The whole point of human society is that we get together and we enjoy each other. Choirs are the culmination of that and an expression of something that is deeply personal and deeply healing.
In The Choir, Gareth Malone sets out to bring choral music to schools and neighborhoods that lack classical music programs. A success in the UK since 2006, the show promotes community, cooperation, and confidence. Call it the anti-American Idol: where that show singles out and glorifies the individual, a choir is, for all intents and purposes, about sublimating the individual, blending multiple selves to produce a unified whole.
For The Choir, Malone, choirmaster for the London Symphony Orchestra’s community choir, actually pursues three separate projects. First, he goes to Northolt High School, where, in nine months, he hopes to create a choir of 25 students good enough to compete at the World Choir Games in China. Second, he organizes a 100-member choir at Lancaster Boys School who will perform at Royal Albert Hall (this series, called The Choir: Boys Don’t Sing when it originally aired in the UK on BBC 2, won a BAFTA award in 2009). Finally, Malone aspires to build a community choir in South Oxhey, a neighborhood with a bad reputation, to produce a community choral festival. In all cases, he faces deeply entrenched, class-based preconceptions. As he puts it, “The perception that classical music is a middle class pursuit is a really tough one. Traditionally, it has been, but there’s no reason why it should be.”
The series, premiering on BBCA on 7 July, begins as at Northolt High School, which has never had a choir. Students scoff when Malone makes his intentions known at a school assembly, but still, 170 of them turn out to audition. Among these, there are quite a few students with real, if raw, talent like Melody and Enoch Chege or Rhonda Connell (who will later emerge as a real leader of the group). Some students are less able.
But these struggling auditioners have a different impact than those on Idol. In the first place, they’re quite young, some only 12 years old. Secondly, they are, as Malone seems surprised to discover, “massively under-confident,” none presuming he or she is very talented. Rather, they appear to be taking enormous personal risks: the look of sheer terror on their young faces is no joke, and neither is the thinly veiled pain of rejection. Trying to cover up her tears with a smile, one girl explains, “I’m gutted. I really am. I pretended like it was okay.” The show respects such effort and grace, rather than making fun of them.
Out of the 1300 students, only 12 boys whose voices have broken turn up for the auditions. Most of these are still learning to manage their new, deeper voices, flailing between upper and lower registers or defaulting to singing falsetto. Malone notes that it is during this difficult change that most men fall out of love with singing. He is eventually forced to recruit older boys from the sixth form, enticing them with the potential trip to China, biscuits, and the chance to be in a group with lots of girls.
Once the choir is selected, they have four weeks to learn and record a song for their qualification CD for the World Choir Games. It’s a rough sound at best, but it’s all they can get done in the one-hour of recording time they can afford. They each receive a copy of the CD for Christmas, with a note containing Malone’s assessment: it has good moments and not-so-good moments, but it is a “fair and honest record of how we sounded that day.”
Throughout the training period, Malone deals with the usual issues (tardiness, loss of interest, absences, and the occasional quitter), as well as various personal dramas. He invests in misunderstood and troubled Chloe Sullivan; the Cheges wait to find out if their father will be allowed to join them from Kenya; Ashley and Josh Mills won’t sing Vivaldi’s “Gloria” or Purcell’s “Fair Isle” because the religious content conflicts with their Jehovah’s Witness beliefs (though Ashley auditions for the choir by singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”).
The kids’ increasing self-confidence is premised on their reliance on and support of each other: Weak singers are seated with strong ones, hard workers confront those not pulling their weight. When the tenors continue to struggle with their part only days before a concert for parents, the other students press them to catch up. After a brutal second round of cuts, the distraught remaining choir members air their grievances to Malone, a discussion that turns to issues of fairness and honesty, mainly his. He is unapologetic, insisting they face yet another aspect of reality TV: they are, in the end, competing with one another.
Throughout, the series maintains a lovely balance between seeking the goal and appreciating the long-term benefits of the experience. The kids can’t know, at first, the high level of competition they will face in China, and they seem equally unselfconscious of the enormity of their own personal changes. Most remarkably, even as it follows these unfolding and frequently moving storylines, The Choir doesn’t feel contrived.