The Role of Singing in the Broader Music Education Landscape

We are (after all) walking musical instruments and singing is part of our birthright.1

Why sing?

Justifications for the value of singing in society abound in anecdotal records and research literature. In Singing as communication, Graham Welch (2005, p. 254) articulates these as:

  • Singing can be a form of group identification.
  • Singing can be a transformation activity culturally.
  • Regular singing activities can communicate a sense of pattern, order and systematic contrast to the working day and week.
  • Singing can be used as an agent in the communication of social change.

Participation in singing therefore transcends socio-economic status, geographical location, age, level of training, physical capacity and psychological state. In the research literature over the past six years, singing has been shown to carry benefits across the lifespan and in people of diverse social backgrounds and health status (Clift and Hancox, 2001; Bailey and Davidson, 2005; Bamford, 2006). Bailey and Davidson (2005), for example, reflect that “the emotional effects of participation in group singing are similar regardless of training or socioeconomic status.” Singing in a wide variety of contexts, including singing in schools, tertiary and community-based settings contributes to both economic and quality of life measures. A recent pilot study in Australia showed that participation in choirs improved quality of life, according to World Health Organisation measures (Sun and Stewart, 2007). Thurman and Welch (2000) documented evidence of wide-ranging psychological and physical health benefits of singing. The precise type (choral/solo) and quality of singing is of negligible difference in the recent research findings. Engaging in singing activities has been found to increase energetic arousal and heart rate (Valentine and Evans 2001). Recent findings have also demonstrated a beneficial association between singing and immune function (Kruetz et al 2004). Above all, as Davis (1998) aptly states:

   All human cultures sing and even the most primitive and remote cultures make particular kinds of sung sound when emotional.

Policy statements from Australian governments in recent times have recognised the importance of singing in the music education sector:

The creative imagination knows no divide between science and art. It seeks the unknown and it invents the future. This imagination is a human resource whose creative potential has yet to be fully tapped and transformed into economic and social value for Australia.2

Over and above the obvious development of individual creativity and self-expression, school-based arts participation can increase learners’ confidence and motivation, thereby improving school attendance rates, academic outcomes and the wellbeing and life skills of children and young people.3

The ministerial statement above is extrapolated further, with a statement of three key principles including an emphasis that “All children and young people should have a high quality arts education in every phase of learning.”4

The emphasis on school-based arts activities is borne out in the findings of the National Review of School Music Education (NRSME).5 Specifically in relation to vocal music, the review established as a priority the need to ensure that

  • Every Australian student participates and engages in initial vocal music programmes; and,
  • Students with identified interest and talent in vocal music are provide with sustained vocal music programmes (Pascoe et al 2005)

The NRSME also reflected on priorities and expectations for the tertiary sector, with recommendation that tertiary providers “ensure that vocal and choral music is an integral part of pre-service training for teachers.” (Pascoe et al 2005). State/Territory school systems were charged with the responsibility for providing professional development for teachers in vocal and choral music.

As is the case with many similar professional associations, professional development falls within the charter of The Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (ANATS ).6 With over 450 members, ANATS is the peak body for singing teaching in Australia. Its constitution states that ANATS:

  • Is a professional association dedicated to serving all those who teach singing in Australia.
  • Was established to encourage the highest standards in the art of both singing and the teaching of singing.
  • Promotes vocal education and research in all genres and at all levels, both for the enrichment of the general public and for the professional development, advancement and interest of both singers and teachers.
  • Maintains a register of teachers of singing who qualify for membership under the terms of the association’s constitution.
  • Presents workshops, conferences and other forums for members to meet together regularly on a national, state, territory and/or regional basis, to exchange ideas and information in the many fields of singing, voice science and pedagogy.

The last of these points emphasises the role ANATS plays in the light of the recent literature and policy documents. To that end, ANATS consulted the literature, mined its publications and surveyed its membership to ascertain perception of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the sector. ANATS members fall into three broad categories: school based teachers of singing (choral/individual), tertiary based educators and studio music teachers. Of these, the latter category is the largest cohort by a substantial margin. There is, however, far more research into music education in the school context which simultaneously strengthens the arguments put forward regarding singing in schools, while weakening those pertaining to tertiary and studio settings.

