Q&A/The Festival Sessions

A pop-up in three part harmony

25 January 2019

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Instachoir is exactly what it sounds like… a pop-up gig, choir-style. It’s the choir for those who fear commitment but love to sing and it’s the brainchild of Claire Coleman, best-known in Fringe World circles as the founder of local indie-pop choir, Menagerie.

Based in Berlin since 2015, Coleman currently conducts not one but two choirs and says nothing beats sharing the joy of singing with others. Now she’s returning home, albeit briefly, to present Instachoir at Fringe World. Seesaw caught up with Coleman just before she boarded her flight to Perth, to talk about all things choral.

A woman sitting at a piano looking happy.
Claire Coleman

Seesaw: When did you first know that you wanted to be a musician?
Claire Coleman: Arts life doesn’t have to come with thunderbolts and lightning (or, more likely, with glitter, a hot pink leotard and a set of false eyelashes). Sometimes it comes to inhabit you slowly, and this was my experience. More than a single big decision to pursue a creative life, my career developed from a series of small decisions that gradually led me here.

S: Tell us about training to be a conductor… was it formal, on-the-job or both?
CC: When I started my first choir, Menagerie, it was my first experience as a choral director. Sure, I had done a couple of choral pedagogy units during my Music Education degree at UWA, and I had casually conducted choirs here and there before. And, like many musicians, I had been training for what has become my professional practice since I was a child, even though at the time I probably wouldn’t have categorised my weekly piano and violin lessons as professional development. I had prior teaching experience, teaching class music in schools and giving piano lessons since I was 16. I’d had arts admin. experience from working in various community music organisations. And I had just started my doctorate in popular musicology, so was spending my days reading and thinking about the indie music that the choir was learning to sing in the evenings.

All the elements and skills I needed to be a conductor were there. But still, Menagerie was the first time I’d had an ensemble of my very own. It was a joyfully reciprocal development experience, where the choir took shape and learned how to be a choir alongside me, as I learned what they needed from me as their director.

S: Describe your artistic practice…
CC: My practice is a portfolio that combines music performance, music teaching, arranging, choral conducting and music research. For me, every element of my work has a strong creative component – even and especially the teaching! There are endless creative possibilities for approaching lessons and rehearsals.

S: What do you love most about being a choir conductor?
CC: When I’m working with a new group of choirlings, there is always a beautiful moment of arrival when they stop focusing on their individual singing and listen to what’s going on around them and suddenly realise: hey, this sounds amazing. Sometimes I see this knowledge dawning on their faces. There is nothing better than sharing these moments. Music has been my constant companion since I was a kid. It makes me happy in ways I can’t even fathom, let alone describe. And so, it also brings me great joy to pass that happiness around by enabling other people to make music too.

S: What has been your funniest career moment so far?
CC: I say a lot of dumb things in rehearsals, so there are a lot of laughs (even if sometimes I am the joke, rather than making the joke!) I can’t pick a funniest, but here’s a funny story.

It was my first time attending a Catch Music session. The session was finished, and I’d enjoyed it, but felt a bit overwhelmed by the large group of diverse strangers. Catch Music is a Perth community arts organisation running inclusive music sessions, so there were a number of participants with different disabilities, and I hadn’t been in a rehearsal that engaged such an extreme range of abilities before.

A participant called me over and asked me if I would like to see his tattoo. I was slightly nervous, if not a little suspicious. Where was this tattoo located?! This was not the nice-to-meet-you small talk to which I was accustomed. With a somewhat cheeky grin, the participant pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a glorious tattoo of Agnetha from ABBA emblazoned across the entirety of his upper arm. Like many moments in Catch Music sessions, it was funny because it was not what I was expecting, but it was exactly the right thing to happen at that moment. It also made me feel instantly welcome and at-ease in the new situation, and led to me taking more formal roles with Catch Music. (So thanks, Frank, if you’re reading!)

S: You’re no stranger to Fringe World – you conducted Menagerie through its first two Fringe seasons – but now you live on the other side of the world! What drew you back to Fringe World?
CC: As you say, I’ve been living in Berlin since 2015. This year, my partner Mike and I decided to make our annual-or-so trip home coincide with some friends’ wedding, and (best of all!) with Fringe! I’ve been running a monthly open choir rehearsal here in Berlin, and I felt like it was the kind of interactive fun that Fringe audiences love. I’m very happy to be combining a visit home with one of my favourite activities… choir!

S: Tell us about your Fringe show, Instachoir!
CC: In Instachoir you, and the rest of the audience, become a one-night-only choir! It’s a quick-and-dirty, three-part-harmony-singing extravaganza featuring a different pop hit each week. If you’ve never sung harmonies before (or even if you’ve never sung before!) this is a great way to try it out… in a big group of people, singing familiar songs, all learning by listening and copying what I demonstrate so there’s no special music skills needed. And if you have sung before, well, you already know how fun this is going to be!

We learn the song of the night at The Moon over the course of a one-hour rehearsal, and then we pop down to one of the Fringe hub venues to surprise the unsuspecting punters with a spontaneous performance of what we’ve learned!

Hilarity and glory will ensue.

S: Aside from your show, what are you looking forward to seeing/doing at Fringe?
CC: This Fringe season also means a visit home for me, so mostly I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends. And also my special friend the sun, who is rarely seen on Berlin winter days. But I’m also looking forward to being in the audience of my old choir, Menagerie, for the first time at their show Odes to the (In)significant, and I’m looking forward to catching some of the great dance shows on the program.

S: What’s your favourite part of the playground?
CC: Swings! As close to flying as you can get.

Instachoir takes place at The Moon, January 29, 2019 (The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”), February 4, 2019 (The Spice Girls, “Stop”), and February 11, 2019 (The Beach Boys, Kokomo). Each session is stand-alone.

Pictured top: Claire Coleman conducting Menagerie Choir at Fringe World in 2015. Photo: Kim Anderson.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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