My growing frustration with Gareth Malone

Gareth Malone is on the BBC tonight, launching his “New Military Wives” programme. As a leader of community choirs, I’m often asked about Gareth Malone and what I make of his work. The answer I’ve given has changed over time, and his latest programme is making me shift my answer another step in a negative direction.

First of all, I think Gareth Malone is a great musician. I saw him live on his recent “Voices” tour, and a close colleague worked with him on that tour – he sang well, was very engaging, and the ensemble of professional singers he toured with were all exceptional. The arrangements he commissions are fantastic, his work takes choral singing in modern, exciting directions, and he’s not afraid to embrace new technology to breathe life into the medium. I wanted to get that out there first.

My frustration with him is in his approach to amateur music-making. From the first time I saw him on TV, I was torn – on the one hand, he was promoting group singing to beginners, and giving it a wider audience, which is absolutely in tune with my own musical mission. On the other, his teaching techniques seemed questionable – not his musicianship, but his ability to meet his students where they were and work with them to improve. There was a strong sense of him being the “master”, and of him sitting in judgement of these inferior mortals who deigned to attempt this tricky discipline of “singing”. When people made mistakes, he was scornful of them and exhorted them to “do better”, rather than supporting them and guiding them through the personal challenge of standing up to sing in public. His razzamatazz and charisma inspired his singers, but these qualities encouraged his choir to be utterly reliant on him, and they weren’t encouraged to develop any self-sufficiency as singers.

As his popularity grew, I watched him work with other groups – boys, nurses, postal workers, and of course the Military Wives. In each case, his method of working concerned me, whilst I applauded his desire to get the nation singing. For instance, I can understand the need to audition soloists for a performance, but I don’t understand why people should have to audition to simply¬†join an amateur choir. I can understand that people need to be told when they aren’t getting the notes right, but I don’t understand why they should be made to feel bad about it. And I can understand why people should be encouraged to strive to become the best that they can be, but I don’t understand why singing, why art, should become a competition where the majority of participants are eventually branded losers.

Tonight’s “New Military Wives” is building towards a performance commemorating the servicemen and women of the First World War. War is the great leveller – a bomb kills indiscriminately, with no regard for rank or ability. When I saw that the premise of Gareth’s programme was to narrow down the 2,000 members of the various Military Wives Choirs to a 100-strong “super choir”, my heart sank. What message does that send to the 1,900 singers who won’t be selected? What does it say to the person who is thinking about maybe joining their local community choir, but is worried about whether they will be “good enough”?

I talk to many, many people who hear my choir sing, and I always encourage them to consider giving it a go. The answer I get from 99% of people that I talk to is “I can’t sing”, or “I wouldn’t be good enough”, or “I’m tone deaf”. Seeing Britain’s most visible choir leader on the BBC, selecting only those voices he deems to be of sufficient quality, makes it harder for me to persuade those people that they can sing, that they will be good enough, and that they’re not tone deaf. It hurts¬†Gareth’s own self-proclaimed mission of getting the nation singing. It is this that frustrates me about him, and it is why, when people ask me tomorrow what I thought of Gareth Malone on the telly last night, I’ll tell them that I think he is well-meaning, but ultimately misguided and damaging to amateur choral singing.