Introduction to the SWOT Analysis

The voice is used in classroom, studio and co-curricular music environments in schools in Australia and internationally (Chang, 1992; Kinder, 1987; Moore, 1994; Wong, 1991). Data from ANATS members indicates that many members are engaged in school-based activities, with responsibility for choral conducting, individual tuition and, in a small number of cases, classroom music teaching. In some states, individual tuition was either subsumed or complemented by small group teaching.


A joint project between ANATS, the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME)7 and the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA)8 examined vocal/choral music in Queensland schools. Jansen (1999, p.73), reported that the benefit of the project was to

offer a taste into what might be, a taste of what vocal/choral education could become. It gives some further clues as to how choral programs could be further improved and the voice tuition of those programs developed. It also provides a modest basis for further research into the scope and nature of choral activity and singing teaching in Queensland schools.

Using Jansen (1999) as a basis, Harrison (2005) examined ways in which school based vocal educators could work together to meet the government priority to provide sustained vocal music programs. Through the CAVE project, Harrison encouraged the “recognition of the different but equally valid contributions of studio teaching, the small group model, vocal class, primary and/or secondary music classes and choirs in the process of vocal education.” The goals for collaboration between these models might include, as Apfelstadt et. al. (2003, p. 25) suggest, “a desire to promote healthy singing, to develop vocal musicianship and to maintain the integrity of the voice while doing justice to various musical styles.” Australian choral educators, Christiansen (2003) and Morton (2004), support this view, adding that there are psychological and physiological dimensions to group singing, including discipline and self esteem. Furthermore

…. if there is a program that’s based on voice, the teacher knows what they are doing, it becomes part of the culture and the quality is really quite good. (Harrison 2006)

Responses from ANATS members provided some positive perspectives on vocal programs in schools. Comments that reflect the strength of vocal programs included:

[Singing] brings the school community together in a shared and positive activity… helps young people gain confidence in expressing themselves and broadens their musical horizons.

The School music program is diverse and exciting for the kids and this makes the teaching environmen stimulating and interesting. The other staff are inspiring and wonderful musicians including other instrumental teachers.

These comments find support in the work of Willis (2005) who notes that, in their environment “singing is the soul of the school.” Other comments focussed on the existing tertiary training and professional development opportunities for music teachers in schools. One respondent encouraged the school-based teacher to take weekly lessons themselves. The wealth of resources available in text, journal and web formats was described by one ANATS member as “brilliant.”

The teaching of singing at the tertiary level has generally followed the time-honoured traditions of the master-teacher/pupil relationship. Australia punches above its weight on the world stage in singing, with highly-regarded Australian performers maintaining careers across a wide variety of musical genres and styles.

Demand for tertiary places in singing is high and tertiary music schools provide an opportunity for networking and collaborating with colleagues on a regular basis. The tertiary environment provides a structured and sequenced environment to facilitate a progressive method of vocal tuition. Tertiary institutions often engage professional practitioners to help bridge the gap between the educational experience and the demands of the profession itself.

In formulating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats pertaining to studio teachers, two factors are paramount: the contribution of Anne Lierse (2007) to this discussion and the “unseen” nature of one-to-one studio teaching. As with the tertiary setting described above, there is less research reported in this area of teaching than in the broader music education scene. Many of the remarks of Lierse (2007) equally apply to studio teachers of singing. The differences relate to the internal nature of the voice as an instrument and the close association of voice with identity. The most commonly identified strength is the capacity for studio teachers to diagnose and address individual needs in students. Flexibility of working hours and facilities also rated highly as an advantage for teachers working in this field.


Three key weaknesses were identified:

  1. The quality of singing.
  2. The status of singing within the society, in schools and in music departments
  3. The lack of training for teachers, particularly in relation to vocal health and voice change.

In relation to the quality of singing, the NRSME (Pascoe, 2005) noted that:

While some schools, particularly primary schools, introduce and support ensemble singing and singing in choirs, there is relatively little vocal music in secondary schools apart from specialised music schools.

