Singing in Waldorf schools in the time of coronavirus

By Solveig Jungclaussen, February 2021

Singing together is an ancient tradition among all peoples and on all continents. It forms part of rituals, religion and community. Today we are permanently surrounded by music. Yet despite the many amateur choirs and innumerable projects for children, there is less and less singing in our society. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, singing was in a difficult position. There is increasingly less music-making at home in the family, confidence in our own voice cannot be developed and so the self-assurance in leading and demonstrating a song is missing also among teachers.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

There is ongoing research into and questioning of the transfer effects of music in general. What is certain, is that singing has a positive effect on us, be it emotional or also on our health. Not for nothing is it also a form of therapy. Singing strengthens group cohesion, teaches indirect social interaction, and makes us more mindful. At the Waldorf school, new ways of singing together were sought from the beginning. Paul Baumann, the first Waldorf music teacher, started the search for songs and moments to enable the pupils to immerse themselves in music away from mainstream sounds and social conventions.

Alongside music lessons, it is particularly the class teacher who shapes the repertoire of songs of the pupils. Songs are a firm part of main lesson. Frequently they accompany the morning rituals. They guide the pupils through the seasons, calm the class down or invigorate it. Beyond that, songs play a role in a great variety of subjects: in language classes the pupils dip into the other language through songs, in play gymnastic roundels are sung, in handwork lessons a welcome song is struck up. While the pupils in the lower classes sing in unison and are immersed in the pentatonic world, they experience the diversity of music all over the world and the wealth of polyphonic pieces in middle school.

In classes 1 and 2 melody, rhythm and text form a unity. The song communicates a mood and often a story. The pupils mostly learn the songs very quickly and as a group can memorise many verses in a short period of time. This is not about subjective feelings but about wonder at and getting to know the world through sounds. The child is given the opportunity to be immersed in a musical stream. Music is not yet personal but rather a floating state. For this reason many songs in the first two classes are not yet tied to a tonal system.

At around the time of the Rubicon in class 3, the pupils experience a new wakefulness, they discover themselves as individuals in the world. The melodies which now accompany the children are self-contained, they don’t need harmonies. There is now – appropriately for the child’s development – also a musical interior and exterior. We enter into a musical dialogue through “I-and-you polyphony”. Here the second part is not subordinate to the melody but equally independent. In the best case, the songs create spaces in lower school in which the children are allowed to be. These are spaces for experiences, sounds, colours and the imagination.

In class 5, in which the pupils are mostly vocally very versatile, they learn about major and minor. This is associated with the historical development of music: whereas we are familiar with floating, silvery and impersonal sounds from Gregorian music, Renaissance and Baroque music is characterised by the change between major and minor. The music thus becomes a deeply personal experience. In dark sounds, which might for example describe nightfall, I recognise my solitude and in dance-like pieces my high spirits. This continues in a stronger form into puberty: the music becomes an expression of how I feel personally. In class six, the discovery of other cultures moves into focus. Musically, too, we take to the road and experience the wealth of sounds from all over the world. Not just spatially but also chronologically the diversity of music is brought to expression.

Romantic ballads and great works in the history of music allow the pupils in classes 7 and 8 (also in choir and orchestra) to be immersed in deep emotions. In upper school the diversity of music is also the focus. Music lessons investigate the various subgenres of pop and rock music alongside classical works and New Music.

Corona changes everything

On YouTube we can find recordings of singers who are singing at a great distance from one another: “Choir is a life-threatening  risk” (YouTube). We are facing the absurd situation that something that is actually healing – singing – is judged to be “life-threatening”, since Covid-19 viruses can be transmitted by aerosols. Choirs have been suspended for months or try to rehearse digitally. It might be possible to correct the one or other tone, but the thing that makes me go to choir every week is missing.

Thus the question unavoidably arises: what now?

In some of the German federal states singing is permitted in some schools with the corresponding hygiene concepts (above all sufficient distancing and fresh air), in others it has so far been prohibited. It is difficult to predict how the coronavirus measures will change our society and traditions in the coming time. Even when permission is granted, the question arises how schools are supposed to manage the hygiene concepts for singing organisationally.

One obvious compromise is humming. But here there is a risk that the voice is forced to produce more of a sound. It is no doubt good to hum now and then and to make the singing voice sound but it should not last for too long since it can quickly become tiring for the voice.

If singing is permitted with a hygiene concept, then it is worth a considerable effort to make this possible. During lockdown, groups of pupils could come together digitally at best. It will therefore be a big task to unite groups again. The deeper we are immersed in music making, the more quickly the exceptional conditions are forgotten.

Something else that also speaks in favour of singing is its strengthening action. The Covid-19 virus attacks our respiratory system. In singing we learn to control our breathing and train our respiratory system. Singing thus represents an opportunity, if the risk of a coronavirus infection is minimised through the necessary distancing and ventilation: we bring a group that may have been split up through the lockdown into consonance and strengthen the breathing and immune system.

Ways of listening

Much as the prohibitions and measures may be annoying, we should also see positive sides, alongside stopping the spread of the infection: we can see the importance of making music together and how much many of us are missing it. In school it can easily happen that we quickly sing through a song in order then to pass on to more important things. Now we might devote more time to singing again. We attempt (presumably with some effort) to set up possibilities to sing together, paying great attention to one another and the music. Thus, although singing together might no longer accompany tidying up, it might well represent important minutes in the happening of the lesson for pupils and teachers. In addition, the required distancing trains our hearing and gets us to listen even more carefully to what the person next to us, now at a greater distance, is singing.

Listening to one another is a central aspect in making music. Reinhild Brass developed “audiopaedia”, listening training. This is no replacement for singing together but it can offer a great alternative. Reinhild Brass attempts to discover listening in many different ways and to open the ears. In her book Hörwege entdecken (“Discovering Ways of Listening”, Brass 2012) she goes step-by-step through the eight years of schooling with the class teacher and develops listening exercises with stones and woods, claves and spatial movement. She recommends the exercises for music lessons but many can be integrated just as well into main lesson.

Yet I don’t just want to encourage class teachers to venture along new ways of singing and learning to listen. A great treasure in my own musical training was the daily “evening serenade” with my family which accompanied me throughout my childhood. After having been read to, we sang several songs together, in unison and as rounds. Alongside a rich repertoire of songs, it gave me self-confidence with regard to my singing voice. I have always felt at home in it and am convinced that our family tradition played a large part in that.

Hence I would like to encourage you: sing with your own and other children whenever you can and are allowed to, and discover listening! Create spaces for sounds, experiences and the imagination!

About the author: Solveig Jungclaussen studied music, trained as a teacher and completed a postgraduate Waldorf Master in Stuttgart. She is a member of various singing ensembles and directs a choir in Ulm.

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