Dr Jonathon Welch (AM) : Federation Square, Melbourne : Victoria, Australia
“Music, for me, was a life buoy; something that I learned to grab onto that took me out of all other stuff that I didn’t know how to cope with. My sister was put in Winlaton Girls’ Home when she was 12, my aunt was in and out of psychiatric institutions, my brother and sister fought – they didn’t speak for many, many years – my father was kind of floating in and out of our lives…and you just didn’t talk about it. There was all this stuff they didn’t know how to talk about and, looking back, they didn’t have the skills either. They didn’t have the skills to be able to talk about and manage me through…”
Jonathon Welch developed an early understanding of the power of music and has spent his life to now exploring this area of the arts through its countless lenses. Whether it be lavishing the onstage adventures alongside other world renowned vocalists, or quietly enjoying the changes in people’s lives through the music programs he’s devised, music has always been a place of celebration, joy and solace for the 57 year old. And the time he’s dedicated to a number of his projects over the last decade – including the tireless work for the renowned Choir Of Hard Knocks – is really seeing a beautiful collision of his musical ability, professional expertise and personal understanding of the profound difference music can make in people’s lives across the broader community
Growing up in the beautiful Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, there’s a clear mixture of ingredients in his experiences that have led to the man he is today. He attributes much of his love for music to his mother, who raised Jonathon and his three siblings after their father left when Jonathon was 10 years old. As an accomplished pianist, organist, and vocalist herself, she recognised Jonathon’s creative lean and did everything she could to allow him to explore and develop his attraction to the arts.
“She was very astute. Unlike my brother and sister, who were not so academically inclined back then, my mother engineered my going to Melbourne Boys High and that had a very big influence on me, I think. The really important thing about that school was not just the opportunities that it gave me, which were extraordinary – still today, the traditions that they uphold of house choral competitions and the musicals of very high standards in music and across all the subjects – my mother also thought that I needed some male role modelling, given that my father wasn’t around so much, so she took me one night to a Scottish country dance in Brighton, and this pipe band was at this and I became quite fascinated with this band of people banging drums and blowing these instruments, so at age 12 I joined the Moorabbin City Pipe Band and became a drummer. And they were not just positive male role models, they were positive male role models in making music”
Through her kindness, his mother also unknowingly defined now hard-wired values in Jonathon. He was deeply affected by her motivation to help those less fortunate as she created an environment of generosity, music, and community; all under his own roof.
“She was extraordinarily philanthropic, always knitting or making cakes for a World Vision Stall and she would always be bringing people from the local nursing home into our house. She’d put on a concert and my other aunts would show up – they were fabulous country cooks from Charlton, country Victoria – so there was always this music and singing and food, so I kind of grew up in this world that I thought everybody did. I couldn’t have been more wrong!”
Amongst the positive environment his mother created, there were some significant challenges in his family life, and Jonathon found music always provided an outlet for him to escape, explore, and create. But it was a specific performance featuring one of the most remarkable operatic voices of our time that would allow him to dream big and open his eyes to a real-world possibility of creating his own future in music.
“My mother took me to see Joan Sutherland sing La Traviata at the Palais Theatre – light bulb moment. That changed everything for me. I thought, whatever she’s having – I want some…I just became quite fascinated with the human voice. And I suppose there’s quite a parallel there between me not having a voice at home with everything that was going on. When I was 15/16 I became very ill with glandular fever for about 3 months, I seriously could not eat anything but jelly – it was the worst kind of glandular fever – and I had this transformation from this fat, chubby kid with braces that reappeared several months later having lost incredible amounts of weight and, all of a sudden, I was a young man”
With this adolescent rebirth and newfound fascination for the voice, Jonathon discovered his own extraordinary talent and would set himself challenges to test and strengthen his ability in between practicing for his pipe band band commitments.
“I had this tenor voice that at a very young age was kinda way beyond its years – it was very light, but I could sing incredibly high. In fact, when I think back to that point in time around age 15, it would have been in the 70s – you’re talking Abba, when everyone was out singing along to Dancing Queen, I was out the back yard and I had Pavarotti records and records of the great tenors and I would turn them up and I would try and sing higher than them. Then I’d get my drum out and have a bit of a bash at that – march up and down the backyard…I was a weird kid!”
Eventually leaving the drum and his foundational time with the Moorabbin City Pipe Band behind him, he focussed on his voice, inevitably resulting in his acceptance to the Victorian State Opera chorus at 21. The experience allowed him to perform in venues like the Princess and Palais Theatres in Melbourne alongside performers including Suzanne Johnston, Fred Parsley, and Suzanne Steele. But following the sad death of his beloved mother he would again face many of the challenges his earlier family life had presented, so when the opportunity arose to tour the country with a new show he saw it as an chance to escape those familiar and difficult circumstances by grabbing it with both hands.