The literature supports such a statement, with one respondent in Harrison’s (2006) study commenting that

Singing and the quality of singing varies enormously from school to school in my state. The determining factor is often the skill of the music teacher (if indeed there is a specialist teacher in the school) and that teacher’s determination to make singing happen in the school (Harrison 2006, n.p.)

The status of singing in schools was brought to the attention of the singing community by renowned expatriate singing teacher, Janice Chapman (2006, p. 1), who in Singing, A holistic approach commented that

More recently in western cultures it [singing] has become an elitist activity – for the talented rather than the community. The tragic loss of school-based singing during the past three decades has served to distance children from this vocal heritage.

Where singing is part of school culture, it frequently falls below instrumental music in the hierarchy of music activities.

In general, vocal ensembles and vocal training are considered second or third string to instrumental ensembles and training. In certain schools, singing is not even considered to be an instrument to study and is not treated with the same respect as other instruments. The students are expected to learn a ‘serious’ instrument (non-vocal) and keep singing just for the choirs (Harrison, 2006)  center | x

The international perspectives of Adler and Harrison (2004) support this view. Their hierarchy of musical paradigms elevates instrumental music and devalues vocal participation.

ANATS members supported this view, particularly in relation to the research literature with comments such as “my perception is that pedagogical literature is not nearly so rich as in every instrumental discipline.”

The poor status of singing in some schools also affects resources. ANATS members have reflected on the provision of unsuitable venues (e.g. teaching in a basketball court with the mower outside) and poor resourcing in terms of staffing resulting in overwork of existing staff.

A problematic lack of knowledge was found by Vaughan (1998), who cites teachers’ poor knowledge of, and inability to deal with, the vocal health issues associated with adolescence (for example, the failure to provide appropriate warm-up activities). This is evidenced in comments from the ANATS membership:

  • There is a lack of understanding of different ages, genders, and genres.
  • A lack of well-rounded understanding of male voices.
  • There is an abysmal lack of training on vocal production and vocal health in teacher training.

One of the weaknesses of the tertiary sector is the lack of research into teaching and learning practices in conservatories and universities. Recent conferences (The Reflective Conservatoire, 20069 and Nactmus National Conference, 200710) have sought to address this paucity of knowledge. In particular, tertiary institutions provide a one-size fits all approach to teaching. With the exception of Daniel (2003) and Lebler (2007), alternative modes of teaching have not been investigated. In a time of research growth in music education, combined with financial pressures in the tertiary sector, the lack of examination of alternative teaching models leaves the sector vulnerable to economic rationalists.

Tertiary programs for both singers and teachers of singing are too few in number and too geographically separated. They need to be more accessible and widespread to ensure the quality of teachers, particularly in rural areas: alternative modes of delivery, such as those espoused by Lancaster (2007), Lebler (2007) and Daniel (2003) need to be pursued to address this.

Choral conductors do not always receive extensive training in vocal technique and teaching methodology. While they may be well trained in the use of gesture, they are not equipped with the skills to teach voice, music literacy and to direct groups simultaneously, in the way that instrumental conductors are trained to do. Conversely, singing teachers should receive training in conducting and teaching methodology so that they can simultaneously teach voice, music literacy and direct groups in the same way that instrumental teachers are able to do.

The strongest theme from ANATS members involved in studio teaching was the sense of isolation brought about by teaching alone. The strength of independence has the disadvantage of a lack of collegial support and social interaction. The potential for division within the ranks of teachers is ever present because there is a genuine lack of understanding of the circumstances of each others’ environment. A related issue is teacher confidence – many teachers are concerned as to whether they are “on the right track.”

Studio teachers reflected on the provision of singing as a luxury commodity, subject to the vagaries of economic policy. This is further compounded by an unregulated marketplace where the unqualified teach and offer cheaper rates to clients who cannot discern the best value for their education dollar. Connected to this is concern over the finer points of running a small business: accounting, taxation and communication.

Like their school-based colleagues, studio-based teachers were aware of the lack of recognition of the educational validity of music and voice teaching and a lack of recognition of the training and expertise of music teachers.


