WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

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By Angus Smith

Thursday night rehearsal with Choir of Opportunity led by Dr Welch. 

While the Choir of Opportunity might be relatively new, Victoria University’s affinity for connecting community with artistic expression goes way back.

In 1943, students from the school of engineering formed a Glee Club – over seventy years later, a new generation of voices have joined forces.

Established in 2015, The Choir of Opportunity has been growing in size and sound, and in 2016 Victoria University (‘VU’) engaged Dr Jonathon Welch AM from the School of Hard Knocks to form a choir to perform during the University’s centennial year.

Dr Welch, the choir’s Artistic Director, says “I’ve loved working with the Choir of Opportunity for the past two years every Thursday evening. They are such an enthusiastic group of singers. We always have lots of fun and it is great to be able to support the local community with all the events we have planned for the future.”

According to chorister, Leon Conway, in the early days, the choir was mainly made up of students and staff from VU, but this is no longer the case.

“We are now growing and welcoming new members into our community choir. Most of us have had very little singing experience but Jonathon is the most amazing teacher and we are learning so much, and more importantly, enjoying ourselves immensely.”

Conway attended his first rehearsal in September 2015 and says that he came away with the most “wonderful feeling of happiness”.

“Over the two years we have been singing together, I have gradually improved and I’m enjoying it more than ever.

Conway works at VU, and lives in Ballan, a small town near Ballarat which has a strong and vibrant music community. He sings and plays the button accordion and piano accordion in colonial music group The Drongo and the Crow, and busks at local markets and when he can get time away from the office, in the Footscray Mall.

“I have a background in playing instruments, but until I joined the Choir of Opportunity I didn’t have the confidence to sing in public. Now we have a group of like-minded people who love the old Australian songs and sing those stories to people who might never have heard them before.

An amateur researcher, he uses the materials in the unique Verrills Collection at the VU library to find songs that aren’t so well-known for his group to play. “My favourite discovery so far is Big Pol The Grogseller, a song about a feisty, independent young woman on the goldfields. Though she was hounded by the authorities for her scallywag activities she always bested them. These days she would be eligible for a small business development grant.”

Conway’s most memorable moment was Sirens at the Big West Festival, which involved a large-scale production which included traditional brass and industrial machinery.

“Choirs, factory sirens, brass bands, and industrial machinery. Awesome!”

The choir rehearses at VU’s Footscray Nicholson Campus on Thursday evenings and are currently preparing for the School of Hard Knocks’ Merry & Bright concert at Deakin Edge Theatre in November.

“We are an open community choir and we welcome new members from the City of Maribyrnong and surrounds who would like to experience the joys of singing in company. No experience required!”

In 2006, Dr Jonathon Welch AM introduced The Choir of Hard Knocks to a national audience. This highly innovative social inclusion initiative was the subject of a five part series on ABC television. Around the world, the Choir model has ignited the development of hundreds of choirs, including ‘street choirs’, dementia and aphasia choirs. Seeing the positive impact that the choir had on its members, Dr Welch saw an opportunity to expand the concept and established the School of Hard Knocks in Melbourne in 2012. The School now includes national programs.

From their first sellout public concerts at Melbourne Town Hall in 2007, the Choir has performed extensively; At the Vodafone Arena with Judith Durham and Karen Knowles; Sydney Myer Music Bowl for Carols By Candlelight for Channel 9; Hamer Hall with Kate Cebrano and Carl Risely – for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in “Let’s Do It” – a Billie Holiday Tribute; the Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Studios Southbank; at the MCG; in Melbourne Zoo’s Twilight series, and at Crown Casino as well as many local and regional Performing Arts Centres and appearing on the lead float for City of Melbourne’s 60th anniversary Moomba Parade.

RehearsalsThursday nights 6.30pm – 8.30pm at Footscray Nicholson Campus, Building N, Room 112. For more information contact Andrea Cameron – 9919 8515 or Andrea.Cameron@vu.edu.auIt costs $10 for a ‘come and try session’ and $100 per term. The next term commences on 12 October.

Angus Smith is Projects and Communications Officer at Footscray University Town.

Artistic Director, Dr Jonathon Welch AM

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