BBC America – On Demand is offering The Choir; reading the preview it sounded like a viable show to watch with Mom, so I saved it – until the weekend. It was a three-part series, filmed in 2005 – 6, about a crusade by a young classically trained choirmaster named Gareth Malone to bring his art to people who had never experienced it before. I see now that this one is apparently the first of a few; he’s going from venue to venue. I’ll come back to that.
For this one he went to Northolt High School in northeast London, not a ritzy area, though I’m starting to question a bit whether it’s as rough-and-tumble as the editing might have wanted me to believe… Per Wikipedia, “The school holds specialist Technology College status”: “a term used in the United Kingdom for a secondary specialist school that focuses on design and technology, mathematics and science”. Huh. (So why, then, when Gareth asked for someone who was good at science, did only one girl admit to it?) Regardless, it is or was portrayed as a school of lower middle class children, for whom “Music” means Tupak and Christina, not Vivaldi and Mozart. His challenge was to come into this environment and form a competitive choir of 25 students and get them into the Choir Olympics, taking place in China.
On this website there is an interview in which he was asked “Why Northolt?”
“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.”
So in he swooped, and it took most of the first episode for me to adapt to how young he looks. Reminiscent of Matt Smith, he looks about 16 – pushed, and knowing he was out of school, I would have said 23, tops; but no: “the thirty-year-old choirmaster”, said the narrator (who sounded very like Kat Deeley, but wasn’t – and why on earth is that “season” not on imdb?). He is, frankly, adorable, with a slightly glorious voice, which I rather thought would be either a plus or a handicap with the girls … It was apparently neither, or at least they didn’t show any blushes or sighs… Anyway. Over two days he auditioned 160 kids, girls and then boys, out of the 1500 or so in the school. This may be why there were no sighs and blushes, because while he’s quite personable, he is also all business. He was no Simon Cowell, but he came off as a taskmaster, and fairly blunt throughout if a child was not what was needed for the choir. The choir came first. I’m not sure how I feel about that … I don’t entirely approve of the “everybody wins” mentality of some competitions aimed at children (not very realistic, that, and not much help in preparing for Real Life), but – from what I hear, and not from experience – my understanding of what school should be is that something like Choir is supposed to be for the betterment of the children involved. The problem here was that Gareth’s goal from first to last, stated baldly several times, was competition. He was there, first and last, to create a choir which would make it to the Choir Olympics in China (in Xiamen, Fujian, which is interesting to me because my work has a customer there: I ship there regularly), and if in between the kids were exposed to classical music then it was another goal achieved, but a secondary one. That seems backward to me…. But it *was* a reality show, after all.
The auditions were interesting; he was looking for potential, voices which could be worked with and could blend in and support a bigger sound, and so voices which American Idol has trained me to wince over were voices he considered for the final group. The songs they showed the kids choosing for auditions ranged from “Jingle Bells” to, hilariously, “Tainted Love”. A bit heartbreakingly, one of the best of the girls to audition, singing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and singing it well, ended up not being eligible – the audition was on her last day in that school. [ETA: That was Chelsea Campbell, who according to the update program (a year later) had taken the situation philosophically. Hopefully, she’s kept singing.] Due to Issues, she was being transferred right down the road, apparently … Gareth kept her on the list, which seemed odd to me since it was after all to be a choir representing Northolt High, but the Headmaster shot her down without a pause, and the end result was one crushed 15-year-old girl paying for the mistakes of her past. I’m sorry; she was very good – but the moment she opened her mouth and said “this is my last day”, rather than giving her a limb to climb out on Gareth should have gently let her down, with all due praise for her voice and encouragement to work at it. Oh well. Again, Choir first, kids last, I suppose; if there was any way to keep her, he wanted her in, because she was good.
The show chose a couple of kids to focus on beyond school, Chloe Sullivan being one due to the fact that she’s (a paraphrase of her own words) not naughty, not compared to others, but not really obedient, either. She was always in trouble because she was always late and because she had Attitude Problems, and the headmaster rather brutally warned Gareth about her. He didn’t warn him *off* her, which is something, and Gareth did need a heads-up about the fact that she might be a discipline problem, but as with several other moments in the mini-series it was how something was done, not so much what it was. And Chloe did turn out to be a bit of a speedbump; she missed a rehearsal with no notice, and then another a while later because she’s in dentention, and was late now and then – but it seems to me if she’d been as big a problem as the headmaster expected the producers and editors would have been all over it. If they didn’t show anything more, then there was nothing to show. Interestingly, as they showed Gareth letting the kids in for one rehearsal, a boy walked past and proudly announced “I’m here on time and I have my music”. Sounds like, whatever the editors wanted us to see, he was more of a problem in that area than, perhaps, Chloe. (Or not.)