“I got into the very first production of Pirates Of Penzance in Melbourne at the end of 1983; I was 23 or 24. And i thought, “Here’s my ticket to ride – I’m outta here”. The show was touring for 18 months around the country. Marina Prior – it was the first thing she did – David Hobson, Todd McKenney, we were all kids in the chorus. I toured the country and then moved to Sydney and spent some time with the wonderful teacher who taught Judi Connelli and John Bolton Wood – his name is Max Speed…great name for a singing teacher! – but he really set me on the course to finding my operatic voice”
Once the tour was over, Jonathon relocated to Brisbane as the first young artist with the Lyric Opera of Queensland. As another opportunity to develop, he also studied for three years with one of Australia’s greatest tenors, Donald Smith, and completed his post-graduate degree. The company itself also gave him the opportunity to explore a variety of background roles as he intelligently lay the groundwork for the next stage of his career.
“I’d been offered the chorus at Australian Opera several times, but I knocked it back as Brisbane was giving me the opportunity to do small roles and I was building into larger roles just out of the spotlight of the main company. And at the end of 1987 I joined Australian Opera at the Opera House as a young artist; that was an amazing few years with the company. Sutherland was still singing and all the great conductors, many of the great American sopranos were coming out…Pavarotti was coming out and singing with the company…it was an extraordinary time”
As amazing an experience as the Australian Opera was, Jonathon looked around and saw other talented singers in their later years enjoying long and wonderful careers performing at the highest level within the company, but the potential of spending the next few decades doing the same was something he couldn’t reconcile and he made the choice to leave.
“Everybody was pretty shocked because I’d worked so long and hard to get there. I made a very conscious decision that I was going to stay in Australia and, unlike a lot of my friends and my colleagues who are having to go overseas to find work, I was going to make my contribution here. But I didn’t know how. And so I started doing a whole range of different things…went into a business with a partner that was disastrous and lost everything…and the relationship I was in all fell apart…my life really fell apart. It was gonna happen and everything from the 15 year old surfaced and I had to deal with a lot of stuff for about 2 years after that. I went into a period of depression and I was seeing a counsellor twice a week for about 18 months who helped me through that – she was an extraordinary woman”
By bravely acknowledging and confronting his demons head-on, Jonathon would see an expected shift in approach to his future which manifested as a surprising, yet conscious, step away from music. A step that would provide the perspective he needed to confirm that music was far more than something he did for a living – it was part of his constitution – so a complete change wasn’t what he was looking for. Instead, he opted for a new approach to his work within the music industry by capitalising on his natural leadership skills.
“I didn’t sing for two years when I left the opera company – I thought that was it, I’m going to turn my back on my music and I was going to do different things and there couldn’t have been a worse thing for me to to do! And eventually, through David Atkins I started teaching again and it kind of drew me back in to music in a very different way. I formed the first Three Tenor Group, after the great Three Tenors got together, and we became Tenor Australis, recorded for EMI and all that stuff. Then I was invited to conduct the Gay & Lesbian Choir, which was one of the most famous choirs in the country back in the 90s…hugely famous. I suppose what I brought to the table and my experiences and my professional context, to move that choir into the community in a very different way. We won the Australasian Choral Championships while I was music director. We worked with Graham Murphy and Sydney Dance Company. We did a piece called Mythologia for the Olympic Cultural Festival in 2000. It was just fantastic”
Evolving his passion for music into leading others was just what he needed but, despite all the success, he was still dealing with personal issues and found himself unsettled, struggling to find the right balance.
“It sounds a bit glamorous, but it was incredibly hard work, incredibly lonely and very difficult. I can remember wandering the streets of Newtown on Christmas Day looking in windows and crying, wondering what the hell I was doing and what was going in my life, and it was terrible. It was really, really hard. But I managed to rebuild myself financially and managed to rebuild my career through teaching and Tenor Australis and through the conducting. And it was in 2000 when I’d just finished conducting Mythalogia at the Capitol Theatre with Sydney Dance Company that I decided to get my butt out of Australia and go to North America”
With the intention of traveling and visiting friends overseas, Jonathon would stumble over a project in Calgary that would set the course for his life to now. Reading about the Montreal Homeless Choir and the affect the program had had on its members and the public since its inception in 1996, Jonathon was inspired and knew immediately what his future would hold.
