BBC America started a new show last night called The Choir. It’s a reality show in which a handsome and likable young man, Gareth Malone (isn’t Gareth a totally British-sounding name?), visits a typical comprehensive school in a low-income area in England and recruits twenty-five novice singers for a choir. The goal is to establish the choir and work with them until they’re good enough to compete in a choral competition in China, of all places.
The school is Northolt High School, and – according to the show and to the BBC press release – it has never had a choral music program. Malone holds auditions and chooses the best from among the many untrained singers who try out. Either the school doesn’t contain older students, or very few of them try out, because one of his first problems is in finding boys whose voices have changed for the bass parts. The few that he does manage to find are very weak, and (like the rest of the kids) totally untrained.
Last night’s show followed the progression of announcing the program to the students, holding auditions, forming the choir, and teaching and rehearsing the selected pieces. It culminated with a recording session in which the new choir made a demo CD to submit with their application to the contest. The whole process took only six weeks (I believe), with only one rehearsal per week.
The first thing that really jumped out at me was how musically impoverished these children were. They had never had any sort of music education, did not know how to read music or decode a score, and most of them had never even tried to sing in harmony before. The personable Mr. Malone got quite a lot accomplished in the short time that he had, but the choir did not sound very good on their audition recording, I have to say.
What distressed me was Malone’s lack of attention to basic singing skills. Perhaps he didn’t feel that he had the time. And of course, the show was edited to focus more on the personal stories of some of the students, since that is what sells reality TV programs. So perhaps there was more vocalization, warm-ups, and coaching than what we saw on the screen. But there’s no doubt that the students were grossly oversinging, and Malone kept prompting them to get louder and louder, without offering any tips on breath support or vocal technique. I have always been suspicious of the “Loud equals Good” school of musical training. The singing was brassy, flat, and raucous – in a way, reminiscent of some of those Eastern-European folk choirs. I realize Malone didn’t have a lot of time, but I would have hoped that, as a classically-trained musician, he would have taken a little more care with the vocal production. If they continue to sing like they were in this first episode, his students will end up with vocal problems by the end of the season.
In spite of that, my overall response was positive. For one thing, it made me so grateful to have had musical training as a child. Although Garland schools did not have elementary music programs until well after I had graduated, my parents enrolled me in pre-school church choir, and I continued through the children’s church choir program into high school. My parents were also responsible for buying a piano for our home, and paying for my piano lessons, which started when I was in third grade and continued into college. In Junior High I played flute in the school band, and in high school I added bassoon and xylophone to my repertoire. These musical experiences had a vast impact on my life, and I cannot begin to imagine how different I would be had I not had the privilege of a music education. I watched the children on The Choir as they timidly sang together for the first time, and I could see how they changed and grew as they began to feel the joy of group singing.
An especially gratifying moment in the show occurred after the audition recording had been made. Malone arranged to have copies of the CD mailed to each of the choir members, and the cameras caught the children in their homes, playing the CDs for their families and for themselves. One girl’s grandmother began to cry as she listened to her granddaughter’s voice singing among all the others. You could tell that, for this woman, this was a moment of pure joy and wonder.
It seems to me that this is the essence of the show – that the joy of singing as a group, as a community, is something of immeasurable value that is in danger of being lost. I know that The Choir was highly successful and award-winning in its British run, and I hope that lots of Americans will tune in to its US broadcast. There are many parts of America in which music education is on the cutting block, and it’s my hope that interest in this TV reality show will engender a renewed interest in keeping the arts in the public schools.