Leanne Roobol has been Director of Music at New England Girls’ School since 2007. We speak with Leanne about the music program at NEGS, the recent choral trip to Britain, and the success of former students here and overseas.
Your interest in music was fostered from a young age as a student here in Armidale. Tell us a bit about that.
I was very fortunate to be involved in many ensembles as a student in Armidale, the first being an ensemble at Ben Venue Primary School, conducted by Mr Laurie Pulley. He was very involved in youth orchestras in Armidale and is well known for his work. At high school at PLC I was a member of the choir, the orchestra, vocal group and a number of ensembles. I studied singing at PLC with Mrs Claire Keoghan and performed in several TAS musicals directed by Jim Graham and was also a member of the Armidale Choral Society and the Madrigal Singers at UNE – so yes, I had a very musical childhood!
And then you chose to study music at university?
I was encouraged by Claire Keoghan to study at the Canberra School of Music, and after graduating with a Bachelor of Music majoring in Performance, I studied a Diploma of Education at UNE.
What attracted you to the music department at NEGS?
I had taught singing at NEGS and really enjoyed it. The NEGS motto is ‘learning with spirit’, and I found that to be really true of the students at NEGS. I believed I had something to offer the students and felt I could build on the program. I was encouraged by Mrs Deirdre Rickards, who was teaching at NEGS at the time, to take on the position, and she worked as my mentor in my first year here.
We understand that music at NEGS is taught according to the philosophy of Zoltan Kodály. What does this approach entail?
Zoltan Kodály was a Hungarian composer and philosopher who lived from 1882 to 1967. He believed that singing provides the best start to music education, and that the voice, being the most accessible of all instruments, makes it the most suitable for early musical instruction.
We introduced this teaching philosophy after the arrival at NEGS of Mrs Rowena Tall from Sydney Grammar School at the beginning of 2008, and we studied for the Australian Kodály Certificate in Music Education. Rowena did the primary, and I did the secondary. Teaching of concepts is done sequentially, with well defined skills and a hierarchy.
You also have two former Opera Australia professionals who offer extra-curricular tuition?
Yes, Mr Stephen Tall and Dr Inge Southcott both sang with Opera Australia, and they are both incredibly experienced performers and provide expert tuition to our students. We are also very fortunate to have Miss Julia Booth as our musician in residence this year; she is also a recording artist with a number of singles on compositions on iTunes, with a passion for Christian music. We have also welcomed back Ruth Strutt, who has recently graduated from Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) specialising in Opera Performance.
We have more than 40 students learning singing, and this is testament to the high calibre of singing teachers at NEGS. We also have over 20 co-curricular specialist instrumental music teachers who provide tuition in a strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, keyboard and voice, as well as speech and drama.
NEGS students made up the bulk of Armidale Singers Australia, a choir that visited Britain and Vienna last school holidays. Tell us a little about the trip and some of the highlights.
The tour was a wonderful opportunity for students from NEGS, PLC and TAS to perform together as part of the British Choral Festival, which celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. There were five performances, including a diverse repertoire at Sepulchre-Without-Newgate Church with Brisbane group Chordiality and Counterpoints, from North Central High School in Indianapolis.
We took part at a worship service on Easter Sunday at Praise House, Croydon, in a special performance for the black churches of Croydon.
Croydon was where the riots were last year, and we helped raise money for them to put on a music concert later in the year as part of the healing and rebuilding process. That was very moving.
The highlight was probably singing both an individual repertoire, as well as being part of a massed choir at a gala festival performance at Southwark Cathedral – the compered by noted conductor, Paul Holley.
We also sang in Vienna. One of the loveliest things was that the students would often break into song spontaneously wherever they were, including performing a few ‘flash mobs’, which certainly attracted interest – they just loved their singing so much.
It was a wonderfully collaborative project for all the schools to work together, and we are hoping to continue the touring choir and to broaden that opportunity for other schools as well.
We understand the composition of one of the students attracted the attention of a very well known London music group?
We debuted Stella Quast’s work, Blue Moon, at Southwark Cathedral in front of an audience that included the Australian High Commissioner. Also on the bill was the London College of Music Chamber Choir – which was so impressed with the piece, it asked if it could sing it in the future. Stella recently won the Year 11 composition section at the Armidale Eisteddfod and the overall adjudicators’ prize for composition.
There have been several former students who have gone on to have successful professional careers in musical theatre. Can you tell us about a couple of them?
Fabienne Sakker won a scholarship to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA).
Zoe Sulivan has got a professional role in Aladdin in Manila, and wrote to tell us she couldn’t believe she was being paid for doing something she loved.
And watch out for Emily Roberts – who starred in the recent ADMS production of The Hatpin; she certainly has a future ahead of her!
All three of these NEGS students had singing lessons with Stephen Tall and were speech and drama students of Jeannie Cole. So that’s just three from last year’s cohort alone. We are very proud of them.
This story was published in issue 62 of New England Focus