What touched me about Chloe was that Gareth winkled out of her that she didn’t talk to people much because she’s shy. She, like almost all of them, lacked self-confidence – and I can’t say, given the brief glimpses of her mother and the headmaster, that it was a surprise. She’s apparently been a handful, but some of the things her mother said horrified me a bit [upon the choir leaving for China, she states that she’s proud – but it’s going to be less stressful at home. Nice] … which, granted, could be due to creative editing. (I am developing a deep aversion to Reality Show Editors.) What I thought telling was their explanation about why Chloe lacked enthusiasm for one outing the group went on, leaving at 7:45 AM – partly because she didn’t get in, according to her mother, till after 1 AM. She was fifteen years old, pierced, constantly in trouble in school, with an obligation to the choir for 7:45 AM, and she was allowed to be out till after one o’clock in the morning? Even just the first and last parts of that list taken together are sufficiently gobsmacking – I think if I or anyone I know had wandered in at 1:30 AM at the age of fifteen, there would have been bloodshed. And if the excuse there was “single mom”, I shall throw something.
The nascent choir needed to pull itself together in just a very few weeks to cut a CD to be submitted to the committee determining who went to the Choir Olympics – following which there was an interminable wait to hear whether they’re in or not. The website wasn’t promising; there were photos up of all the choirs who had submitted applications, and it seemed that every single one of them looked polished, wearing uniforms in posed shots … Phoenix, the name Gareth gave to the Northolt choir, was posed by him out in the schoolyard, all wearing their school uniforms in various states of tucked-in-ness, and anoraks and backpacks, and not all looking at the camera when they should have been … *sings* “Which one of these things is not like the others….”
(I can’t help but wonder if he asked for input from the students on the name of the choir, or just decided by himself, or if the producers chose it; it was kind of a large decision, imho, and they gave no indication of what went into it.)
It was a fascinating show, a cut above the majority of “reality shows” in that [some of] the children truly did benefit from the experience, and in that it made the usually-ignored-by-the-bureaucracy point that Arts Programs Are Valuable. Gareth says often during the course of the show what a shame it is that classical music is something alien to these, and most, kids. The problem is, the goal was to take a brand-new choir made up of kids who had never done anything like this before and get them to a competition filled with slick and polished choirs. Once that goal was past, that was the end of it – win or lose, and I’m not saying anything more on the outcome, once the Choir Olympics were over, so, basically, was the Phoenix Choir. And that’s a bloody shame. 25 kids, plus four alternates, plus the ones who in the end didn’t make the final cut all put a lot of work into that – maybe not as much as they might have, but given that this was alien ground for all of them, it was a massive and impressive effort. And then Gareth left. So … walk into their lives, change their outlooks and build a foundation onto which something amazing might have grown … and … go, leaving a few bricks stacked on top of each other. I hope that he left behind someone or something – a pamphlet, a website, anything – to guide the ones who wanted to continue making music, but they never specifically said – and there didn’t seem to be anything incorporated into the ongoing curriculum. And that isn’t right.
Over and over, Gareth said how great a pity it was that there could be so much untapped talent out there, that with no incorporated music program these kids never had their confidence built up or those natural voices developed. But what did this program do other than to raise a little more awareness of that fact? Look, here’s a fairly average London high school, and look how many children there are who have the innate untapped ability to do wonderful things? With, of course, the linked conclusion that if there is this much untapped potential in music, there is an equivalent in the other arts which are not being taught. So we’re going to take one cross-section of children from this one school, treat them to a year of heady immersion into song, and then drop them right back where they were. I don’t understand. With adults it would be bad enough – but kids? Not fair. Not kind.
Apparently there are two more series to come, in which he “proved that boys can sing, take pride in it, and perform at the Royal Albert Hall”, and what may be a current one, in which he creates a town choir in Herfordshire. And then he’ll leave them, too.
One older boy – Jerry – said, with tears rolling down his face, that with the motive and the right sort of teacher you can do anything. I wouldn’t know; but from where I sit I’m not sure Gareth Malone is the right teacher. Perhaps he would be if he stuck around … but not like this.