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18 December 2009

Young Voices of Melbourne - twenty years on

Singers of the Young Voices of Melbourne in concert Image: Singers of the Young Voices of Melbourne in concert  

Conductor Mark O'Leary looks back at the early stages of his 20-year-old Young Voices of Melbourne choir and finds that most of the early aims and aspirations are as relevant as ever, and that some new ones would need to be added to the list.

Young Voices of Melbourne celebrates its 20th year in 2010, and there is much to celebrate. The choir is well-known in the choral and educational worlds for its vibrant performances and its outstanding music education program. Our groups are full of musical and motivated children who are well-supported by interested families. Our singers are given a range of wonderful opportunities to make music in a variety of contexts. So how did we get to where we are now, and what was important in the journey along the way?

Before the first rehearsal of Young Voices of Melbourne on 18th February 1990, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted the choir to be like. I was fortunate in that I had been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study outstanding children's choirs, and in 1988-89 I travelled to England, Hungary, Finland, Canada and the USA, visiting some of the finest and most successful children's and boys' choir programs in the world. I knew, at this stage, that I wanted to set up a children's choir in Melbourne, and - as I sat in on rehearsals, attended performances, trawled through old programs, looked at music and talked to conductors, singers and administrators - I had plenty of time to think about what this choir should be like.

The results of my musings became the basis of the Artistic and Education Policy Statement which was written to provide a framework for the initial operations of the choir. Even though some of the points are a little mundane, I have reproduced this statement below in full, as, with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, it is interesting to see which of these policies have continued to be valuable and which have proven to be not so important.

1. The Young Voices of Melbourne will aim for the highest possible standards in choral music making.

2. YVM will be open to girls and boys with unchanged voices from the ages of seven to '...the overall educational, psychological and emotional development of each child is more important, even, than the making of great music.'eighteen years.

3. YVM will work in an atmosphere of friendship and enjoyment.

4. YVM will consist of a mixed-age performing choir, with training groups for younger children, but with scope for outstanding young children to have accelerated promotion through the training groups.

5. Choristers will rehearse in small groups as well as a full choir.

6. Choristers will have good and thorough training in voice production.

7. A Kodály-based, individually oriented training program will be the basis of skill development in ear training, sight singing, vocal, choral and performance skills.

8. YVM will sing a variety of the best music written and arranged for young voices from the past 500 years.

9. YVM will have as an important part of its repertoire music from our musical heritage and from our geographical region. Hence Australian folksongs and Australian compositions will be an important part of the repertoire.

10. YVM will sing wherever possible in original languages.

11. YVM will sing music that is of an appropriate level of difficulty. That is, the choir will not attempt music that it cannot sing at a high standard.

12. YVM will collaborate with other fine musicians in performances.

13. YVM will make recordings as an important part of the choir's activities.

14. YVM will always incorporate the training choirs into our major performances, usually by having them sing with the main choir.

15. Choristers will be involved in concert production in as many ways as possible.

16. YVM will have no permanent accompanist but work without a piano in rehearsals, and wherever possible hire an outstanding accompanist for performances.

17. Solo performance will be encouraged, and included as an important part of the rehearsal and performance process.

18. YVM will have the opportunity to listen to other good choirs of all types - on recordings and by having events with other good choirs.

19. YVM will provide opportunities for children with skills in playing instruments and dance to incorporate these skills with their choral music-making in rehearsal and performance.

20. YVM will pay its Director of Music a salary which will enable the Director to run the choir as well as possible (both musically and administratively).

21. YVM should remain a small organisation, with small group sizes, so that all students can receive the attention they need for them to fulfil their potential.

22. The Director of Music will work with the young groups in the choir as well as the main choir.

23. Parents are to be invited and encouraged to help in the running of the choir.

Aiming for a high standard, singing quality music, developing good vocal technique, building aural and reading skills through a Kodály-based program, having training choirs and having a small group rehearsal element have all been core to the values of Young Voices of Melbourne, and continue to be important week by week.

