It takes guts to sing in front of others but during term time there’s a group of teenagers who turn up every Tuesday to sing together in the MUSE rooms at the Christchurch Music Centre.
They are an eclectic bunch, coming from different schools all over the city. Some of them study music, but to get into this singing group there’s no NZ Idol style-auditions - you just turn up, have a cuppa and have a go.
“I’m terrified of being on stage,” Christina Dalglish says, “but it’s a lot easier with a group of people. It’s better to do it in a choir.”
“I just joined,” says Laura Starling. “but like the choir because I found everyone was really friendly. It’s fun.”
Loren Easterbrook, a founder member of the group, says she does it for the love of it.
“I just enjoy singing,” Loren says. “I do lots of other things as well, but it’s nice to go and sing with a group of other people.”
Christina, Laura and Loren are part of Youth Choir Otautahi, a singing project for teenagers run by the Muse Community Music Trust. It’s not like other choirs, more like a singing group - members choose the songs, and the part they sing, and there’s no emphasis on theory or previous musical background – anyone is welcome to join in.
Christina explains: “I like that we get to choose our own songs; we don’t have to do old yukky ones.”
Favourite songs include Otherside, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Fiddle and the drum, a Perfect Circle re-working of the Joni Mitchell song.
“And we get hot Milo out of it,” she laughs.
Rachel Bayliss co-ordinates all of the music for the choir – she’ll help the students learn the songs they want to sing, and splits the songs into parts to create the harmonies.
Jacinta O’Reilly is the admin behind the Youth Choir. Most important of all, she says, she co-ordinates the drinks and the biscuits.
“When we originally had the idea of a choir for young people, that was the big thing for my daughter – getting her to try something that was very much on the edge for her.”
These singers don’t get bogged down in scales and theory and grades and exams for competency – it’s all about the joy of singing.
“It’s completely the opposite to that,” Jacinta says. “These are people who want to do it but it’s a really brave (act) for them to do it.”
Song choice isn’t that important, Rachel says. “It doesn’t matter a huge amount what the songs are. Singing feels physically good enough for people to want to come and do it. As a singing teacher people come to sing – not necessarily because they like me. They feel so good when they’ve spent time singing that it’s enough to get them coming back. It’s a bit mysterious…”
“I really encourage them to choose their own songs, and then I choose from them what I think will work, what’s appropriate musically.”
The Theme from Titanic isn’t on the request list, Rachel says.
“That would never happen.”
Alternative rock and theme songs from TV shows are popular though. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Captain Planet – it’s totally unpredictable. That’s why I gave up choosing the music myself because it was so hit and miss. I find it far more successful to get suggestions from them.”
Not only do students choose the songs, they also get a choice of which part they sing in the arrangement.
“(There’s) total freedom,” Rachel says. “They self-select the parts they like the sound of. Unless they come in two weeks after everyone has started and then I’ll tell them which part still needs people in it, but it’s pretty much self selection. That’s a big difference from other choirs – they get to pick and choose.”
So far it sounds like a great gig – regular get togethers, snacks – and making music. However the group needs more members – to increase the number of parts that the choir can sing and to expand the repertoire of songs.
Attracting people to the group is a challenge for the choir, particularly male voices. “It has been really organic – they come in clumps. Often if parents are involved in something at The Muse, they’ll strongly encourage their child to come along,” Rachel says.
“We’re really looking forward to a time when it’s bigger. At the moment we’re experimenting with bringing in some musicians. So instead of having a bass part we have a bass musician, and pianist.”
Most choir members don’t read music, so Rachel teaches through repetition. “There’s a few students who learn really easily by ear, and the rest lean on them – they lean on each other quite well,” she says. “I sing it or play it to them and they sing it back. And we do it over and over until it's there.”
Taking time and not putting too much pressure on are key elements of overcoming anxiety and getting the most out of the students, Rachel explains. “Things do take time. One of my key learnings has been not to make things too difficult. It doesn’t serve any purpose apart from my ego, so I make things more and more simple. But their musicianship’s improving really noticeably.”
“There’s a great many of them that would be quite happy just singing one part; having a singing session. Most people always want to sing the tune, so one of my jobs is to encourage them out of that so they get used to singing harmonies and relying on themselves.”
* The Otautahi Youth Choir is supported by Community Organisation Grants scheme funding.