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18 December 2009

A new direction for Gondwana Choirs

Participants of the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir Image: Participants of the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir  
© Rubina Kimiia

This article by Lyn Williams OAM was originally published in the Australian National Choral Association's magazine Sing Out, Vol 26 No. 2 (Winter 2009), and is republished here with the kind permission of the writer.

As conductors, as artist musicians, we are driven by passion, driven by inspiration and driven by a desire to achieve the highest possible artistic standards. As choral conductors we also have the privilege of being involved in the most inclusive form of music-making. A choir only comes to life when every voice, every personality is captured and expressed through the performance. As a conductor of children's choirs, I have also found it thrilling to see young people mature and thrive in the choral environment, and go on to become fine professional musicians or professionals in other spheres who maintain their passion and drive in life as they did in music.

Until the last couple of years, my primary motivator as a choral conductor was to see young people perform at the highest possible musical standard. This was always coupled with a strong urge to find new works, collaborations and performance vehicles through which the powerful voices of young people could be heard. Having commissioned over sixty works for the choirs and having worked with the choristers themselves in creating new pieces, motivation came from 'A choir only comes to life when every voice, every personality is captured and expressed through the performance.'continuous renewal, exploration and discovery.

I feel sure that, as conductors, we are also motivated by the addictive powers of music. Choral music can and must unite hearts and minds in order to succeed. I don't mean this in a new-age, let's-all-hold-hands kind of way, but for purely practical reasons. Choirs and conductors experience every beat, the ring of every chord and every musical nuance and emotion together. The shear physicality of this experience is addictive.

Although my motivation to reach artistic peaks remains very strong, more recently I have found enormous satisfaction in some new ventures for Gondwana Choirs. In these projects, the rewards are more about discovering untapped talent and creating musical and social opportunities for young people who would never otherwise have access to our programs. We have all seen choral music have a profound impact on the lives of young people. In a small way, we are seeking to expand on this idea: using choral music to enhance and broaden the lives of young people.

The Sydney Children's Choir recently presented the world premiere of Ngailu - Boy of the Stars. This was the culmination of a two-year collaboration between the choir and communities in the Torres Strait. In my twentieth year with the choir, I can quite honestly say that it was a true highlight in our history. Far more than just a concert performance, the night was about sharing culture, building friendships and creating one dynamic performance ensemble which harnessed the joy and energy of children from both Sydney and the Torres Strait Islands. I found the entire experience extremely uplifting.

Here is the background to the project:

In 2007 Gondwana Choirs commenced a multi-year collaboration project with its Sydney Children's Choir and communities across the Torres Strait Islands. Following the Sydney Children's Choir's collaborative performance with Bangarra Dance Theatre at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi Japan, we developed a close working relationship with the former Bangarra dancer, now choreographer, Sani Townson, whose passion for his culture and his trust in us has helped the organisation forge a particular bond with this special part of the world. I have worked closely with Sani in developing a number of Torres Strait Islander songs and dances for the Sydney Children's Choir and Gondwana Voices to perform. These have been performed by the choirs to great acclaim on recent international tours to Canada, France, UK, Finland, Estonia and Denmark, as well as in concerts in Australia.

In February 2008, I made my first trip to the Torres Straits with our General Manager Alexandra Cameron and of course Sani Townson. We visited Thursday Island and many other Torres Strait Islands, as well as the Northern Peninsula Area, and worked with the children in schools. The aims of the workshops were to work with all the children in years 5 to 7, developing singing, music and movement skills, and to identify children who may be suitable for further involvement in the project.

The trip was a remarkable experience and the enthusiasm shown by all the children was infectious. In September 2008, 33 members of the Sydney Children's Choir visited Thursday Island and collaborated with 35 children from across the Torres Strait Islands and Northern Peninsula Area, presenting two performances for the Thursday Island community - one as part of the Torres Strait Cultural Festival. For the Sydney Children's Choir this was a rare experience which gave them a unique insight into the vibrant culture of the Torres Strait. Their experiences will not only stay with them forever but will inform the Choir's performances for many years to come. For the children of the Torres Strait, this was a valuable musical and cultural education opportunity.

