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Sing a Song of Sixpence.

I’ve found myself thinking about school lately. You might feel like stopping right here, but please don’t. The memories are all good — and very musical.

The elementary school I attended had only three classrooms, but educated grades one to eight, which equals a grand total of three teachers. In between academics and recess, we did have “music class” from time to time, but our mostly non-musical teachers struggled through these.

Music specialists occasionally visited, including  Keith Bissell, who introduced us to the Orff Method of music. I loved every moment, but the visits were few and far between. You can only imagine my delight when, in Grade Six, a bright musical light entered our young lives at Hillside Public School.I wrote the following piece about our wonderful Frances McShane for the Word Weaver, a publication of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region.

Our Mrs. McShane, when she was our teacher.

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 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.

Although we were fifteen and not just two like in this recording, and our voices were not quite as mature, we sang “Sing a Song of Sixpence” just like this.

And now, the original story.


The rose is red …

Our young voices sing the first line of the song, enunciating as we were taught. Her hands move, fluid and animated, and we 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 and plodded through “The Streets of Laredo” and ploughed through “I’s the B’y That Builds the Boat”, and while they sang, we sat smiling, smug in the knowledge that our choir would knock the judges from their chairs.

* * *

In the late 1960s, 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 two-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 worked with us for a couple of years, Mrs McShane gathered 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, then?”

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.

The accompanist sounded a single note, then 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 choir that could sing with a full Scottish accent.

FOOTNOTE: Mrs McShane and I have reunited, and she recently shared the letter below. Apparently, we really were that good.

Mrs. McShane and I have reunited and are now good friends. She shared this letter with me recently.


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

6 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.

  4. I started reading your wonderful story and could see Mrs. McShane’s arm’s flying, her foot tapping out the beat for us and her smiling at us to make us smile as we sang. What a great memory from 50 years ago. Thanks Phyllis.

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