Arts / New choir plans to empower girls through music

The Australian Girls Choir… Canberra classes start in late July.

CANBERRA’S burgeoning choral community is about to welcome a new kid on to the block  – well, kids, actually – in the form of the Australian Girls’ Choir.

With offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, the choir that likes to make its young choristers look as good as they sound is moving into the national capital with the twin purposes of empowering girls and making music.

“We’ve been completely overwhelmed by the interest and support of the families in Canberra,” says Nicole Muir, CEO of the hosting organisation, the Australian School of Performing Arts, when “CityNews” catches up with her at the Australian War Memorial.

Nicole Muir, CEO of the Australian School of Performing Arts… “We’ve been completely overwhelmed by the interest and support of the families in Canberra.” Photo by Helen Musa

Also a co-founder and chair of Girls from Oz, a philanthropic organisation that offers performing arts programs to girls in remote Australia, Muir, it turns out, is a former Canberran with an impeccable arts pedigree. Educated at Watson Primary School and Dickson College, from both of which Splinters Theatre emerged, she rubbed shoulders with then-busker Tim Ferguson, who played Pontius Pilate in the school musical, threw herself into drama, then later headed to Deakin University to take out a degree in that subject.

Public speaking was another skill she picked up in Canberra. “I got addicted to the applause,” she says, explaining that because of it she’s been able to help by compering concerts at the Opera House, for instance.

Muir admits to a feminist agenda and is of the view that girls were for too long sidelined by the cathedral tradition of singing that sees the boy soprano voice as the acme of perfection.

The choir, she says, was founded by former school teacher Judith Curphey, with the motto: “Every child can learn to sing”. When Muir was interviewed for her job 18 years ago Curphey noted her unfamiliarity with choral singing, but she’s made up for it since. Besides, she was able to use her drama expertise to assist in developing the choir’s unique style where all the girls dance as well as sing.

“Judith wanted them to dance because she knew audiences would find it more approachable if there was a visual element,” she explains.

She dislikes the term “choralography”, which has entered choral competitions, describing it as “a bit of this and a bit of that”, and says: “We don’t call it choralography, we call it musical theatre”.

That’s because the end products are fully-staged. The girls are taught how to smile and engage with the audience and are coached in costume and make-up, like planning a production for the theatre.

She is particularly excited that they secured the rights to do a medley from the Barnum film musical “The Greatest Showman”, but says they’ve also done medleys from “Annie”, “The Little Mermaid” and even “Oliver!” with the girls playing boys.

The young singers’ successes have been notable. They were the face of Qantas in the “I Still Call Australia Home” advertising campaigns, have sung for Nelson Mandela, the Queen, Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and Oprah Winfrey as well as appearing at the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open Final and the “Broadway to Oz” Arena Tour with Hugh Jackman.

Muir’s biggest task is recruiting, working with parents, schools and alumni to bring in aspiring singing starlets – already 200 have signed up in Canberra, where classes start in late July.

With 5700 choristers across Australia, the organisation uses what she calls “a gentle style of audition”.

“We prefer to call it ‘group assessment’, it’s not really an audition, because we accept everyone,” she says.

“Judith’s philosophy is that if you have a spark, you can sing.”

There are seven training levels but only the very top choir is selective.

Now it’s time to recruit staff in Canberra, some of them choir alumni, although Sydney senior music staff will support the Canberra team. Head office is in Melbourne, but there will be a home office in Canberra.

Australian Girls Choir, enrolment details at ausgirlschoir.com.au or 1800 338142.

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