Do you remember belting out your favourite school-assembly tunes whilst being sat crossed-legged on the cold parquet floor of the lunch hall? This might have been accompanied by your music teacher on a slightly out-of-tune piano, with lyrics being read from an old overhead projector. Inevitably, the words might have been smudged on an acetate sheet. Or, it could have been that they were put on upside down by an over-enthusiastic volunteer who had been designated the position of ‘OHP monitor’…
Many of us have fond memories of group singing in our school assemblies, which would usually provide an uplifting start to an otherwise mundane day at school. An interesting result of our communal school singing is the impact on our popular culture as a whole in the UK. There are regularly comments online about the fact that British music festivals and concerts always have such great singing at them due to the training in our school assemblies! In fact, even a lot of the chants you might hear around a football or rugby stadium often have roots in the songs we learned at school. The fact that many of us had the opportunity to sing at school means that there is a shared knowledge of many hymns, folk songs and gospel tunes. This in turn has also helped instil the confidence to be able to sing in public with a large group of people, whether it be in a church hall or a sports stadium.
In a strange twist of fate, I posted a couple of videos performing my favourite school-assembly songs on my social media pages and there was a hugely positive response. A platform like TikTok, which I had thought was mostly a space for posting dance routines, then became an opportunity to connect with many viewers by reminding them of their favourite assembly tunes from school. During the final lockdowns of 2021, I regularly performed livestreams on TikTok and went through many of the songs that we remembered from school in an attempt to keep the flame burning. I felt as if a side effect of this engagement on TikTok could be to help prevent a young generation from being totally cut off from songs that once would have been ubiquitous and could potentially have been lost to time in the back pages of obscure songbooks released in the 1970s.
Posting these assembly song videos on social media has opened up a world of nostalgic connection to thousands of people I’ve never met. I have had such wonderfully positive comments from so many different people, talking about the good memories they have of singing in school. Quite often these are humourous comments such as ‘NOSTALGIA UNLOCKED’ or ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast but I remember all the words to this song I last heard 25 years ago’. TikTok also seems to have become the new search engine and database of internet knowledge for a younger generation. It is totally heartening to hear that, in a number of schools, the singing tradition is alive and well. A lot of viewers have actually introduced me to some of the fantastic songs from the Out of the Ark catalogue that I didn’t necessarily get to sing myself when I was at school. There are certainly some very ardent fans of songs such as Spring Chicken and Conkers!
However, we are in a difficult moment, nationally, in terms of music education with a loss of funding in many schools and academies. Also, the number of adults taking part in amateur choral singing in the UK is still quite low – but those that do take part are evangelical in their love of it. As we get older, there is often the trap that we can become isolated socially, which leads to loneliness. Singing with a group friends or even strangers on a regular basis provides an invaluable resource to escape this and if we cut off the initial experience then it’ll certainly dissuade future generations from having singing as a lifeline. I’ve created a live show around singing these songs, reflecting on our school days, and people have come along together with their old school-mates, as groups or even on their own which has led to brand-new friendships being formed.
I was also very heartened when I posted the video of my top ten favourite ‘Primary-School Assembly Bangers’ and it was shared by the Department for Education’s offical social media channels. Many teachers have messaged me to say that they are bringing back singing into school assemblies, which is so great to hear. Losing singing in schools would not only have a huge negative effect in the short term on mental health and musical ability but also in the long-term future of singing being part of communal events.
There is a huge amount of scientific data to back up all the physical and mental benefits of communal music-making, whether it be instrumental ensembles or belting out a song in the morning assembly. It is great to see much more of an emphasis on mental health awareness in schools and I feel that this could be taken even further by partnering this with regular, daily music-making. On a more anecdotal level, any time I have experienced a group morning singalong it is always ended with huge smiles and a positive rush that can be taken forward into the school day. With such a focus on exams and results it is so important to create a way to build teamwork without a ‘loser’ and achievement without a direct, tangible grade.
One incredible benefit of the storied tradition of singing together is the passing down of songs between generations. At school, we would sing everything from folk songs to gospel, pop tunes, traditional hymns and rounds which connected my generation, growing up in the 1990s, to our parents and even grandparents. By losing this link, we are denying the younger generation a broader knowledge of songs and breaking that generational connection.You can follow James online here: Instagram - TikTok - Website - Youtube
Part 2, Top 10 Out of the Ark Assembly Bangers coming soon!