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The Choir: Voices treble in South Oxhey

PUBLISHED: 16:51 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:35 20 February 2013

Gareth Malone

Gareth Malone

When the BBC's BAFTA award-winning TV programme The Choir visited an estate in South Oxhey it would change people's lives forever, as Marie Hardingham discovers

WHEN South Oxhey residents welcomed a renowned choirmaster into their midst, little did they know they would soon be performing in front of thousands of people in Hertfordshire and beyond.


After seeing the first two series of The Choir, local vicar Pam Wise wrote to Gareth Malone requesting him to visit the area and set up a community choir because she believed residents on the troubled estate were lacking in self-belief and that forming a choir could be the answer to their prayers.


Having transformed two groups of adolescents into aspiring young singers in earlier programmes, London Symphony Orchestra choirmaster Gareth persuaded unresponsive unmusical communities to form a harmonic choir. At first people were shy, sullen and uninterested but by the end of the whole experience they were singing their hearts out.


When Gareth arrived on the scene in September 2008 he found a despondent divided community but with sheer determination he soon won over more than 150 residents to join the choral group in his toughest challenge yet. The Choir, Unsung Town followed the chorister and the residents, many of whom had never sung before, on their life-changing journey. Together they formed not one but two choirs the South Oxhey Community Choir and the South Oxhey Youth Choir.


Proud Community Choir member Carly Harvey, 29, was one of those for whom the whole experience had a profound effect. She says, Previous to meeting Gareth and joining the choir I was a bored housewife and mother-of-two. Since joining the choir, my drive and enthusiasm is back, for the first time in six years I wasnt just a mother and wife, I had something just for me.


Rumours of South Oxheys bad reputation were rife but I soon realised after joining the choir that it wasnt such a terrible place after all. In the early weeks of the choir people began making friends, even though our ages ranged dramatically from 10 to 80-plus years, and a whole year on we remain very close; one member described us as "the biggest family in the country". The choir has brought a much needed boost to a community once in despair.


Highlights have included performances at St Albans Abbey and The Colosseum in Watford as well as the chance to record at Abbey Road Studios. Out of the tremendous triumph of the programme also came the youth choir and SoxFest, a fun festival which took place in May in South Oxhey itself and proved the area is heaving with musical talent.


The children, aged 8 to 12, involved in the youth choir came from various schools in the area and the vast majority had very little musical experience. Before the whole choir mania took off children of the estate held very negative views of the area and had low self-esteem. At first they were unsure about getting involved but Gareth quickly convinced them by getting them to sing fun, catchy tunes that were easy to learn and included lots of physical movement.


Michelle Lake is deputy headteacher of South Oxheys Woodhall Primary School, member of the community choir and spokesman for the youth choir. She says, In the first few weeks of the choir there was a clear underlying rivalry between the children. They would assemble in school groups resisting any encouragement to mingle with pupils from other schools, but over time the situation totally changed. A real sense of pride for South Oxhey took over and soon a sea of different coloured school uniforms was united as one. The children got to know each other, some forming friendships that continue to blossom.


Gareth certainly brought out the best in the children; his bond with them was amazing. Through Gareths enthusiasm and belief they achieved things they never thought achievable.


Following their latest performance at Watford Colosseum on December 18, both choirs are looking forward to a strong future and have no plans to stop singing. For forthcoming events visit www.southoxheychoirs.org



The rise of the choir


Gareth Malone explains why group singing is so key.


Why is singing important for communities?
Singing bonds people together, exercises a range of muscles and makes you feel happy. The camaraderie of communal singing is of benefit to people. I think its important that people feel free to sing and that there is somewhere for them to be heard. People can feel very isolated and singing is an excellent way to combat that.


Why do you think singing in a choir isnt more popular?
I think choirs are becoming more and more popular. We have a great choral tradition in this country. Speaking to other choral directors in the country I get the sense that there has been a gradual shift in peoples attitude towards choirs. Numbers are up and there is a wider range of choirs than ever before: gospel, rock, church, barbershop, beatbox, you name it.


What was your most memorable experience working with the South Oxhey community?
Our performance at Watford Colosseum was an incredible moment. An audience of over 1,000 people and a terrified choir who rose to the challenge.


Whats the secret to a successful choir?
A passion for singing is the vital ingredient in any performance. As an audience member you want to know that people love getting together to sing. On top of that you need inspiration and a lot of hard work.


Whats next for the South Oxhey choirs?
Theres great excitement about singing in South Oxhey and Im certain that wont diminish.


Interview courtesy of the BBC.

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