Choirmaster Gareth Malone talks to iSing about his latest television show, The Naked Choir, and his campaign to ensure choral singing isn’t seen “as some weird niche thing to do”
It’s easy to see why Gareth Malone is often referred to as “Britain’s choirmaster-in-chief”. The energetic Englishman has spent the best part of ten years gracing British television screens, encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to sing.
And he shows no signs of wavering from his mission to promote the joys and benefits of singing.
He is currently preparing to film the second series of The Naked Choir (which will be his ninth TV series in total). Not bad for the former drama student who only recently turned 40.
Gareth made his first appearance on television in 2007 in The Choir, charged with the task of teaching choral singing to a group of inexperienced and disinterested London high school students.
Since then he has worked with people from all walks of life – from primary school children to pensioners and most famously the Military Wives (a choir made of women in the military community). The Military Wives’ single Wherever You Are was the best-selling Christmas single in the UK in 2011.
Wherever You Are (Military Wives with Gareth Malone)
Tabloid newspapers now call him “a national treasure” and provide a running commentary on his natty attire (his trademark yellow trousers have been compared to “radioactive custard”, his check shirts make him look, apparently, “not unlike a lesbian lumberjack”).
But trivialities aside no one, in the UK at least, has done as much to bring choral singing into the public consciousness at the father-of-two. While other reality television shows have been accused of exploiting singers, Gareth has never played Mr Nasty. He proudly admits that winners of his shows go home with few material gains – just some useful tips, a greater sense of confidence and a feeling of satisfaction. Anything that happens after that (last year’s Naked Choir winners Sons of Pitches for example are preparing for a national tour) is a bonus.
He said: “When I think about last year’s series of the Naked Choir what I loved most was that all the contestants, whether they finished first, or second or third were proud of themselves. They felt like they had achieved something.
“For example one of the groups, Choral Stimulation, sang Nothing Compares 2 U in the final and it was absolutely stunning. They can be proud of that moment, it is now up on YouTube and they can say to people this is what we can do.
Choral Stimulation performs ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – The Naked Choir:
“There’s no guaranteed record contract at the end (with one of my shows). It’s not entirely about winning or beating other people. It’s about sharpening your skills and personal development. “I would describe it as a gentle contest, it’s about people improving and working with mentors who are fantastic and who can support them musically and emotionally.”
A few years ago Gareth said he felt some television reality shows had instilled a fear among people of being ridiculed which stopped some from giving singing a try. Does he still feel like that?
He said: “If you had asked me that back in 2007/08 I would have said ‘yes’ and I did make some comments about the X Factor at the time. But I think things have changed, people have moved on. And certainly from my work with groups such as the Military Wives, people know I am not there to laugh at them. I think they understand where I am coming from. I think even X Factor has moved on a bit to some extent.
“I think even the fact that the word choir is being bandied about in the press because of the show is helpful. Someone in the office can say ‘I am off to choir practice tonight’ and people have a greater understanding of what that involves. It’s not some weird niche thing to do.”
Ironically for someone who has carved out such as a successful television career, he said many of his greatest achievements have never made it on to the small screen.
Gareth said: “Obviously there are the big moments – I have performed in front of the Queen a couple of times. But sometimes it is the moments when you are in rehearsal and someone has a breakthrough – those are the things I’m most proud of. They may not even make it into the show, but they are very rewarding.”
So after winning two BAFTAs, performing for the Queen and notching up a number one hit, what keeps him motivated?
“I just love working with undiscovered talent and helping people to discover something new about themselves,” he said. “I have learned so much in the past ten years. All the groups that we work with have opinions and things to teach me. The challenge for me is to try and find new ways to energise people.”
With his enthusiasm undiminished, Gareth is looking for singers to participate in the Naked Choir 2. Whereas last year’s series focused on the development of acapella groups, this year he is casting his net a little wider.
Naked Choir producers are looking for groups, be they well established or fairly new, across all genres – barbershop, pop, traditional choral music or gospel. Individuals looking to join a group are also welcome to apply.
He added: “It will be good to see different styles going head to head and to see performers get to experience singing different repertoires.”
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Gareth’s tips for choir leaders
- Keep trying different things. It is important to keep experimenting, even if things don’t work out. Failure is such an important part of being creative. You never know until you try. As someone who leads a group, you have to be the person saying ‘You probably don’t think this will work but let’s try it, you might find you like it’.
- It is good to set yourself and your group a challenge. When I was working with community choirs we went in and said ‘Right we have ten weeks to learn this massive piece’. We just did a few pages each week and suddenly you look back realise just how much progress you have made. But there has to be some element of challenge. You don’t want to just turn up and sing Messiah over and over again.
- Every group has its advantages and disadvantages, you just have to work out what it is you want to achieve and how to go about doing it.
- When it comes to song choice, the most important thing to me is that the song means something. Ask why are you singing that particular song? What is your personal connection to that song? Don’t just sing it because Adele did, and it was a big success. Find something that says something about you.
Career in brief
Gareth has always enjoyed music – he grew up singing and playing the piano and guitar. His love of choral music started when he attended a local grammar school in Bournemouth.
He was bullied mercilessly as a teenager because he “was rubbish at football and liked classical music”.
He studied drama at the Universty of East Anglia and later completed a post grad course at The Royal Academy of Music, London. He spent many years working for the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke’s where he ran their youth choir scheme.
His first television show The Choir aired in 2007 and he has since gone to make a number of series and one-off programmes.
He has won two BAFTAs (in 2007 and 2009) and a Broadcast Award (2009). In 2012 he received an Order of the British Empire (OBE). Favourite songs to perform are the Beatles’ Blackbird and Yesterday.