Posted in Uncategorized

Sing a Song of Sixpence.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about school lately. Doesn’t that just make you want to read on? No worries, the memories are all good — and very musical.

The elementary school I attended had eight grades and three classrooms, which equals a grand total of three teachers. Although we had “music class” from time to time, our mostly non-musical teachers struggled through these.

Occasionally, musical specialists visited, including  Keith Bissell, who introduced us to the Orff Method of music. I loved every moment, but they were few and far between. I doubt you can imagine my delight when, in Grade Six, a bright musical light entered our young lives at Hillside Public School.

What follows is a piece I wrote about the wonderful Frances McShane for the Word Weaver, a publication of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region.

The words are so glowing that I’m sure you’ll accuse me of embellishment — that the choir was much better in my memory than in reality — but I have proof! Or had. My lovely mother recorded most of a Kiwanis Music Festival one year, and as an adult I was amazed at the fine sound of our tiny group compared to the others. How I wish cassette tapes lasted forever.

If you want to see for yourself, take a look. Although we were fifteen and not two, and our voices not quite as mature, we sang “Sing a Song of Sixpence” just like this.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

MRS. McSHANE

The rose is red …

Her hands move, fluid and animated, and our young voices follow.

“’T’will soon be dead …

She continues to draw the clear music from us, each note a crystal bead strung on the silk thread of this song.

Like roses, now my cheeks are red.

The final note fades to a whisper and a quick movement of her fingers clips it silent.

Choirs that took the stage before us plodded through “The Streets of Laredo”, and ploughed through “I’s the B’y That Builds the Boat”. But while they sang we sat smiling, smug in the knowledge that our choir would knock the judges from their chairs.

* * *

In the late 1960’s our tiny north-Scarborough school was assigned its first dedicated music teacher and one September morning Frances McShane burst into our lives. She had an accent straight from the heather-covered hills of Scotland, and she radiated her love of music. Using the Orff method, she taught us to play xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels to accompany our songs. Wood blocks and tambourines provided percussion.

Mrs. McShane developed our natural affinities for rhythm and melody, leading us from simple tunes with rhythmic movements, to more sophisticated music. Our enunciation improved with exercises that were simple and fun, and she helped us perfect our projection and showed us how to control our new-found singers’ voices. Then we began to sing more challenging music usually reserved for adult choirs.

We learned a rollicking three-part version of Sing a Song of Sixpence and we blended melody and harmony in I Have a Bonnet Trimmed With Blue. But my favourites were the slower songs with several parts. The rich music of The Isle of Mull, and Ave Maria’s haunting beauty brought tears to my twelve-year-old eyes.

One morning after she’d been working with us for a couple of years, Mrs. McShane gathered the fifteen of us around her in a conspiratorial circle.

“It’s time t’begin our practicin’ for the Kiwanis Music Festival,” she told us, her Scottish brogue wide and her smile wonderful. “And I want us t’be the best, aye?”

We nodded.

“But not just the best,” she warned us, “We’re already that. This year I want you t’so dazzle the wee judges that their mouths’ll drop wide open.”

We held our breaths.

“Who’s ready t’go, at it?”

Fifteen hands shot up, and fifteen faces reflected her grin.

“Right then,” she announced, waving us to our places at the front of the classroom before skipping over to the piano, “let’s get started.”

* * *

And that’s how we came to be onstage one cold February morning. The boys looked smart in dark pants, while the girls wore kilts, begged and borrowed for the occasion. Our white shirts shone in the spotlights.

When the accompanist sounded a single note Mrs. McShane raised her hands, and as she moved them we were guided, a capella, through the first stanza. She signalled a brief pause before the second verse began and Michael’s clear adolescent voice soared above our melody, plaintive and poignant, as the fair maid in the song died. When the music ended and the last note faded, there was complete silence. Then loud applause began and it continued as we left the stage and took our seats.

Later, when Mrs. McShane shared the adjudicator’s remarks, she could barely speak for the tears in her eyes and voice. We’d received top marks in every category, which pleased her, but she was most proud of the footnote commenting that we were the only Scarborough school that could sing with a full Scottish accent.

Advertisements

Author:

Phyllis writes words: words for stories, and words for books. Phyllis writes words for blogs too.

5 thoughts on “Sing a Song of Sixpence.

  1. I must say this post brought tears to my eyes! Beautiful – just lovely. I find that your wonderful writing often evokes fond memories of my own childhood. Your Mrs. McShane reminded me of a woman named Mrs. Carrol who brought joy to my life when I was a wee guddle (at least that’s how her pronunciation of ‘girl’ sounded to me) Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but remember our grade 6 music teacher, poor Mrs. Robinson, who conducted our ultra cool class of pre-teens with great vigor and all we did was laugh at her jiggling arm flab. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young couldn’t have been more correct! And who knew that jiggling arm flab would not be quite so funny 40 years into the future?

    1. Oh, Susan … now you have me laughing. Arm flab isn’t funny at all!! And lucky for Mrs. McShane, she was the skinniest thing ever (probably all that energy she put into her music) so there was nothing like that to laugh at. She was ultra-cool, shag haircut and all, so no giggling!

  2. Giggling would have gotten us sent to see Mr. F. FYI Phyllis, I have run into her over the years when I worked at TPS. She told me we were her very first students in Canada. Did you know that? I never would have guessed that back in the day. If you remember her son, he is also a teacher in the elementary system for the Toronto School Board. The last time I spoke to her, she didn’t look that much different than when she was our teacher. Definitely no arm flab. She is and was a very cool person. She was able to get music out of some people (boys) that never would have been inspired.

  3. My girls compete at the Sunderland Music Festival both vocally and instrumentally. I love listening to all the kids sing. Mrs. Wilson has that same love of music that her proteges find contagious.
    Music has come a long way back. I remember in high school, in Uxbridge giving up my lunch hour to take music class because that was the only way we could keep music in the school. Mr. Sulev conducted us with a stern hand. He knew how to get the best out of us. How to make the silences sharper and the stops crisper. Much like yours Ms. Frances.
    Nice piece, beautifully and musically written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s