As we celebrate NAIDOC week, Julie Houghton tracks down a remarkable woman making a difference in isolated and Indigenous communities.
Once upon a time there was a country girl who loved music and who lived in a family that celebrated sharing music together. When she grew up, she decided she wanted to spread the joy of music with isolated people so they too could share the same fantastic creative experiences she loved.
And in a world where we seem to be surrounded by bad news, this isn’t just a fairytale—it’s the story of Michelle Leonard, OAM, artistic director of Moorambilla Voices.
If you saw the documentary Wide Open Sky at the cinema or on television, Michelle will be familiar to you. The phrase ‘zest for life’ is a perfect description for this musical dynamo who has stayed close to her country roots even after becoming a big wheel in Sydney music circles.
New South Wales town Coonamble was home to young Michelle and her three siblings, one of whom is eminent classical saxophonist Christina Leonard. Michelle herself graduated in piano and clarinet from the Sydney University Conservatorium of Music, but it wasn’t until she stood in front of a choir as a conductor that Michelle discovered her real passion.
Michelle recalls the importance of her own childhood influences in Coonamble.
“The wildly feminist Brigidine nuns taught us that anything in our life was possible—they valued singing and creativity and between them and my parents instilled a very strong moral compass, plus a sense of humour and can-do attitude,” Michelle tells Warcry.
It’s this refusal to accept boundaries that drives Michelle in her work with Moorambilla Voices. The concept behind Moorambilla Voices is that children and youth are capable of excellence, and where you live shouldn’t deprive you of opportunities.
“We exist to give regional and remote children the opportunity to make great music and performances about their lives, their community and the incredibly rich and vital stories of the oldest living culture on Earth,” Michelle explains.
Politicians often give lip service to providing opportunities for Indigenous and isolated communities, but it takes a dynamo like Michelle to turn words into action. She was frustrated that there were no musical opportunities for children in western New South Wales like the ones she had enjoyed growing up.
“When we started 12 years ago, there was no town band, orchestra or even a school choir. So we set out to slowly change people’s idea of what was possible in a town in drought,” Michelle says.
“Singing and dancing is just a normal part of living. People are happier when they create together—there is just no downside to having arts in your community,” she enthuses.
And apart from geographical isolation, in this digital age people can be isolated through technology replacing interpersonal contact.
Life is richer and more complete when you have the opportunity to be creative, regardless of what you finally pursue as your life goal.
~ Michelle Leonard
“Singing and dancing together meaningfully connects peers. And we need to stop comparing music to sporting skills and just appreciate it as a vital life force, and something that makes us distinctly human,” she says.
Funding for travelling across New South Wales and hearing children sing and organising musical opportunities for them is a never-ending problem, but Michelle’s drive to share opportunities with Indigenous and isolated communities means she doesn’t take no for an answer, and no child is ever deprived of an opportunity to go to music camp and be part of Moorambilla Voices for financial reasons.
So how many children has this remarkable woman brought opportunities to?
Eleven years since she started Moorambilla Voices, Michelle has heard more than 20,000 children in her workshops, and this year has been invited to conduct workshops in 97 schools, as well as running more than 50 workshops while on tour, plus attending community meetings and coffees—all in the cause of bringing music to children.
What inspires her is the reaction from the schools she visits, which is always positive.
“We are now really starting to see the results of all the hard work and I couldn’t be happier!”
Having the opportunities to be valued and take part in workshops, and for those selected, the music camps and Moorambilla Festival, is life-changing for these children.
“More and more it is helping to combat isolation and negativity through creatively and positively celebrating capacity,” Michelle explains.
“Life is about ‘and’, not ‘either’. It needs to be sport and music and academics, and dance, art and computers. Life is richer and more complete when you have the opportunity to be creative, regardless of what you finally pursue as your life goal,” she says.
NAIDOC Week is close to Michelle’s heart as she travels the vast distances to hear talented Indigenous and isolated children.
“The key thing is that Moorambilla teaches respect for our children, artists and audience, and pride in our rich and alive Indigenous heritage in a calm and empowering way—it’s never tokenistic,” Michelle insists.
And you only need to see the joy and pride on the faces of the hundreds of children who have been swept up in Michelle’s enthusiasm and passion for music to realise what a difference music can make wherever you live in this wide brown land.
For more on Moorambilla Voices go to moorambilla.com.