Kinder Children's Choirs – The Sound of Music
PUBLISHED: 10:02 11 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:16 20 February 2013
The celebrated Derbyshire Kinder Children's Choirs celebrate their 20th anniversary. Mike Smith talks to founder and director Joyce Ellis
Aninvited audience, graced by the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra and hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, gathered in the magnificent Painted Hall at Chatsworth in early October for a glittering Gala Concert featuring the celebrated Kinder Childrens Choir, which is based in the High Peak and is one of five Kinder Choirs that have been keeping the hills of Derbyshire alive with the sound of music for the past two decades. Their sublime singing has also enthralled audiences far beyond their home soil and has twice brought them one of the highest international awards for choral singing.
The Chatsworth concert was the high point in a year of celebrations to
mark the 20th anniversary of the choirs, which were founded by Joyce Ellis, who trained as a pianist and cellist at the Royal Northern School of Music, but became an opera and concert singer who appeared at some of Europes leading venues, including La Scala, and enjoyed spells at Glyndebourne and with Opera North. Joyces lifelong love of singing stems from the wonderful time she enjoyed as a youngster with the Maia Choir in Stockport, and it was this experience that she wanted to recreate for the children of the High Peak.
When I spoke to Joyce at her home in the hamlet of Birch Vale, just outside the town of New Mills, she recalled how she had contacted schoolteachers and used the local press to float her plans for a new choir before calling a meeting of interested parents and children. She said: My aim was to provide vocal and choral training for children and to give them the excitement which comes from involvement in the kind of high-level performance that can only be achieved by taking a totally professional approach. However, I was also keen to stress that striving for perfection and having fun can go together.
Sixty children attended the launch meeting, which was held at Hayfield School in June 1991, but Joyce remembers wondering just how many of those who had expressed interest would turn up after the summer holidays. She need not have worried, because her missionary zeal could hardly have failed to convert everyone to the cause. All the children returned in September and so became founder members of the new choirs, which were named after Kinder Scout, Derbyshires highest summit and a fitting symbol of Joyces high ambitions. Kinder was also chosen because it is the German word for children. The clever double entendre works well, even if Kinder Childrens Choirs sounds tautological to audiences at Bad Nauheim, Buxtons German twin town, where the singers have often performed.
Thanks to a bursary scheme, no child is excluded from membership of the choirs for reasons of cost, and it is surprising to find that recruits are not selected on the basis of a voice test; the only requirement is commitment. Explaining her policy, Joyce said, I was fascinated by the way my own voice developed and always wondered how far it could take me. I want my choir members to have that same experience. Whats more, I believe that it is possible to develop the voices of almost all children, on condition that they come for training before anyone has dismissed their potential, perhaps by suggesting that it might be better if they were to mime when the school choir sings!
Joyce had absolutely no external funding when she first set up her choirs. However, local businessman Denis Harding had hinted that he might be willing to offer financial support once it became clear that her ambitious scheme was working. When the choirs gave their first performance at Buxton Opera House, Joyce paid for the hire of the venue entirely out of her own pocket, but Denis met her at the door of the theatre and promptly handed over a start-up cheque for 1,000. Her benefactor continued to be a strong supporter in the ensuing years, as did Bob Mulholland, the owner of Peak Press and a lifelong member of the Kinder Choir Trust, first established in 1993 under Denis chairmanship. The eleventh Duke of Devonshire became the first President of the Kinder Choirs, a role now filled by the present Duchess of Devonshire.
Rehearsals take place at Whaley Bridge Uniting Church, a central venue in the High Peak, with girls attending on Monday evenings and boys on Tuesday evenings. New recruits sing with the Kinder Girls Choir or the Kinder Boys Choir until they are invited by Joyce to join the Kinder Junior Singers, a mixed choir of 9 to 14 year olds. The apex of the hierarchy of choirs is the Kinder Childrens Choir, otherwise known as the Concert Choir, comprising young people up to the age of 18. There is also a Kinder Youth Choir, which Joyce set up as a vehicle to encourage boys to carry on singing when their voices change.
The various choral groups, drawn from more than 130 members aged 7 to 18, perform at venues throughout Derbyshire and North West England. They sang at the Melbourne Festival in September and their crowded October programme included performances at St Johns Church in Buxton and Grappenhall Church, near Warrington, as well as at the 20th anniversary Gala Concert at Chatsworth. In December, they are giving Christmas Concerts in three separate High Peak venues, performing at Capesthorne Hall, near Macclesfield, and participating in the Glory of Christmas event at the prestigious Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Their biennial attendance at the Eisteddfod in Wales now alternates with performances in Normandy, which have been taking place ever since their involvement in events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy.
Kinder Childrens Choirs have built up an enviable reputation for their consistently high level of performance, which was recognized at the International Eisteddfod, where they won First Prize in the Senior Childrens Choir Class in both 1997 and 2010. Maintaining these high standards and coordinating the activities of a multiplicity of choirs requires an enormous commitment of time and energy on Joyces part. Occasional breaks to sail her boat on Lake Windermere are her means of recharging the batteries, but the spark that made her set up the choirs in the first place has never dimmed.
Joyces reason for establishing the choirs was to enable young people to obtain the sort of pleasure from singing that she had experienced in her formative years. Proof that she has fulfilled this aim is provided by former choir member Beth Heasman, who says: Joyce instils values and expectations, and brings us together to create something bigger than ourselves. Being part of the choir gave us many exciting new experiences that otherwise we would never have had. These experiences, coupled with a diverse range of music, helped broaden our minds and make us more open to new ideas and possibilities at a time when we were growing up and starting to work out our place in the world.