20 years singing to the streets
23 March 2022 at 5:53 pm
The Sydney Street Choir marked two decades of making change through music on 16 March. Jonathan Alley spoke to choir director James Paul about the ensemble’s philosophy.
Beating hardship is tough. The challenges of experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and deep-set economic disadvantage are considerable. And while those working at the coalface often need to create immediate solutions to pressing problems, real change for people often comes about through ongoing engagement with something that awakens something within them.
The Sydney Street Choir – which turned 20 this month and held a marquee live event in Sydney’s Martin Place to celebrate – is a strong example of a long-running, socially-based initiative working for change, with people, art, and participation at its heart.
Normally, the group maintains a busy schedule, performing at community events both in NSW and interstate, but during COVID-19, rehearsals have been online and performances few and far between. So while the 16 March event – which featured 50 choristers from the ensemble’s 100 strong membership and was live-streamed nationally – was an anniversary, it was also a homecoming of sorts.
“We haven’t had much opportunity to perform in recent years due to the pandemic,” says choir director James Paul.
“We slipped in a show at Christmas, but overall the opportunities have been scarce. The choir absolutely loved performing again and we were able to raise some funds at the same time.”
The Sydney Street Choir was formed in 2001 by Melbourne performer Jonathon Welch, well-known for forming Melbourne’s original Choir of Hard Knocks, depicted in the TV series of the same name. Welch had originally been inspired by the Montreal Homeless Men’s Choir, and had adapted the concept to work with those at disadvantage utilising music, in his home country.
Two decades on, the Sydney Street Choir supports over 100 members, performing in three distinct choirs. But the model remains the same: to build resilience in its members by acting as a bridge to appropriate social programs for its members, with qualified social workers working in tandem with Paul. Choir members are connected to a range of services in housing, social services and other essential services.
Paul’s now been involved for 12 years, perhaps reflecting that his position as choir director is a calling as much as it’s a job.
His own professional and musical background made him a logical fit. The composer – whose work has been played on ABC stations around the country – has a long history of engaging young and disadvantaged people through music, from teaching young offenders in the NSW juvenile justice system, to working in music therapy with people with disability. In addition to his work with the Sydney Street Choir he runs choral programs in three Sydney secondary schools, and several community choirs around the greater Sydney area.
He’s a long-converted advocate of music’s power to enact change in people, and is at pains to point out that while it’s powerful, it’s equally mysterious.
“Singing is just in our DNA, it’s just in us, part of what makes us human,” he says.
“One reason I think there’s a need for something like the Sydney Street Choir is that we, as a society, don’t sing in churches as much as we used to; that place of connection between one another has diminished. But equally people have sung together for hundreds of thousands of years – there is something, it’s undefinable – it speaks to a basic human element, it’s a massive part of our humanity.”
A choir program run within Dillwynia Women’s Correctional Centre Prison in Western Sydney has been a significant evolution in the Sydney Street Choir’s broader social role.
There are two programs run within Dillwynia – a minimum security program, and a maximum one. According to Paul, both streams of the program have found strong support from prison staff.
“They love it, have expressed their great support for it, and they’re very happy to see it continue,” he says.
“It’s amazing working with the maximum-security program – it’s very structured, controlled, as you’d expect in that environment. But they really express themselves, it’s quite powerful”.
A defining legacy of the Sydney Street Choir’s work lies in the lives of its past members – choristers have gone on to work in social work, and in the live music industry, supporting themselves and building new, socially robust and meaningful lives.
“I think our work truly builds confidence in a person.” Paul says.
“I’ve seen people re-establish ties with family, enter stable and ongoing housing, or go into social work. It’s a very strong testament to what we do”.