“Elena, let’s rock it, man.”
It’s fair to say this is an unexpected turn of phrase in a recording studio filled with classical musicians, about 40 choristers and a small audience invited to bring some live energy to the performance. Even more so because the Elena in question is celebrated classical composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who wrote the piece that’s about to be sung and who will “rock” the piano as part of the orchestra.
Smiling along with everyone else at her moment of levity is the person who’s about to conduct the piece, and who brought all the elements of this recording together: Michelle Leonard (BMusEd 93).
A moment later there is total silence as Leonard raises her hand to begin. The sound that fills the room is lush and instantly attention-grabbing, with Leonard guiding the choir using a fluent language of hand signals for diction, clarity, listen and stop, all responded to instantly. The piece itself is thoughtful, layered, melodic, uplifting and unmistakably of Australia. As it ends, more than one person is in tears.
What makes the choir even more remarkable is that it’s made up of high school students from regional New South Wales who have never had access to a qualified music teacher. They are part of Moorambilla Voices, which started 14 years ago when Leonard had a characteristically ambitious idea.
“When I was growing up in Coonamble, there was a town band; we did a musical every year,” she explains. “Schools had orchestras. Classical music was one of those things that people valued.”
Leonard thought the disappearance of music from schools would be temporary, that Moorambilla Voices would be a stopgap. Instead it has become increasingly necessary.
Earlier this year Leonard and her team spent nearly a month travelling to 51 towns in northwest NSW, from Brewarrina to Bourke. They delivered 74 music workshops to children from 105 schools, involving more than 3500 students in all.
It’s a gruelling exercise that happens every year, but it allows Leonard to personally identify children with potential, increase skills in music literacy and connect with communities.
About one-third of the kids who take part are Indigenous, but when asked whether Moorambilla Voices has an Indigenous program, Leonard pauses for a moment. “The answer is no,” she says, but continues, “Do we sing in language? Do we support Indigenous cultural capacity building? Of course we do. I’m just normalising it. I want it celebrated and placed in the middle of everything we do.”
Leonard feels privileged to have built strong relationships with Indigenous community elders. “I am not an Indigenous female but I have been given opportunities to share and learn,” she says. “This has been given with a spirit of great generosity, which is very much how the program operates.”
Like those before them, this year’s standout children were invited to attend a camp to dance, sing, compose, paint, weave, play drums and learn about the cultural traditions and stories of their landscape, all guided by professional musicians, performers, composers, choreographers and visual artists drawn in by Leonard’s creativity, vision and ambition.
The program’s website features pictures of ambitious staging, full instrumentation and young people focused and energised by what they’re doing. It’s no wonder some kids actually stay on at school just for this, school attendance being a prerequisite for taking part.
But talk to Leonard and you realise the program goes beyond the music. It’s about showing the kids that they are more than they think they are. That there are lots of things in life they can be, if they put in the work. And they do. The kids themselves talk about the sustained concentration required, the lengthy rehearsals, the long and boring bus trips for performances. They also say it’s all worth it.
It was especially worth it in May this year when a Moorambilla Voices choir sang at the openings of Hillary Clinton’s speaking engagements in Melbourne and Sydney.
“The halo effect of the program is amazing,” Leonard says. “It’s not just with the mental health of the adolescents themselves: there’s the volunteer staff and particularly the more isolated parents. It’s an incredibly enriching space for them all.”
It goes without saying that Leonard is a one-off. Few people could hammer an amorphous idea like giving regional kids the chance to make music into a multilayered organisation that has given literally hundreds of schoolchildren unique life experiences. Leonard has done this with optimism, fearlessness, boundless energy and a heartfelt love of the music produced by Moorambilla Voices. She feels the program has now reached a point of critical mass, where anything feels possible. But it’s taken a while to get there.
“For the first decade there was resistance, mostly around the children’s capacity to achieve what I wanted them to achieve artistically,” Leonard recalls. “There was no benchmark. As well, other programs would receive funding for only a couple of years, then disappear. For the schools and the communities, it was like relationship fatigue. Once we’d done 10 consecutive years, it was obvious to everyone we were there to stay.”
Leonard’s dedication dates back to her time at the Conservatorium of Music, when expectations were high and resources stretched thinly. “The Con significantly shaped me,” she reflects. “I studied in the old Con building. You could hear a lot of music making happening. The staff demanded that we become exceptional, and somehow we did.”
So exceptional have been Leonard's achievements that in 2017, she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), and this year the University honoured her with an Alumni Award for Cultural Contribution.
Another feature that helped her develop the program is her aptitude for business, though she laughs at the thought. With limited government funding, a significant portion of the Moorambilla Voices budget must be found every year through the generosity of private donors. The recording being made in the Sydney studio is for a fundraising CD.
Keeping afloat is a big challenge but it’s one made easier by Moorambilla Voices’ dedicated staff, volunteers and board of passionate believers who can see the national importance of Leonard’s work.
“My darling father put it to me that not-for-profit also has to mean not-for-loss,” Leonard says. “We all have a vested interest in Moorambilla’s success, because success creates more artistic opportunities for our kids.”
Michelle Leonard is a 2018 Alumni Award winner. Do you know any outstanding alumni like Michelle? Recognise their work by nominating them for a 2019 Alumni Award. Make your nomination at sydney.edu.au/alumni-awards
Written by George Dodd
Photography by Noni Carroll