Lancashire Life - - Promotion - WORDS: Jo Bishop PHO­TO­GRAPHS: John Cocks

Lan­cashire’s an­swer to Gareth Malone is help­ing

choirs across the county hit the right notes

At a re­cent cel­e­bra­tion to mark his 20th an­niver­sary with Black­burn Peo­ple’s Choir, mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Jeff Bor­radaile had a catch in his voice as he thanked the singers who at­tended. He was, he told his cap­tive au­di­ence, so lucky to be do­ing a job he loved.

With seven choirs un­der his di­rec­tion around the North West, as well as on­go­ing projects such as the schools mu­si­cal out­reach pro­gramme Sing To­gether in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Black­burn Cathe­dral, squeez­ing ev­ery­thing into his diary is a chal­lenge.

Even week­ends can be over­taken by his choirs, with com­pe­ti­tions or trips abroad. In spring his ladies a capella choir Deci­belles, also based in Black­burn and a rel­a­tive newcomer at just over two years old, took first place in its class at the Hazel Grove Mu­sic Fes­ti­val for the sec­ond year run­ning.

The fol­low­ing day he at­tended the Manch­ester Am­a­teur Choral com­pe­ti­tion with Gath­ered Voices, whose 86 mem­bers come from his Pre­ston and More­cambe choirs.

While win­ning is great, the jour­ney – both for Jeff and his choirs – is even bet­ter. ‘For me, it starts with reper­toire,’ he says. ‘That’s the thing that en­thuses peo­ple and keeps them com­ing back year af­ter year; some­thing that chal­lenges them and sets them apart from other choirs.

‘Find­ing new mu­sic has be­come a real pas­sion for me. I’m quite sin­gle-minded about it and proud of the mu­sic we’ve sung over the

past 10 years. We sing what we think will wow au­di­ences as well as what is chal­leng­ing vo­cally and tech­ni­cally. All my choirs are non-au­di­tion and yet we sing against top choirs who fo­cus on just six or eight songs.’

On av­er­age Jeff’s choirs per­form about 45 con­certs each year as well as trav­el­ling in the UK and abroad to take part in fes­ti­vals and con­tests; the Isle of Man, The Hague and Krakov are on the cal­en­dar in the com­ing months.

But lead­ing choirs full time was never Jeff’s plan. At 19 he took a job as a singer with an all-fe­male dance troupe and spent 18 months tour­ing with them in Ja­pan and Hong Kong.

‘It was mag­nif­i­cent,’ he says, with a char­ac­ter­is­tic twin­kle in his eye. He went on to take a mu­sic de­gree in Manch­ester, trained as a pri­mary school teacher and was on the road to a lifetime in front of the white­board when he had the op­por­tu­nity to help with the school choir.

“We sing what we think will wow au­di­ences as well as what is chal­leng­ing vo­cally and tech­ni­cally’’

‘Be­fore you knew it we had a choir of 130 chil­dren from very di­verse back­grounds and we did lots of con­certs,’ he says. The tim­ing was just right, so when news came that the Manch­ester Commonweal­th Games or­gan­is­ers were look­ing for a choir … well, the rest is his­tory.

‘We spent a fan­tas­tic three months with those chil­dren cel­e­brat­ing the Games, in­clud­ing tak­ing part in the open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies,’ he says.

‘It con­firmed my feel­ing that I wanted to pur­sue this fur­ther and my school agreed to pay me to come in and run the choir. That started me off and I soon had 15 schools signed up. That’s where I learned my craft.’

By this time Jeff, who sang in church as a child, had also joined Manch­ester Com­mu­nity Choir and started at­tend­ing work­shops to hone his skills. When one of the lead­ers of a work­shop he at­tended fell ill at the 11th hour he stepped into the breach and proved his cre­den­tials, re­sult­ing in the or­gan­is­ers invit­ing him to lead a choir to mark the open­ing of the Lowry in Sal­ford. It was there he met a small group of singers who were on the look-out for a mu­si­cal di­rec­tor of their own to lead Black­burn Peo­ple’s Choir.

‘That was 20 years ago and there were only 10 or 12 of them at the time,’ he ex­plains. ‘But it’s just grown and grown.’

Now, as well as this large mixed choir, Jeff, who lives in Bolton, leads the fe­male-only Deci­belles and male-only Mael­strom, the lat­ter with only 16 mem­bers; Vo­calise youth choir; Ord­sall Acapella Singers and the two groups that come to­gether as Gath­ered Voices. All sing with­out ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

‘I love the chal­lenge of a capella,’ says Jeff. ‘The singers have to be tech­ni­cally spot-on, stay in tune and know the mu­sic in­side out; you can’t sing with a copy in front of you.’

In con­trast to this pure sound, he likes noth­ing bet­ter in his spare time than lis­ten­ing to what he de­scribes as ‘ravey’ dance mu­sic.

Jeff’s other pas­sion is com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which he de­scribes as be­ing like a tri­an­gle, with the choir at the top, him at one corner and the au­di­ence at the other. ‘Mu­sic is about telling sto­ries and so get­ting across that pas­sion and love for the mu­sic is very im­por­tant.

‘It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s not per­fect; if they’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the au­di­ence that’s ev­ery­thing to me.’

His en­thu­si­asm and com­mit­ment are ap­par­ent – to his choirs and their au­di­ences

– a lit­tle like a cer­tain TV choir­mas­ter. Does he ever get com­pared to Gareth Malone? Jeff laughs.

‘Yes, all the time, but that’s fine. He shouts out from the hill­tops about singing, and that’s helped a lot of peo­ple get through the front door, which is one of the hardest things to do.’

While Jeff shows no signs of mov­ing on, his aim is to en­sure all his choirs have longevity. ‘If they’re all at the top of their game they’ll al­ways have top di­rec­tors clam­our­ing at their door to take them on.’

Jeff Bor­row­daile with Deci­belles choir sec­re­tary Ann Parker

ABOVE: In per­fect tune, Deci­belles choir is an all fe­male group BE­LOW: Jeff has guided many choirs to suc­cess

ABOVE: The Deci­belles in re­hearsal in Black­burn

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