Songs of joy: Jonathan Welch and the Choir of Hope and Inspiration, which grew out of the original Choir of Hard Knocks.JONATHON Welch, the Hard Knocks choirmaster who shone a musical spotlight on the homeless and hopeless five years ago, is visibly pained to speak about it. Fact is, this Australian Local Hero for 2008 has tried to avoid discussing the subject until now in the hope that his tribe of unlikely choristers might eventually get what they regard as their just rewards.
But no, Welch has come to accept the fact that they are never going to resolve a dispute over the income from the CDs, DVDs and concerts from those glory years of 2007-08. This was the cause of the regrettable split in 2009 that saw musical director Welch and most of his ramshackle band of singers split from the charity organisation that partnered the concept, RecLink.
It was a bitter and regrettable end to what had been an inspiring project. A few choristers, upset at what they saw as an injustice, sought legal advice and even turned on Welch. One claimed his life had been ”ruined” after his name and criminal record appeared with one of the choir’s DVDs.
Welch says he has learnt some lessons from the experience, one being that the name ”Choir of Hard Knocks” was a problem from the start, ”because it was trademarked by the production company, which I didn’t know. I never went into making the TV series thinking it was going to be a huge success.
”Everybody kept saying, ‘this is going to be enormous’, but I just kept thinking: ‘I just want to get on with running the choir’.”
Welch says it was like a ”bushfire behind the scenes” during the break-up. ”There was a lot of money that came in from the concerts, sponsorships, donations – I know that 150,000 copies of the first CD were sold – and the choir members became increasingly upset, wanting to know where the money was and what was happening to it.
”My proposal was to set up the choir independently, with an independent audit of accounts, with RecLink remaining in partnership, but they said no.”
RecLink CEO Adrian Panozzo is adamant that all money raised – including more than $1 million in 2008 – went towards the Hard Knocks singing program. ”We are a registered charity with the Australian Tax Office, so every year of our operations we are required to be publicly audited,” says Panozzo.
”I feel it was more a difference in philosophy. But it was definitely a separation and it was upsetting for our staff and volunteers at the time. RecLink continues to have personal relationships with some of the people. We see them in our daily lives moving around town and a lot of choir members still attend our programs.”
When the dust of conflict eventually settled, Welch and his choir regrouped as the Choir of Hope and Inspiration and now, three years later, the concept that won the hearts of TV viewers across the nation is being reborn, bigger and more ambitious than before.
From a humble office in the arts district of Southbank, Welch and associate David Jones have just launched the School of Hard Knocks Institute, a broad-range educational facility that will teach singing and many other facets of the arts.
”I thought, why just have a choir when you can have an entire school?” says Welch, who this time made sure he registered the new name, cheekily linking it with the ”Hard Knocks” brand.
The school has a range of arts and wellbeing programs including creative writing, drama, and keyboard and drumming tuition. There is even a course in how to play the ukulele entitled ”Ukelear Power”.
In its first three months, the new school has gained the backing of 22 Australian arts, education and welfare organisations, including Mission Australia, Open Family, Brotherhood of St Laurence and Box Hill Institute.
In their role as de facto classrooms, Federation Square, Queen Victoria Market and even the Melbourne Cricket Ground have made space available.
”At the moment the programs are being piloted with many of the participants from our choir program,” says Welch.
”So we probably have about 100 [students] and they range across what you might call the disadvantaged spectrum. So we have five blind members, three guys in wheelchairs who have either had accidents or strokes – we have people with acquired brain injury. Most ranges of mental health, going from bipolar, schizophrenia, eating disorders, you name it.”
Welch says he had been pondering the idea of a school since the TV series screened. Many people had expressed interest in being involved but he wasn’t quite sure how to do it. ”I realised I was only one person, there was only so much I can do, and I had an enormous weight of responsibility on my shoulders with the choir and the demands on me after the documentary.
”I’ve just turned 54, so for me the next 10 years are really important in my working life. What I really want to do is build the capacity of many more people to run the programs.”
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Jonathon Welch who came up with the Choir of Hard Knocks as a TV concept. History credits TV producer Jason Stephens and his company FremantleMedia for that brainwave, although Welch had founded the Sydney Street Choir in New South Wales a decade earlier.
