Moorambilla Voices is more than a program about country kids learning about artistic expression, it’s a program that helps them find their voice, their passion and even their path for the future. Established in 2006, it has brought together more than 12,000 students from 78 schools, aged between 8-17, as part of a unique cultural experience.
It has created real partnerships with major professional artists across the country, the education community in the region and has assisted in developing teachers and community member’s skills. The program has also had a significant effect on the school retention, self-confidence and self-efficacy of its participants.
After nine years graduates of the program are now moving into tertiary education and planning the next phase of their lives, shaped in part by their experience with Moorambilla Voices; pursuing careers in music, community services and the environment.
The program offers three choral ensembles for students from years 3-11. These young people take part in a series of workshops in composition, movement, percussion, music skills development and visual art with indigenous artists during intensive creative residency camps. The activities culminate in recordings and performances at the Moorambilla Festival in Coonamble (see map of local government areas, covering most of the North West region of NSW). For many of these students this is the only opportunity they have for cultural expression, at this level, in this part of NSW. It is life changing for all involved.
The main aim of Moorambilla Voices is to develop young people’s singing and musical potential. We provide challenging musical learning experiences in high-level choral music making, with leading professional musicians and ensembles, in an intensely creative and focused environment — and our participants THRIVE on it!
The MAXed OUT Company, which grew out of the younger choirs, was launched in 2007 and has gravitas that was inconceivable at its inception. The participants push the envelope of their experience wider every year. They want to sing better, dance better, compose better and perform better. They benchmark themselves as a premier group, leading the younger choirs and seeing themselves as role models. They are articulate and can clearly outline the processes they have been taught and the reasons behind them. They are acutely aware of each other’s skills and recognise that, to be successful, they need to be able to sing in tune, play percussion well, compose creatively and to dance with style. They accept it is ok to be better at one than another, with no embarrassment. The important thing is their sense of commitment and pride in the final product.
At the inception of the MAXed OUT company there were only two voice types - trebles and boys with changing voices who often had a range no more than a third. Michelle Leonard, the Artistic Director, made an emphasis on percussion playing to give another avenue for expression and inclusion. Since 2011 she has been delighted to find students she could divide into four distinct parts — soprano, alto/treble, and lighter tenor/baritone. It was also fascinating to see how some of the boy trebles recognised, after participating in the workshop, that they did not have enough vocal experience to join the MAXed OUT Company and were prepared to accept a leadership role in the younger ensembles, for which Michelle has formed a small leading ensemble as a chamber choir.
Moorambilla Voices and the MAXed OUT Company have always celebrated the indigenous diversity of this region. In past years, the program has sought inspiring and meaningful interactions with indigenous subjects and artists. These include: traditional indigenous weaving using Macquarie Marshes reeds with Louise Marne; language holder Brad Steadman sharing the text and story of the creation of the Brewarrina fish traps; the remarkable indigenous sculptures in the Dandry Gorge at Baradine and the infamous Yowie Suite based on the myths of the Yowie and Yuri women in the Pilliga Scrub; the Ngemba Wailwan Artist Initiative who use ground and tree carvings passed to them in totemic symbolism as the basis for their colourful work and most recently Frank Wright, a leading local painter, whose imaginative work provided the backdrop for the 2013 festival inspired by local animals, water and river systems.
Each year artwork becomes the catalyst for the original music compositions that are created as part of the program. This focus on artwork facilitates a three-way learning process, benefiting all. The indigenous artists have a professional development opportunity to share the ancient wisdom and processes of their people. The young people gain insight and understanding of ancient crafts, and develop their own creativity and skills. The Moorambilla composers (Andrew Howes, Alice Chance, Dan Walker and Luke Byrne) experience different approaches to artistic creation that stretch them artistically and inspire them to explore different nuances within their own musical framework.
The region Moorambilla Voices draws from is recognised as ‘remote isolated’ and is characterised by low socio-economics, low literacy, isolation and entrenched issues of drug and alcohol abuse, community violence, and a large divide between town based and rural based residents and indigenous members of the community. Many of those chosen to participate in the Moorambilla Voices program are considered children ‘at risk’ by their schools.