Other areas of continued importance have been the performance of Australian music, singing in original languages, interaction with other choirs, the making of recordings (with eight of our own CDs in the catalogue), the encouragement of soloists within the choir and the collaboration with fine musicians of various types. This policy has extended to our working with accompanists. As originally planned, we do not have an accompanist at each rehearsal, but bring in an excellent pianist to join us for final rehearsals and performances.

As originally planned, we have remained a small organisation, with numbers capped at around 140 members. There has been considerable pressure on Young Voices of Melbourne to expand to cater for a strong demand for places in our choirs, but we have always hung on to the belief that our singers will have a better experience in a small organisation where each child is given the attention they need to get the best teaching we can give them. The evidence that this has been a successful strategy for us has been in the way that our training choirs have become models for the development of skills in young singers. Our 6-7-year-olds have demonstrated, through open rehearsals at the Early Childhood Conference of Performing Arts (held each year in Melbourne), that with a good teacher, a good methodology, motivated singers and reasonable group size, many things are possible.

Reviewing the list of policies above, most are still relevant and important to the choir today, and only a few have lost importance. The policy of accelerating particularly gifted children through the training program has not often been pursued, as it has been found that young musicians thrive most in a group with children their own age. Despite our original policy, choristers are not particularly involved in concert production, except on tour when various stage management and set-up jobs are allocated to singers within the group. And while singers are still given opportunities to play instruments with the choir, this has not been as important a part of the choir's music-making as was originally envisaged.

Although the policies above are, on the whole, still very relevant to the artistic and educational activity of Young Voices of Melbourne, there are certain areas that have proven to be of great importance but that do not show up on this list.

Given the history of Young Voices of Melbourne since 1990, it is surprising there is no mention of touring in the original policy statement. Touring has proven to be the one of the most valuable educational and artistic activities the choir has undertaken. Young Voices of Melbourne has toured every year since 1992, and has taken its music to every state and territory of Australia. It has also toured internationally five times: to Europe, South Africa, North America and Asia. On these tours, the choir has rehearsed and performed with many choirs of different types, from small school choirs of modest ability to leaders in the international choral world. It has sung in major concert halls in big cities, town halls in small towns, in schools big and small and with its feet in the sand under the open sky in communities in the Australian Outback. It has performed on radio and television and at major international events as well as small community gatherings.

There is something very enriching about sharing such wonderful musical experiences with the others in the choir. There is much musical learning, as young singers are inspired and challenged by hearing other choirs, and as they strive each day to make a better performance than yesterday. As well as musical learning, young singers learn about the way people live in the places they visit, and, by so doing, learn much about themselves and their place in the world.

An additional benefit of touring is the inspiration that the choir is able to provide other choirs and their conductors, as it shares its music in concerts within Australia and overseas. Conductors can see what is possible with young people, and lift their expectations of their own groups.

Such musical sharing can therefore have a very positive effect on the cultural life of the community, and it has always been an important part of Young Voices of Melbourne's charter to try to do this in the Australian choral community. As well as sharing music through tour performances, Young Voices of Melbourne has tried to encourage Australian choirs to perform Australian choral music and has supported this through the publication of the Young Voices of Melbourne Choral Series. There are currently ninety titles in the series by composers and arrangers, including Mark O'Leary, Frank York, Suzanne Palmer-Holton, Harley Mead, Paul Jarman and Ian Munro. The purpose of the choral series was to make it easy for Australian conductors to find and obtain Australian choral music appropriate to the needs of their choirs, and we have been extremely successful in this with our music widely performed across Australia and internationally. One of our pieces sold more than 4,000 copies in the USA last year. The choral series has also helped our composers make better links with their markets, leading to more commissions, residencies and so on.