A limited but significant number of opportunities were identified in the school sector. The opportunity for some training and PD is offered by professional associations with an interest in singing, such as the Kodaly Music Education Institute of Australia, the Australian National Choral Association, and the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing. These opportunities are usually only taken up by teachers who have an interest in singing. A further opportunity, drawn from the weaknesses above, is the employment of specialist peripatetic voice teachers and male voice teachers modelling singing in primary schools.

Discreet vocal pedagogy programs are offered in a small number of tertiary institutions in Australia at undergraduate and post-graduate level. In addition, a number of tertiary institutions provide elective courses and professional development opportunities. In fulfilling the recommendations of the NRSME, there is an opportunity for tertiary providers to ensure that vocal and choral music is an integral part of pre-service training for teachers. Queensland has been recognised for its state funded music education system. There is an opportunity for other states, through the national curriculum initiatives, to prepare specialist music teachers for employment in primary and secondary schools. Tertiary music schools also have the opportunity to collaborate with community groups, particularly amateur musical theatre and concert musicians to apply for block funding to bridge the gap between training and professional experiences (See Brown and Kirkman, 2007).

Studio teachers have noted the opportunities brought about by the two-edge sword of television realit programs. While many studio teachers found the broadcasts highly disturbing in terms of the processes used, many more believe that business has picked up since the advent of shows such as Australian Idol, Operatunity Oz and It Takes Two. The drive from the NRSME for greater status and inclusion in vocal education was also perceived as an advantage to studio music teachers who would therefore have the opportunity to expand business opportunities


The biggest threat to singing in schools is the decision by successive governments to excise singing from school curricula. The findings of the National Review of School Music Education are supported in the work of Chapman (2006):

Many education systems have had to cut or downgrade music and singing from their curricula. Teaching training includes little or no singing and sometime produces teachers who are too self-conscious to sing, even with children. The joy of making vocal sound is in danger of becoming lost.

Harrison (2006) also commented that

It is clear from the literature and this research that singing in our schools is under-funded, considered a poor cousin to instrumental participation and lacking a consistency taken for granted in other curriculum areas.

ANATS members expressed concern that the provision of suitable programs, resources and teachers were under threat through this government prioritizing.

The devaluing of singing in the community, as cited in relation to the school sector above, has repercussions in the tertiary and studio teaching sectors. Since 1987, university funding models have been applied to the tertiary music environment with an overall loss of funding per student. This has meant fewer lessons per student per semester, the lack of availability of professional accompanists present in lessons and other cuts in progams.

Studio teachers perceived that the main threats were economic viability and the lack of a regulated industry. Resources, both human and physical have been, and continue to be, under threat.


In summary, the singing teaching community was positive about recent government imperatives but expressed concerns about the current status of singing in society. Funding models were considered problematic across all sectors. Opportunities for an increase in the profile of singing through a national school curriculum were embraced by teachers, as were the findings of NRSME in relation to singing. It remains to be seen whether the rhetoric will convert to substantial change across the sector.


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Clair, A. (2000) ‘The importance of singing with elderly patients’, in Aldrige, D. (ed) Music therapy in dementia: More new voices (pp 81-101). London: Jessica Kingsley

Clift, S.M. and Hancox, G. (2001). The Perceived benefits of singing: findings from preliminary surveys with a university college choral society. Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 121, 248-256.

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Davis, P. (1998). Emotional influences on singing. Australian Voice 4, 13 – 18.

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Harrison, S.D. (2006) ‘Where are we going? Directions for vocal tuition in schools.’ Paper presented at ANATS National Conference Canberra October 2006

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[1] Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, ‘Imagine Australia – report on the inquiry into the role of creativity in an innovation economy’, 2005

[2] National education and the arts statement , Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs

[3] National education and the arts statement , Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs


Scott Harrison, Rowena Cowley, Kathleen Connell, Inge Southcott and the membership of the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (ANATS). Submitted 29 February 2008. Dr Harrison, who lectures in Music and Music Education at Griffith University in Brisbane, is the President of ANATS.

Entered into knowledge base 1 September 2008


  1. Chapman, 2006↩︎

Lectures in Music and Music Education, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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