Michelle Leonard OAM grabs a strong cappuccino with writer and journalist Lliane Clarke to talk COVID, choirs and her plans for Moorambilla Voices

So Michelle here we are in 2020, at our socially-distanced outdoors coffee catch up. It’s been tough out there in choirland –  how have you coped under Corona?

Well, back in March this year, I’d just finished two and a half weeks on the road meeting 3,000 children on our annual Skills Development Program. At that time the country was flourishing after pretty much six solid years of drought and I was thinking about how the program was going to manifest a huge amount of green abundance on stage – I was so looking forward to that!

I got back to Sydney and found everyone screaming for toilet paper and pasta. Then we all had this opportunity for personal growth with Corona. I have always believed that the concept of relentless positivity is underestimated. And life is really full of possibilities – we have always said at Moorambilla we are ‘more than just a choir’. This current pandemic has just given us another opportunity to show that.

The Corona lockdown and knock on effect in our delivery drove my need to engage our artists with humour and tenacity to connect with the children in the region who they already knew. To send these beautiful children and young leaders some connection, love and laughter – and leave a legacy of hope.

Internet access is a major challenge in western NSW and children just don’t have devices like they do in places like Sydney or even Dubbo. So we developed Moorambilla Magic Modules. We created activities that could even be available on a phone, in short 20-25 minute bursts. By the time this all finishes we will have created nearly 140 of these modules and they are just awesome.

In a normal year we would have about 350 children in the program. We had 279 children sign up for the modules. Our children can access these  free of charge through the NSW Creative Kids vouchers scheme and now we’re developing a pilot program into 10 schools so that the teachers can use them to engage their students in a variety of art forms – dance, taiko, vocal, visual arts and of course my first love the human voice and choirs. That means universal access and more opportunity to engage with excellence for the region I love.

You could say that the modules are part of my ultimate goal as a leader to create a rich artistic cultural base in their lives and allow for collegiality and transformation through artistic connection. It’s an antidote to what is happening online with loneliness and isolation.

Artist Immersion at Macquarie Marshes. From left: Sara Tinning (lantern artist), Sophie Unsen (TAIKOZ), Josephine Gibson (composer in residence), Michelle Leonard OAM (Artistic Director), Aunty Brenda McBride (Elder), Omila Bir (visual artist), Annie Berrell (Moorambilla Mum). Photo: Noni Carroll.

You’re obviously incredibly committed to this region in western New South Wales. How did the idea of Moorambilla Voices grow from your own childhood there?

Yes now I look back it certainly came from my early experience, and it’s based on the same pillars of opportunity and excellence and equity that were ingrained in me through my mother and father and the rare chance I had to experience a heavily state-supported instrumental program  (DCAP). There was at that time a clear understanding at a governmental level that music and music education should be universally accessible and that it was important for community connection and mental health. We need to get back to this conversation!

The challenge for me was to establish an art program in the region that didn’t by then have any instrumental program or the classroom teachers, tutors, ensembles, specialists or ecological infrastructure to enable it. It was like we were at a tipping point – people had almost forgotten that music was meant to be played and experienced live. Access to those specialists has only recently been developed in the Macquarie Conservatorium of Music in Dubbo – there are still no weekly rehearsing choirs west of Dubbo and still the ecology is in tatters.

So – as you know Lliane I just love choirs and singers, which is why I tapped into that legacy of bush singing – it was still alive in living memory. Maybe if there was a richer vein of operating ensembles I may have changed the way the program developed – but there were, and sadly still are, NO weekly youth choirs, children’s choirs or bands or orchestras west of Dubbo. So the need was clear to me – and I had an obvious skill set that could influence change.

Internationally and historically I could see that the best way to move children and young people to a high standard of music literacy and a sophisticated way of expressing an artistic thought was through the human voice – an instrument that people already hold within themselves. I was very fortunate to work with some international treble choirs and I could see what was possible. It seemed a logical thing to start with my natural fit, which was choirs.

I love that description of singing as an instrument people hold within themselves. Why did Moorambilla Voices break into multiarts and include movement and visual arts?

