The Choir BBC2: Interview With Gareth Malone

One man and his “choir challenge” have changed the lives of 30 youngsters from a Middlesex comprehensive school.

New to BBC Two is The Choir, a three-part documentary following the highs and lows of London Symphony Orchestra Choir Master Gareth Malone, as he attempts to take 30 R&B-obsessed comprehensive school kids – who have never sung before – to compete in the World Choir Games in China.

What’s more, he first has to get them good enough to enter the competition, then, if successful, lift them to world-class standard in just nine months – surely a mission impossible… or is it?

We love the series, but why on Earth did you say yes?

“I love the excitement of aiming for something impossible. Well, almost impossible. I’ve spent most of my working life in youth centres, schools, theatres and concert halls making music from nothing. So I jumped at the chance when the BBC asked me to create a choir in an ordinary secondary school, where music wasn’t a priority. I knew it was possible but I had some reservations. Would they want a choir? Would they respond to classical music? What would they make of me, coming from a privileged classical background? I knew that it could do wonders for those involved – not just improve their singing and open their eyes to other musical possibilities, but also improve their confidence. I was nervous that I would fall flat on my face, though – who wouldn’t be!”

Why did you choose Northolt High School?

“Mainly because Northolt is typical of hundreds of secondary schools across the UK. It’s an ordinary comprehensive, with kids from all sorts of backgrounds. When I arrived I was shocked by the standard of singing. This was yet another secondary school that had forgotten how to sing. When I was at school I sang every day but here there was no assembly singing, no choir, no orchestra, no folksongs and certainly no classical music.”

How many rehearsals did you have (once you had formed The Phoenix Choir) before you had to record your CD entry to The World Choir Games?

“We had just seven rehearsals to prepare before the CD recording.

“At first the Choir were terrified to make a sound. They would happily talk… but sing? No! Not above the sound made by a small kitten. To get the lions’ roar I needed took drastic measures. A trip to London’s Barbican Centre was our first turning point because, when I put them on that vast stage to perform solos, what I’d previously seen as a bad attitude revealed itself as blind terror. One 15-year-old, Chloe Sullivan, had been so afraid of failing that she had almost stopped trying but, gradually, she and others began to open up.”

This must have been very stressful for you, with so much on the line. What were the real low points?

“The cold winter months of early 2006 were awful! It felt as though I was cruel and was torturing the kids with classical music. They were resistant to everything. I tried all my tricks and then invented more. I struggled to keep the momentum as we waited for the result of our application for China. I despaired of their commitment as the novelty wore off; misery infected everyone and that was pretty hard to take.”

What was the highlight of making the series?

“It was all a really great experience but, of course, it was wonderful when their singing started to sound like real music. And, above all, it was their increase in confidence as the months sped by that was the real highlight for me. All those involved in The Phoenix Choir learnt how to aim high, some how to lead. Some of them really began to love the music. All of them learnt a lot about singing. And they learnt how to be a team, how to support each other and how to be patient when others are struggling.

“That, to me, was worth all the effort and I would do it all again without any hesitation at all!”


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