As well as supporting Australia's choral conductors through inspiration and repertoire, Young Voices of Melbourne has presented more than 150 full-day workshops on various aspects of choral pedagogy and conducting in all states and territories of Australia. Covering repertoire suggestions (always including Australian works of course), rehearsal techniques, teaching strategies, planning and administration ideas and conducting technique, these workshops have been attended by thousands of choral conductors since this program went national in 1998.

So, a revised Artistic and Educational Policy Statement would have to include a clause about the importance of touring in the life of the choir. It would also need to include a clause about recognising the responsibility to share its expertise with the wider choral community. What else would need to be added, with the benefit of twenty years' hindsight?

A revised policy would need to include a clause stressing that the overall educational, psychological and emotional development of each child is more important, even, than the making of great music. This is not to understate the importance of reaching for as high an artistic standard as possible, but there will no doubt be times when a child's other needs will conflict with the musical needs of the choir. At these times, it will be necessary to compromise, as the child's need to live a happy and rich life will be more important. For children to live a rich and fulfilled life, they need to be able to pursue a range interests in addition to choir - travel, sport, drama, dance, music theatre and debating, just to mention a few. And there will be times when the soccer grand final is just as important to the child as the performance you have been working towards. The challenge for the child and his or her family is to make sure that the child is not trying to do too much, and that they make '...flexibility and recognition of the other needs of children does in fact seem to benefit the choir artistically in the long term.'good assessments as to the relevant importance of conflicting events.

The challenge for the choir will always be to structure its ensembles and select its repertoire and performance commitments in a way which will enable it to reach the artistic levels it aspires to, while providing the flexibility for children to be able to miss rehearsals and performances when the need arises.

A challenge for both the choir and the families is to maintain excellent communication about all choir matters. The choir needs to make sure that families know, with plenty of advance notice, when concerts, extra rehearsals and special events will be held. Families need to make sure that they give the choir plenty of notice if they are unable to attend a rehearsal or performance. Good communication is, however, something that some families and indeed some choir conductors find very difficult!

Interestingly, this policy of flexibility and recognition of the other needs of children does in fact seem to benefit the choir artistically in the long term. Our experience is that children will stay much longer in the program when they know that they are trusted to be there when they can, but will recognise that there are times when it is just not possible, or in the child's broader interests. And the longer singers stay in the choir, the more skills they develop and the better their contribution to the artistic goals of the choir. And the longer they stay, the more connected they feel to the group and the other singers in it which will increase their motivation to do their best for the choir.

A large part of the success of Young Voices of Melbourne has stemmed from the fact that many of our singers stay in our program a long time. It is not unusual for a singer to join at six or seven, and stay until they are 18. My feeling is that they are happy to stay so long because we try to be a child-focused organisation.

If a children's choir program is genuinely child-focused, it should have no problems with motivating its singers or finding singers for its ensembles. A child-focused choir will teach its singers the skills it needs to perform choral music at a high level - vocal technique, rehearsal technique, performance technique, aural understanding and music reading. It will choose repertoire which is appropriate for young singers and of high quality, so that its singers will learn to appreciate the best of choral literature. A child-focused choir will treat its singers with respect, and run rehearsals in a positive and encouraging way. It will endeavour to meet the particular needs of each singer in the choir, so that they can fulfil their potential. It will find activities which are enriching for its singers and appropriate to their age and experience, and will plan these well so that they are enjoyable and successful.

Further links

Young Voices of Melbourne (www.yvm.com.au).

Mark O'Leary M.Mus B.Mus.Ed, is the founder and Director of the Young Voices of Melbourne and Principal Guest Conductor of Gondwana Voices, Australia’s national children’s choir. With Young Voices, Mark has produced eight CDs, toured all states and territories of Australia and made five international tours to Europe, South Africa, North America and Asia. Mark is also the publisher of the Young Voices of Melbourne Choral Series, and his arrangements are performed all around the world. He presents workshops each year on choral music education throughout Australia and is a regular guest conductor at choral festivals.


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