As I learnt about the pedagogical approach to building excellence, the idea of a multidisciplinary approach was clear to me.

Sport as part of a national discourse and identity in this country still seems to be the framework that we feel most comfortable with. Given that I was trying to reignite an artistic vehicle that would speak directly to the children’s experiences and give them an opportunity to sing as trebles and through changing voice, it occurred to me early on that children sing and they also love to move. People also naturally engage in other modes as a way of learning – visual, movement etc. so I wanted to see what a rich learning mode could do to amplify their capacity.

Rather than say ‘there is only one way to do choirs’, I was really interested to create a situation where we could problem-solve to get the most succinct and highest standard of artistic outcome in the shortest amount of time. If that meant that we embedded movement and sequential interdisciplinary learning in a multi-mode framework, then that’s what we would do.

We could see in the third year of the program that the high school boys’ voices were changing and there were some significant issues in their communities that they were dealing with. These were, and still are, a lack of engagement in educational outcomes, school attendance and self-concept, all issues that appear when the fabric of the community fractures due to isolation, alcohol and drug abuse and a low expectation of life’s possibilities.

I looked for national ensembles that we could partner with to encourage grit and self- discipline, collegiality, and a cultural normalcy where hard work brings proportionate reward – a culture of ongoing excellence. The underlying assumption is that if you can experience this happening in an artistic framework then it can happen also in your work or your life. The physicality was important as it connected with the physicality of sport that was and is still paramount in that adolescent timeframe.

So we began our first partnership with Taikoz (a Sydney ensemble that performs Japanese taiko drumming). In the early years the children made the instruments themselves but since then we lobbied hard and were eventually able to co-create 48 handmade glorious instruments.These all-Australian bespoke taiko drums are a testament to the children’s tenacity and grit – they deserve our very best! Our partnerships with extraordinary ensembles (Australian World Orchestra, Sydney Symphony, Australian Youth Orchestra) along with our composers, soloists and in previous years the Song Company have been possible because of this ongoing framework of excellence through connection to country.

Moorambilla Gala Concert 2019: multiarts in practice. Photo: Noni Carroll.

So what happened to the choirs? What does the multi-artform approach add to Moorambilla Voices?

I’ll always be a choral specialist. It’s always been my first love. It’s absolutely at the focus, heart and centre of Moorambilla Voices and that hasn’t changed at all. I recognize that for some of my peers that this is confronting, but when you learn about other pedagogies and see how they unpack their process and artform you grow as an artist and a choral director. There is no downside to learning about other disciplines. It’s made me a better musician, conductor and frankly person.

Partnering and being influenced by other practitioners has made me a profoundly better choral director. As you involve a variety of artists and other art forms they bring their own pedagogical approach and their own worldview. This has given me multiple perspectives and more capacity to problem solve. We influence each other to make more meaningful art – to make more connections between ourselves and our audience and what we are trying to say artistically. It doesn’t dissipate your skill in your genre of speciality – it makes you profoundly better in fact.

What we have developed in the multi-artform nature of Moorambilla Voices is a culture of exceptional artistic risk taking and artistic collaboration. And that brings with it a culture of trust, which occurs between the artists and the children, and within the children’s ensembles themselves. They can see we are all creating something for them about them with deep respect and love of country.

The ensembles have grown in standard, style and scope over 16 years – there’s no doubt about that. The last three years’ concerts, particularly since we moved into the Dubbo Regional Theatre Centre, have been works of an integrated entire cohesive thought, a long arc. The capacity of a theatre to amplify what I want to say artistically has radically altered people’s expectations about the power of choirs to communicate in a sophisticated and connected way – the results are extraordinary!

The children expect this now, and they are pushing themselves, which is an incredible thing to see. The adolescents in particular, who let’s be honest often take a lackadaisical approach to educational outcomes, take themselves for sectional rehearsals and demand excellence and collegiality within the ensemble. This is really remarkable as for many this is their ONLY opportunity in the course of a year to do so.