This project culminated in April 2009 when 15 Torres Strait Island children from the 2008 collaboration travelled to Sydney for the performance of a new work - Ngailu - Boy of the Stars. The work was based on a story created by Sani Townson. Dan Walker was most successful in tying together many pre-existing Torres Strait songs as well as original material. We also commissioned some giant banners from the young Torres Strait Islander artist Anthony Mayor, and the performance was further brought to life by some extremely effective lighting.

Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir

participants of the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's choir in performance

The positive experience of working with the children of the Torres Strait provided the impetus to follow another dream in the establishment of the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir.

Following two brief pilot seasons, it seemed clear that the extraordinary progress shown by all participants, and the strong support received from teachers, parents and the arts community, were a clear demonstration that this initiative had great artistic and social potential. We have also had strong support from members of both the Torres Strait and Aboriginal communities - in the words of Rhoda Roberts, the Artistic Director of the Dreaming Festival:

'The development of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander choir will leave an incredible legacy for our youth and also result in some very positive and long-term outcomes socially, economically and politically.'

In following my new surge of motivation, I have been extremely fortunate in having a strong organisation and, in particular, a truly brilliant General Manager to plan, source funding, put programs into place, and so on.

We have developed a model for the Gondwana National Indigenous Choir which we hope to see expanding into the future. The model consists of a three-tiered structure:

1) schools and community workshops, and skills development
2) regional workshops
3) national and international performances

We have secured the support of the National Australia Bank as GNICC's Founding Partner and Major Partner of the Community Workshop Program. Qantas has also become a major partner enabling us to undertake one major performance per year.

Goals of the GNICC

The major aim of the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir is to give talented Indigenous children the opportunity to join with their talented peers from across Australia and take part in musical, social and cultural education and performance opportunities that '...the satisfaction of enriching the lives of just a small number of children through music more than compensates for the efforts involved.'enable them share the voice of their generation with both the nation and the world.
Long-term goals are to:

  • perform: be a choir of excellence performing independently, and with Gondwana Voices and Sydney Children's Choir, at major national and international events.
  • create: develop a significant repertoire based on Indigenous song and language and involve the children in creating new works with local artists and composers.
  • access: develop our own Community Workshop Program in schools and Indigenous communities across Australia as well as develop links with other not-for-profit organisations working within Indigenous communities to assist in identifying and maintaining singers.
  • educate: hold regional as well as national rehearsal seasons for the choir and develop a choral education curriculum, which includes Indigenous song and language, using the expertise of local musicians and artists.

I'm not kidding myself. I'm just a choral conductor who loves to work with young people. I know that music is not going to save us from the effects of global warming, nor is it likely to bring peace and harmony to the world, or help every child to read. But I derive as much satisfaction (and therefore motivation) from seeing a young child discover the joy of singing for the first time as I do from working with members of Gondwana Voices who comfortably perform new works with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. There are SO many children across the world with enormous potential, and the satisfaction of enriching the lives of just a small number of children through music more than compensates for the efforts involved.

Further links

Gondwana Choirs (www.gondwanachoirs.com.au)
Sydney Children's Choir (www.sydneychildrenschoir.com.au/)

Lyn Williams OAM is Australia's leading director of children's choirs, having founded two internationally renowned choirs: Sydney Children's Choir in 1989, the national children's choir Gondwana Voices in 1997, Junior Gondwana in 2002, Gondwana Chorale in 2006, Gondwana Indigenous Children's Choir in 2008 and Gondwana Singers in 2009. Her exceptional skill in working with young people is recognised internationally for its high artistic quality and ground-breaking innovation. In addition to her work with young people, Lyn Williams has become one of Australia’s foremost music directors and conductors for major events. In July 2010, the Sydney Children’s Choir will celebrate its 21st birthday with a major concert at the Sydney Opera House, involving all the choirs in the Gondwana Choirs family.


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