Founding the Montserrat National Youth Choir

 

In May 2013, Loni Howe, who works for the Department of Youth Affairs, approached me with the idea of starting a National Youth Choir. She had recently been wowed by a performance by the National Youth Choir of Antigua and Barbuda where they sang some modern popular songs. She felt that Montserrat could and should have something similar, something dynamic modern and fresh, a choir that young people would be excited and proud to be a part of.

Loni had the vision but not the musical experience, which is where I came in. Also on board was Jo-Annah Richards who completes our team. We decided that the choir would be exposed to as many different musical genres as possible, which could include but certainly not be limited to the traditional religious and folk/traditional music conventionally performed by choirs in Montserrat.

In Montserrat, the term ‘Youth’ refers to anyone aged between 16 and 30 years, however this is currently being revised with a view to include adolescents as youth. At the time my secondary school choir was very small, despite the fact I knew there were many more students who could really sing. As for primary, there were school specific choirs that existed in the run up to Christmas concerts and graduation ceremonies, but nothing steady all year round (apart from the St. Augustine School Glee Club). There was nothing that combined children from all different schools and churches into one choir.

Taking all this into account, as well as the fact we wanted to expose the greatest number of youngsters possible to singing opportunities, we made the age range of the choir from 7-30. We split this into 3 separate groups: 7-11, 12-15 and 16-30. These age ranges correlate with the school system here, Primary, Secondary and Sixth Form College. As the schools all finish at different times this was the easiest way to split them in terms of rehearsal times and transport issues. Now with the initial planning out the way, time to find members to make this choir a reality!

Junior Choir

Rather than starting all groups at once, we decided to start the choir in 3 stages starting first with the youngest group, 7-11. Having worked on a weekly basis with the primary school children I knew this would be the easiest to set up in terms level of interest and enthusiasm. I knew how much they love their music and it’s still really ‘cool’ to sing at that age. We went on radio presenter Rose Willock’s Cultural Show to promote the idea, as well as getting a segment on ZJB radio news. When we collected the permission slips returned from parents we were overwhelmed by the response. We had 90 children wanting to audition.

I organized a time with each of the 4 primary schools where I would go in and take the interested students for their audition. After a long few days I managed the difficult task of selecting 30 students to form the choir as well as a reserve list of 20. It was definitely not easy as there were a lot of children who could sing well.

We started in rehearsals in mid-June, and the choir had four practices before their first performance: The annual Calabash Festival. Unfortunately I already had my flight booked for two weeks prior to the event so I couldn’t be present. Cecil ‘Cepeke’ Lake, local keyboard player, accompanied them and they just had to go for it. The response from the audience was extremely positive and so the Junior Choir was born. They were immediately booked for a performance at a Gospel concert in October and haven’t looked back since.

Middle Choir

September came around and the new school year began. Now for the trickier section: 12-15 year olds. Peer pressure has kicked in and it’s no longer cool to sing in a choir. In fact, I never particularly enjoyed putting my secondary school choir to perform in front of the school as they could be a tough audience.

Again, we went on the cultural show to promote and put an advert on the radio announcing auditions. Considering we had 90 children audition for the junior choir, we were a little disappointed when only 3 people showed up to audition for the 12-15 age group! However, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again! We decided that not only had the radio advert perhaps not been as exciting as possible, a lot of the students would have been put off by the horrible notion of an ‘audition’.

Jo-Annah and I went to the Secondary School and the Montserrat Community College assemblies on the following Monday morning. We told them we wanted to form a modern choir, not sticking to religious and folk music, and explained the audition would be nothing traumatic! This seemed to grab their attention a little. I went back at the end of the school day and ‘attacked’ students with audition permission slips as they were all getting on the buses. I targeted specific people I knew could sing and groups of friends. Once one is in, the rest will follow!

We held auditions again at the end of the week and had a far more encouraging 40 students apply. Again, we narrowed it down to 30, including 7 students that were in the junior choir the previous term and had moved up to the secondary school.

Their first gig was the police gospel concert at the end of October, giving them about 4 rehearsals to prepare. I knew the first few rehearsals would be critical in grabbing their interest and keeping them enthusiastic. At the concert they did 2 fantastic performances of Mary Mary’s ‘Shackles’ and Kirk Franklin’s ‘I smile’. The junior choir also performed at the same event, singing ‘Here I am to Worship’, and ‘Under the Rock’, by the Mwamba Children’s Choir.

The success of these performances started to spark a lot of interest in the choir, and requests to perform at various events started coming in. The junior choir was invited to open various important events with the new Territorial Song, Motherland. These events included the annual Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) meeting and the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour.

Young Adults 16-30

Now, if we thought getting interest from the middle group was hard enough, we were in for a shock for the older ones! For this group we basically gathered together 8 interested people and started a small vocal ensemble. We reassured ourselves that it was quality and not quantity we were looking for and started with a positive attitude. We have some really lovely voices in this group and we are confident that once the rest of the island hears how wonderful we are, they will come running to join! In fact, this process has already started. Since the success of our recent production ‘When I Grow Up’ about 10 people have approached us about joining the group. We will see how many were serious when we start back practices next Thursday.

The whole National Youth Choir was invited to open the Montserrat Annual Festival in December 2013. All 60 something of them opened the entire festival performing the Territorial Song, Motherland and came back on stage later in the programme with an upbeat rendition of Arrow’s Proud to be Montserratian.

Loni, Jo-Annah and I were all very proud of the success of this new choir in its first few months and confident that we were on to a good thing!

On March 8th 2014 we opened the annual St. Patrick’s festival with a bang as we performed our first musical production to a sold-out Montserrrat Cultural Centre. More on this event in the next blog.
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