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Guy Noble's Soapbox: Sorting out the sheep from the geese

Features - Classical Music

Guy Noble's Soapbox: Sorting out the sheep from the geese

by Guy Noble on May 10, 2017 (May 10, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Children may not all have the voices of angels, but perhaps torturing the young is killing off the audiences of the future.

It  was reliably reported to me recently (by a 10 year old) that a primary school on Sydney’s Lower North Shore was auditioning children for a place in the school choir. Not only were they being auditioned, they were being auditioned individually – standing in front of everyone, legs quivering with fear, having to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb solo to get a spot. My little friend was bitterly disappointed he didn’t get in, despite having been part of the School Spectacular Choir a few years running. He doesn’t play an instrument, his only access to performance is through the choir, and yet that avenue of pleasure was suddenly closed down. 

We’re not talking the Vienna Boys Choir here, folks, we’re talking a small primary school in the public system that should be falling over themselves to admit everyone, whether they have the voice of an angel or honk like a Cape Barren Goose. What is this nonsense? The purpose of a school choir is to invite everyone in, to make music together with the human voice. You don’t have to buy an expensive violin or tuba, or learn how to scrape oboe reeds, you just open your mouth and your vocal chords do the rest. 

Putting on a musical is a different matter, you are auditioning for individual roles and not everyone can be a star. How fitting the audition piece was Mary Had a Little Lamb – a choir is basically a flock of sheep with strength and security in numbers. Voices that might seem thin and ever-so-slightly out of tune on their own blend with others to create something stronger and more listenable. It seems cruel and unnecessary then to pick off the weaker lambs and throw them to the wolves of disappointment. 

Maybe I am making too much of this, but I think I am not. The joy of a choir is that sense of inclusion, of being part of something bigger than yourself.  I am a professional musician but I simply love amateur choirs and their passion and generosity. Orchestras around the country benefit from this – there is no way they could ever pay for a choir to sing Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The orchestra might be professional but the choir is unpaid and gives freely of its time and energy. When we toured Opera Queensland’s production of La Bohème a couple of years ago, the choruses in each town came from the local communities. They loved it, getting into their costumes and being part of a professional production of one of the great operas. They also brought a large and appreciative audience hoping to get a glimpse of their friends and relatives dressed as Parisian tarts. 

Classical music needs all the inclusion it can get. It can be seen so often as a distant and stuffy art form, peddling its wares from centuries ago, played by people wearing tails, refugees from an episode of The Crown. Many people won’t go near it because it seems so removed from modern society, so veiled in ritual. I met a fellow recently, a man of 54 who had lived his entire life in Sydney and yet had never once stepped inside the Opera House to see a performance. Not once! How extraordinary. Maybe he had once auditioned for a school choir with a trembling rendition of Mary Had A Little Lamb, was told he wasn’t good enough and is now permanently damaged. 

Some schools have different streams – the main choir where all are welcome and the smaller crack SAS operation, able to go in behind enemy leger lines and deliver high-powered intonation. This seems a much better option. Unless this particular primary school choir is recording a new CD of Buxtehude’s Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV184 for worldwide release by Deutsche Grammophon, I would say it is more important to let everyone have a go, angels and Cape Barren Geese alike.


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