International School Children’s Choir.
Q: How did the idea of creating the Agora Portals Choir come about?
A: All the children at school have one choir session per week. But, very quickly, we realised that some of them wanted more, both on a vocal level and in terms of theatrical expression. Some had the desire to learn to control their voice just like any other instrument, and to develop choreography based on the pieces learnt. So for this reason, we decided to create the Agora Portals Choir.
Q: In what ways does being part of the choir benefit the development of the pupils’ music education?
A: First of all, they develop their voice. Just like any other instrument, the voice requires its own technique, and although it is the human being’s most natural instrument, its technique is closely related to physical and psychological development. A 6-or-7-year-old child sings in a very natural way, and finds within their body the technical resources necessary to a healthy voice. In adolescence, the natural “embarrassment” which appears in many of them causes the voice to close, like the body. Working on the voice regularly enables better control of this “problem”.
Secondly, they develop their ear. Many of the instruments that the pupils play are individual ones. Singing in a choir forces the pupils to be with other voices, and requires vertical listening. In fact, this practice brings out a great deal of happiness in the children, when they realise that they can sing with two, three, or four voices, and control of their tone very clearly improves.
Thirdly, they develop “sight reading”. Often, we work from memory, but as an exercise, I also make the children sharpen their skills using sheet music. It’s something very new for them: choir sheet music contains various voices, an accompaniment, sometimes made up of various instruments, and doing this requires a very specific concentration, both at a purely reading level and at an auditory level.
Q: What other areas of knowledge are developed from the music education project?
A: We have rehearsals in groups of three or four pupils to complement the weekly group rehearsals. These sessions enable me to get to know each child’s voice and their possibilities, and monitor their development. The class with smaller groups allows me to teach them bodily and theatrical techniques to help them know how to act in a stage environment. Furthermore, they learn biology: I explain the anatomy of the voice, what happens when we produce sound, what they can do when it doesn’t work, so that they learn to control their voice mechanically and acquire a more intense awareness of their bodies, with which they avoid problems with aphonia or dysphonia in the future.
Q: What do the pupils enjoy most?
A: The theatrical aspect is probably what the children enjoy the most! Because they dance, they speak in public, they learn to forget their natural embarrassment, and they sing in front of their classmates. In this sense, it’s difficult to maintain the balance between a classic repertoire (with many benefits for the development of the voice), and more popular songs which allow them to express themselves on a more theatrical level, but which do not produce the same results on a musical and vocal level.
For example, we did a project on a wonderful piece by John Rutter, “Mass of the children”, with the participation of another children’s choir in Mallorca, an adult choir, and an orchestra made up of school teachers. The music was religious, and magnificent, but, although the children did very well, they didn’t enjoy it as much as they do the modern songs. It’s difficult to ensure that they develop their sensitivity in this field!
Agora Portals Choir performing “Missa of the Children”
Q: Could you tell us about the musical projects you have done, and what you’d highlight from each of them?
A: I set three big projects a year: the Christmas Concert, with classic and modern songs; the end-of-year project; and one that’s different each year. We mustn’t forget that the children sing everything from memory, and that each programme is an average of twelve songs, with several voices.
Firstly, I’d like to highlight the project that we did alongside the Blavets de Lluc and the University Choir, which enabled the children in the Agora Choir to meet other children from Mallorca, the Blavets, a professional choir of children who also have music integrated into their curriculum. Similarly, the children had the opportunity to work with an orchestra of professionals, conducted by Joan Company, director of the University of the Balearic Islands Choir. The work was very positive for the children. We joined together all these groups in the Church of Palma, and the concert was a success. We brought together more than 300 people!
Lastly, I’d like to point out that this project would have been impossible without the help of the school, in all aspects.
Last year’s project was, most probably, the most ambitious that we’ve done up until now! All this began with the desire to create a programme of songs from Musicals (Matilda, Les Misérables, Singing in the rain, Grease, Sister Act, Lion King…). But singing without moving was impossible. So, we asked a choreographer for help to adjust the movements for each of the songs. The same thing happened with the instruments, the piano wasn’t enough. David León (the school’s music director) helped us by writing a musical arrangement for an ensemble made up of teachers from the school, with violin, viola, flute, oboe, clarinet, and trumpet. We also needed to decorate the stage, which the art teacher, Juta Fita, took care of, creating of two decorated screens with the Primary pupils. In addition, we made use of the technical resources offered in the school’s auditorium. We even had a rain machine! Truly, for me, and for the pupils, this project was a high point in the work of the choir, and it was possible thanks to the help of the entire school.
Q: What is this year’s project? When will it take place?
A: Although the idea is still up in the air, this year I’d like to do a project which brings together several choirs of children from around the world, with videos. Thanks to one of my previous jobs, I have contacts who are singers from different countries, and many of them now work with children. The idea would be to choose various songs in the original language, have the children from other countries record them, and on the day of the concert, our choir would sing the same song. As well as including, of course, choreographed dance!
Q: What has developing the Portals Choir offered you on a personal and professional level?
A: This work has provided me with a completely different perspective on the voice. I had always worked with adults, and although children have a much more natural voice than adults, every day I have to find different resources to work with them on a technical level: games, images, working on bodily expression, etc. It’s a constant search, but it’s also exciting! On the other hand, developing this project in the school environment has made my work and that of the children much easier: from the start the director and the pedagogy team understood that the music could provide children with a dimension beyond the “classic” education. Considering music as another curricular subject is the best gift we could give the pupils both for their music education and their education as people.