Moreover many of the communities where we operate have over 65% identified indigenous members. However up to 20% of these choose not to identify as indigenous for social and other reasons. For these reasons the program accepts participants not based on identity, social or financial status — rather on capacity for growth as both a musician and a person.
The Moorambilla Voices program follows the calendar year and begins with a two-week tour of regional schools led by Artistic Director, Michelle Leonard, who delivers specialist music workshops in primary and secondary schools across the region. These are designed to inspire and motivate young people to explore music through innovative new approaches. Students are challenged and encouraged to develop their knowledge in Solfa, notation skills, part-singing, along with a body percussion model focusing on complex polyrhythmic structures. By the end of the sessions students are empowered to sing simple melodies in small groups or as soloists and perform multi-layered rhythmic motifs that accompany the songs.
Each year up to 200 musically gifted children are selected from these workshops to participate in an intensive residential camp program in August. Here they create new works, develop rehearsal and choral techniques, participate in sectional rehearsals, percussion workshops, dance and movement workshops, as well as costume making, design and visual art based activities in preparation for performances at the Moorambilla Festival in September.
In September all ensembles are brought together to rehearse with musicians from our artistic partners to work towards major performances.
Moorambilla Voices has worked with a range of artistic partners, each bringing a unique set of skills and enriching qualities to the program, including the co-commissioning of major works. In 2014 we will again be working with TaikOz, arguably Australia’s pre-eminent percussive ensemble, who provide MAXed OUT secondary school students, many of whom are young adolescents at risk, the chance to work through the discipline of TaikOz towards greater self-esteem and ultimately outstanding ensemble work; the Song Company, Australia’s leading vocal ensemble, who provide extraordinary vocal modelling and encouragement; and Bangarra Dance Theatre who assist the students to develop imaginative choreography in response to the art and music they are working on.
Musicians from the Sydney Symphony and the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, under Michelle Leonard, provide mentorship and support, encouraging participants to think beyond their current life or educational experience and see the arts as not only a viable career pathway, but also an opportunity for lifelong learning and self-expression.
Moorambilla Voices is operational in one third of the state, covering local government areas of Bogan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Central Darling, Cobar, Coonamble, Narromine, Warren, Warrumbungle and Walgett (see map). Over the years, Moorambilla Voices has become embedded in local communities and is now a permanent fixture in North West NSW schools and communities’ annual calendar and is widely recognised as an important and significant cultural event.
For many years Moorambilla has provided a safe haven for the MAXed OUT Company. The participating young people recognise that this program provides them with the capacity to increase their skills on many levels and make them ready to take on employment and next steps in their future. The changes in body language, eye contact and self esteem have been marked in all students involved. Even if they do not ‘fit’ into their own community they thrive and become alive at Moorambilla.
Social networking has become a strong means of communication for this company. The word was out for the 2014 skills development workshops when Michelle was on the road in March. Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and multiple modes of communication were used to alert members of the company as to what was expected at the workshop, how to prepare for it, what to practise and when to expect their arrival — encouraging each other at every turn... this meant they had the warmest welcome ever!
Since 2006 the program has grown from a fledgling idea into a full-bodied movement that has become an integral part of regional life and education in Western NSW. Parents and communities have jumped on board to give their children the opportunities otherwise denied them in this part of NSW — due to funding cutbacks, inability to attract arts teachers, and geographical isolation. Schools and communities have embraced the change, moving from reluctant participants to eager advocates. The program provides opportunities in creative arts excellence to all participants, as well as real benefits to many children who do not fit the usual classroom structure.
Margie Moore. First published in Music Forum, Vol 18 No 1, November 2008. Notes added in 2011. Entered on Knowledge Base 31 January 2014. The author has now updated the article and added the "MAXed OUT" photo. Entered 10 June 2014.
Moorambilla Voices remains influential, indeed a unique effort, as indicated by Margie Moore’s 2014 update to the original article. The Moorambilla Voices program is scheduled for August and September again in 2014. The founder of both the Voices and the Festival, Michelle Leonard, remains in these roles, and Margie Moore remains the education consultant. Please refer to the website for more news! HHG, editor.