“Again that’s that light bulb moment. I thought – I can do this. I knew as soon as I read it, here it is. Here’s everything, all the years that I’ve struggled with knowing how to do something for my sister, or my aunt, or for people dealing with mental health issues and all that kind of stuff and I was already doing it, but I hadn’t thought of taking and working with this demographic of people”
On his return to Australia, Jonathon established the Sydney Street Choir with a view to creating a singing community for those who are homeless or disadvantaged by providing a safe environment in which they could come together as a community with one common goal; to sing. And the fact that it’s celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2015 is indicative of the choir’s ongoing success, continuing as the first choir of its kind in Australia to offer a unique program of singing and therapeutic programs by promoting social skills and independence while also enjoying an appreciation and recognition from audiences.
So when he was approached to be involved with a similar project set within the construct of a television documentary, Jonathon was all in – and so The Choir Of Hard Knocks was born. The commercial success of the choir is very documented, as is the support and change the experience has made in the lives of those that were previously invisible to the mainstream. Unfortunately when questions arose of RecLink as to where the royalties from sales of 150,000+ CDs and countless performances were, it may have cast a shadow over the experience for Jonathon and those involved. However, inspired by the work and change he was seeing from his leadership, he continued the choir with many of the original members under the new banner of The Choir Of Hope And Inspiration. This eventually rolled it into his larger project, The School of Hard Knocks Institute, in South Melbourne that provides a broader range of educational opportunities and teaches other facets of the arts alongside singing, including creative writing, drama and instrument tuition. However with the choir now in its tenth year of operation and Jonathon’s unwavering commitment to the core values of the program and choir members, the universe is rewarding his tireless work in 2015 with yet another, more poetic resolution to the choir’s ongoing naming issue.
“The choir is about to come back in their 10th anniversary year as the Choir of Hard Knocks. Sometimes you have to sit and wait, don’t you? As much as you try and push hard, if the universe is not ready you just have to wait. And I think what I’ve learnt out of all of this is patience…and I’ve learned to trust…and to dream”
The change the choir has generated within its members and the greater community’s perception of the under-privileged is nothing short of extraordinary. Obviously the acclaim of an Aria aware, a Logie award, and a Helpmann award – all in the same year – is recognition of the commercial success of the project, but the power is in the real-world change it generates for its members. A chance for the disenfranchised to find hope and value within themselves and be provided the choice to make changes in their lives.
“A lot of the original guys have moved on to work or complete university degrees. Daniel, one of the original choir members – I still keep in touch with a lot of them – he’d been on the streets for about ten years from the age of 18 when he’d joined the choir and was really struggling with addiction issues and those sorts of things. He’s just finished his Masters in Organisational Psychology and is working in the corporate world”
With countless anecdotes boasting similar outcomes, Jonathon is now passionate about ensuring that these opportunities are accessible around Australia; to include arts and music programs within the existing welfare structure to allow anybody to take advantage of the benefits. Of course this means ensuring government involvement, but with a staunch belief of the benefit a qualified music and arts programs can provide, Jonathon is working tirelessly to see his dream realised.
“It’s becoming a reality. We have funding from the Queensland Government, particularly in the area of mental health, because they want to see people have something more in their lives than just looking forward to seeing a social worker, taking a pill, and having housing. If I look to the future, funding is the biggest challenge, but now we have a research project with the University of Queensland, so the beauty of starting projects from scratch is they can evaluate the growth and the change in the participants over 12 months. To actually be able to go to the government and substantiate the cost savings to the government and the community, and the health benefits from music and singing – we’re already seeing them…huge changes in people’s lives”
As a performer, the thirst for applause is always there – to humbly receive the acknowledgement from people who are moved by what you can create is the natural state of any performer. But it’s not through a professional agenda that Jonathon has moved to this new stage with his music, but from a personal passion in allowing others to create that feeling for themselves. It displays an incredible selflessness – particularly as a performer – to hand off the addictive experience to others and have it mean so much more when watching them reap the benefits of music that you so love and understand. To not only enthusiastically pass that along, but to passionately create vehicles for that opportunity demonstrates a benevolent understanding of the greater reaching affect that music can have. To see all of the jigsaw pieces of Jonathon’s life fit tightly together and help open the experience of music and the arts into a world where it seems to be devalued on a daily basis is refreshing, inspiring and reassuring. And given the change his vision has demonstrated to this point, it’s exciting to see what the future Jonathon Welch is able to achieve.
“That’s how I see my life now – to build this school and build the programs so that so many more people can benefit out of it, because at the end of the day, that chubby 15 year old kid – music’s what saved him. If I go full circle, I could have ended up anywhere if I didn’t find my passion and my talent, I don’t know where I would be…”
Learn more about The School Of Hard Knocks Institute at their web page and be sure to like The Choir Of Hard Knocks’ Facebook