Q&A: Master of 'The Choir' Gareth Malone
"The Choir," the now-running and completely lovable BBC America series in which youthful choirmaster Gareth Malone spreads happiness and builds social cohesion through group singing, was originally broadcast as three discrete series in Great Britain. The second cycle, subtitled "Boys Don't Sing" and even better than the first, begins Wednesday night.
Set in an all-boys' school, with an appearance by the Albert Hall, it specifically addresses the growing reluctance of boys to sing as they enter adolescence. Like all three editions of "The Choir" (the third, "Unsung Town," concerns civic pride) it's about liberation from self-consciousness and growing bigger by getting involved in something bigger than yourself. It is also just lovely and charming and fun and almost relentlessly moving.
I spoke to Malone by phone from England for a feature-cum-review just before the series premiered in July. Here's a longer, question-and-answer cut of our talk.
What were your thoughts when the BBC recruited you for the series?
Gareth Malone: There was a show called "Brat Camp," where they sent difficult teenagers from Britain to wilderness camps in America, and they were out there for months without their parents, without modern life, and they came back pretty much transformed. It was a very powerful show, just about showing teenagers developing, and I thought we could do something like that. And of course when we started, "X Factor" [Simon Cowell's follow-up to "American Idol" progenitor "Pop Idol"], was very much quite new in Britain, and I think some people thought it might turn into "Choral X-Factor." But it took quite a different turn from that, because it's much more about increasing confidence than finding the next generation of pop stars.
How have shows like "X-Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent" affected the singing life of the U.K.?
GM: I think in some ways it's hugely positive because people are talking about singing all the time, it's right in people minds. I get to schools and everyone wants to sing. But in another sense it's very difficult, because if you're watching programs like "American Idol" and "The X-Factor," there's a sense that if you're not a really good singer then you really shouldn't try -- there are those people who fail and get laughed at. So my show's very much a deliberate attempt to redress that balance and say that anyone can sing, especially in a choir. You don't have to be Leona Lewis, you don't have to be the absolute best -- you still have a voice, and you can still sing, and it can still be a moving and a powerful thing for you.
Can anyone sing?
GM: I think so. I mean, there are people who for whatever reason, medically, have problems with their hearing or some complete lack of musical ability, but those are quite rare cases. If you have the equipment to be able to sing, most people with a bit of training can certainly improve. If you don't do it very much then, obviously, you're not going to be quite as competent. I've been singing every single day since before I can remember.
What sort of changes occur when a person starts to work on his voice?
GM: The biggest thing is confidence: If you have the confidence to stand up and sing a solo, or even just sing within a choir, it gives you greater potential to speak more clearly, and to stand up a bit straighter. People can really take pride in it. And it also warms you up, standing next to your fellow man and singing; it's a very humanizing experience, it's good for the soul. And you can definitely see that in young people. It's a great activity for helping them to find their identity -- like sports and drama, all those things that are not sitting down and studying books. It's a great opportunity for people to find themselves.
What training don't we see onscreen?
GM: Well, everything gets filmed, but I think probably what gets cut is just the repetition. Choir rehearsals just go over and over. And I think what is hard to put on TV is that process where, you know, the sopranos have to learn how the alto part goes so that they can sing their part alongside it so the two things start to become one, and then you have to add the tenor, and then everyone needs to know everyone else's part. It's just time. You don't see all of that, 'cause that's just drudge; there's no way to get over the hard-work element.
You spent months filming each series of "The Choir." On American television, you'd have been given a week to get it done; all the drama would be about the deadline.
GM: You could do it in a week, but it would be very different. One of the nice things about "The Choir" is that the first series was, I think, nine months of my life, and for those kids that's a very large period -- they grew up, some of them, their voices really developed, they became almost adults during the process. I think we're pretty lucky here in that we do have that possibility of doing slightly longer-form stuff. It's not a program that's telling an extreme story. It's about what happens to them, it's how they feel about themselves. It's great that they perform and they improve, but in a way it's almost not about the music, it's just about people. I think people are really interesting, and if you put them through a real experience over a decent period of time, amazing things can happen.
Do you think that the way that people have to cooperate and listen and become one in a choir can be a model for how people can get along in the world?
GM: I think it's an excellent model for how people ought to work together, because you have to listen to who's in charge; you have to respect each other and listen to their part and sing in sympathy with them, but you have to hold your own as well. And I think because of that, when you've been through the experience of performing with other people, you know them in a really terrific sense. Which is why people join choirs when they're 20 and sometimes they don't leave, well, until they die. It's what music is for; that's what it was invented for, to bring people together, to bond them, whether it's a mother and a baby or whether it's rock band in a high school.
In America, arts education increasingly has had to struggle for funding. What's the situation in Great Britain?
GM: I think it's actually things are pretty positive here. There was a time, maybe 10, 15 years ago where music had definitely fallen off the curriculum, but I think people are realizing that it's really important and that it's only through the arts that you round people off.
Has "The Choir" had an effect on the country at large?
GM: I'm English, so I'm very reticent to blow my own trumpet, but I do think there's been a shift. It put choirs a bit more at the center of our cultural life than they had been for quite some time; certainly all my friends who are choirmasters say numbers are up, nationally. So those people who maybe before were in a choir at school but left it after have been inspired to go back and join choirs after seeing the show. Which is great.
You're aware of the "Glee" phenomenon, I take it.
GM: Well, "Glee" hit here quite a few months after my last series went out, so suddenly there was a rush of people asking me, "Have you seen 'Glee?' What did you think of it?" I've seen the first two, and I've been saving it up so I can get it on DVD and watch it all in one go. But I think it looks really great. It's terribly popular over here, as I know it is over there. I don't think anyone had heard the word "glee" in Britain -- glee club is just not something we know about here. So suddenly there are glee clubs sprouting up all over the country, and lots of music teachers have said where they used to call it choir and they'd get about six people signing up, they now say "glee club" and they get about 60.
Photo credit: Twenty Twenty Television / BBC