14 Jun 2019

Big Sing gets even bigger

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 14 June 2019

The Big Sing is truly a big thing – and it's getting even bigger. Each year, more than 200 secondary school choirs assemble to compete for a highly coveted place in the National Finale which will be held in Dunedin in August. 

The Big Sing Grand Finale ended with a massed choir of all the singers

The Big Sing Grand Finale ended with a massed choir of all the singers Photo: facebook

The Big Sing’s National Director John Rosser and former competitor Te Ohorere Williams tell David Morriss about the competition. This year, a new layer has been added which gives an opportunity for choirs not selected for the National Finale to perform again and participate in workshops with an international judge. 

The Big Sing is the New Zealand Choral Federation's annual secondary schools choral festival, with participation from hundreds of choirs right across the country.

We're about in the middle of the regionals at the moment, the National finale will take place in Dunedin in August.

Upbeat presenter David Morriss caught up with Te Ohorere Williams who has competed in The Big Sing as part of Westlake Choir and returned as a volunteer and compare for the Auckland sessions this year; and then the national director for The Big Sing, John Rosser.

David Morriss: Te Ohorere, how important is The Big Sing to you?

Te Ohorere Williams:  Well, it all started in high school, going to choir every single week and building to this one competition at the end of June. I reached the finals and 2014 to 2016 with my choirs as Westlake Girls High School, with the Westlake Boys High School choir as well. And I found a sense of responsibility to work on my voice during high school, but it just has transcended into my university studies today.

Going back as a volunteer, and being a part of the competition, it just really signals the importance for me to support those who are coming in through the next generations.

For the first session in Auckland I was the compare, and it was just fabulous to be back, announcing, seeing who all the new choirs were and seeing all the new conductors. It was great because I got to see two of my friends at university who are also conducting their respective choirs in that session.

So it's nice to see it coming full circle with being with them at school and now they're conducting their own choir. And you can see that there are so many people who are studying voice at the moment that have come from Big Sing choirs. And I think that's why it's so important.

Do you think that you would be studying voice yourself at the moment if it weren't for The Big Sing?

Te Ohorere Williams: If it wasn't for The Big Sing, and for my choirs at high school, there's no doubt in my mind that I would not. I would be doing medicine or something else engineering. But music is the passion, really.

John Rosser, The Big Sing is such an enormous thing, just the sheer numbers of people involved.

John Rosser: It is. We've grown now to I think between 270 and 280 choirs each year. So it really has become an absolute runaway success. To the extent that some of the regional coordinators sort of look at me, aghast every year when we talk about the further growth and expansion."Where are we going to expand to?" they say. It's a fabulous problem to have.

The Big Sing has a coral composition award which happens every year, and also a new a new venture called Cadenza. Tell us about that.

John Rosser: There are 270 choirs entering this year, and yet, every year, only 24 choirs get to participate in Finale. And the standard of Finale is phenomenally high, it's recognized not only in New Zealand, but right around the world. by international, visiting judges who comment every year on what a phenomenal standard it is and how jealous they are really of New Zealand's fairly unique competition.

The standard of Finale gets so high year on year, that it becomes very, very difficult for the next lot of choirs to make it into Finale. They never see what the standard is if they don't go there, and they don't build up the kind of culture that the top 30 or 40 choirs in the country build up.

This year, we're trying something quite radical, which is to have a second tier Finale. We're treating it as a completely different festival called Cadenza. We're holding it in three regions through the country, and there will be 12 choirs in there, which will be drawn from the next 36 choirs beneath the top 24 [who compete in Finale].

Each of these Cadenza Festivals will be will be a two day opportunity to sing their pieces again and one more in front of an international adjudicator, as well as plenary sessions, a rehearsal session or workshop sessions with the adjudicator. And then they will perform them all together on the final gala night. So it's a completely new format, a new idea, and one that I'm hoping is going to be another runaway success.

It is it's taking place in three regional centers that would never get the national Finale, Timaru, Whanganui, and Rotorua, which is fabulous. And we're hoping to rotate it in various centers around the country over the next few years, so that some so many different parts of New Zealand get a chance to experience this absolute phenomenon that is The Big SIng.

John, if it weren't for The Big Sing would this country have the depth of choral music culture that we've now developed? If we only had, say, the Secondary Students Choir, the Youth Choir and so on?

John Rosser: No, we wouldn't, because it achieved such a broad spread of choral music and choral excellence across the country which you wouldn't get just with the Youth Choir or the Secondary Students Choir. They deal with an elite of singers, of course, but I think it's the bedrock, the ground swell, of so many people taking part in high level coral activity that gives this country it's fabulous coral reputation.

As well as being the director of The Big Sing and as a choral conductor yourself, you must be very excited about all this wonderful choral activity and all these wonderful voices coming forward.

John Rosser: I am! I'm very, very very proud of what we've achieved in NZ Choral Federation over the past 35 or more years and in my time involved with it, particularly in the last 12 - 13, building up The Big Sing, seeing how it's fed through into other activities and of course with the the World Choral Symposium next year. We didn't get that out of the blue we got it partly because of having a very fine coral reputation in this country.

RNZ Concert will bring you coverage of the National Finale of The Big Sing 2019 from the Dunedin Town Hall 29th to 31st of August.