”Jason created the construct,” says Welch, ”and I think it was his wife who came up with the name, Choir of Hard Knocks.”
The idea has given birth to hundreds of choirs being created around the world: a Choir of Warm Socks, a Choir of One Knocker (a group of Brisbane women who have had breast surgery) and even a Choir of Hard Knox at Knox Grammar School in Sydney.
”I got an email the other day from Mackay – there’s a new one up there, Choir of Hidden Names or something. It is a great compliment but I don’t take credit for that and neither should Jason Stephens – that belongs to Pierre Anthian, who created Montreal Homeless Men’s Choir 20 years ago.”
That was where the story began for Welch. The Melbourne-born opera singer was staying with a friend in Canada in 2000 when a blizzard kept them indoors for three days.
”We were reading or watching movies,” recalls Welch. ”My friend had a copy of Reader’s Digest and pointed out an article he thought would interest me. The headline was ‘With a Song In Their Hearts’ and the story was about Montreal Homeless Men’s Choir.”
The article told of the 22 homeless men whom Anthian had formed into a ”ragtag collection” of choristers who had made their debut singing Christmas carols at a Montreal subway station in December 1996.
Their ages ranged from 19 to 68 and they had become the toast of Montreal, Toronto, Paris and New York.
”A light bulb went on,” says Welch. ”There was a picture of them and I could see the joy in their faces. I thought it was a great idea and when I got home to Sydney, I went about forming a Sydney homeless men’s choir.”
Unsure how to start, he had some flyers printed and quickly learnt his first lesson: the word ”homeless” was a no-no.
It might have worked in Montreal but in Sydney the street people were offended.
”I realised I would have to think more carefully about labels,” says Welch. ”Many of the homeless don’t identify themselves that way – they regard the street itself as their home.”
Welch said he eventually met Anthian, the pioneer of the street choir concept. ”Funnily enough,” says Welch, ”they had moved on from singing because they had similar problems to us with the organisation that was auspicing their funds.”
The Sydney Street Choir was officially launched on October 16, 2001, with the help of a variety of welfare agencies. There were 10 potential choristers at the first session, ranging in age from the late teens to early 20s. Welch’s partner, Matt, provided morning and afternoon teas.
They decided to put on a Christmas concert at Paddington Uniting Church with help from singer Marissa Denyer and the audience was boosted by members of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir, of which Welch was a musical director.
The success of the street choir led to an approach from Stephens in Melbourne, where the TV documentary was recorded in conjunction with the ABC and RecLink. It screened over five weeks in 2007.
The choir went on to record two CDs, perform before then-prime minister Kevin Rudd at Parliament House in Canberra, at the Melbourne Town Hall and the Sydney Opera House, a performance that was telecast by the ABC and won a Helpmann Award.
”We’re looking to the future now with the School of Hard Knocks,” says Welch.
He is positive about predictions by governments that in 20 years a quarter of the population will be retired. ”We’ll have all these wonderful professional retired teachers of music and arts and drama who may like to come back and give their services for a day or half a day a week.”
Welch has recently returned from working with choirs in Uganda, where English is widely spoken but in a less than fluent manner. ”However, you can teach them a song. I taught them Absolutely Everybody, that big hit from Vanessa Amorosi, and all of a sudden you had 400 little black faces and 50 white people singing along. Singing just bridges all languages, all cultures and all ages.”
The Choir of Hope and Inspiration still practises weekly and holds regular performances. Twenty of the original 47 members are still with the choir.
”The choir remains a really important stake in the fabric of their social life,” says Welch. ”No one yet has gone on to professional singing but many have gone to part-time work or study. One of them is just this year finishing his masters in psychology. He has a brilliant mind.”
Welch envisages his new Hard Knocks school as being along the lines of the Victorian College of the Arts – down the road from his office. ”This is a college for the disadvantaged,” he says. ”Many of the people involved won’t have had the chance to explore their own creativity or to work with professional artists and teachers. It’s a great gift to be able to pass on skills and give people opportunities.”
Lawrence Money is a senior writer.
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