The professional musicians who join us for performances and recordings, who are working in elite levels in Australia and internationally, are absolutely gob smacked by the tenacity and the resilience of these participants. They can feel the energy transference in live performance between all the artists. It’s risk taking, it’s emotionally and culturally vulnerable, and the feeling of transcendence that I demand as Artistic Director is what sets Moorambilla Voices apart I think.

Where did the strong connection and involvement with First Nations culture come from?

As all artistic programs evolve, you come to new understandings. I have been generously mentored with more and more nuance in an Indigenous cultural competency framework, and I had the opportunity to learn from Elders in the community who saw early what we were collectively trying to achieve and supported my leadership and vision.

I learnt that the way to fully express an idea as you work off country is to do what is innate and normal in most First Nations communities – that is to completely and utterly integrate visual, vocal and body movement or dance. This is actually the way that humans express their unique connection to place and to each other – it’s nothing new really!

As I had been brought up in a very elite Western art choral genre, it seemed foolish to fight against that – once you know, you can’t unknow because it doesn’t suit you to change! You must take this new knowledge and grow and evolve as a leader and artist.

And it keeps evolving. Moorambilla now in its sixteenth year is very different to what it was in its first, but some things have not changed. The human voice is still at the centre of what we do, and an understanding of connection to place and the people within it and the stories and the beauty and nuance of language embedded in that will not change.

Some people have tried to put me in a community music box, and this “boxing in” it cuts to the crux of a lot of things. A politician once described Moorambilla Voices to me as not a program but a worldview.

When we work through the arts ecology in a way that is artistically satisfying and deeply connected to excellence, place and worldview it removes the boundaries of what is community music. We need to reframe this concept of community – it’s the WHOLE arts community in my mind – and as a leader you have an obligation to facilitate that connection between child, emerging and professional. You simply cannot break a bundle of sticks! Community to me does not mean anything more than connection – and that is at the heart of what we do as artists – it is not an excuse for a lowered expectation or less financial or audience support. If you have that  visceral transference of artistic energy from audience to stage then you have immediately created yet another artistic “community” of people who are connected more meaningfully to each other and the arts. THAT is community music in my mind – regardless of the mode of delivery and THAT is the best antidote to the emerging pandemic of isolation and loneliness we are facing.

For children and youth who are the jewel in the crown of Moorambilla Voices to have the audacity to present a concert of all new Australian music to an audience of 1,500 people each season in a regional community, with 17,500 also watching online – well that is significant. Engagement like that doesn’t happen overnight, it comes from developing a worldview. It changes the community paradigm – it’s powerful. In the end actually, we’re just about transcendant art and joy, connecting people to each other and to the language and world view of country – there is no downside for our country’s future in doing this.

The arts have always been about deep personal connection, the transformational aspect of what we do through storytelling and an expression of humanity in a time and place that is immediate that requires a commitment from both performers and audience to connect. This is what we do – and this is what the arts do for our society at large. This is so important  as we aim to thrive post COVID 19.

To thrive, not just survive, this is my aim for Moorambilla and all those we engage with. The language I continue to use is deliberately purposeful and powerful – it is what helps us meaningfully connect and what makes me so proud of what we do and why.


Michelle Leonard OAM is the Founder, Artistic Director and Conductor of Moorambilla Voices Ltd. It has been featured in two documentaries – Wide Open Sky, and Outback Choir (ABC), in the 2019 ABC Christmas Special and at TEDXSydney in 2018. Michelle is also the founding Artistic Director and Conductor of Leichhardt Espresso Chorus which celebrates 22 years in 2020.

Michelle is widely sought after as a choral clinician on Australian repertoire and appears regularly as a guest speaker, adjudicator and workshop facilitator.

Michelle was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for Services to the Community and Performing Arts in 2017, the 2018 Sydney University Alumni of the Year Award for services to the arts and in 2019 was named in the Australian Financial Review’s top 100 most Influential women in Australia. She has four magnificent young children who keep her very busy and very happy.

Lliane Clarke is a journalist, author, Artistic Director of Voices of Women (voiceswomen.com) and communications consultant for arts organisations. She is a chorister in the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus.

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