No stopping for the Choir of Hard Knocks as it turns 10

Members of the 'Choir of Hard Knocks' having fun through song Source: SBS

The Choir of Hard Knocks is turning 10 and it is still using the power of music to try and inspire people who have fallen on hard times.

Formed in 2006 by Dr Jonathon Welch, the Choir of Hard Knocks is made up of people who have suffered through issues such as homelessness and addiction.

The choir, which currently has 40 members, has just begun its 10th anniversary 'Hope and Inspiration' tour.

On the road, the choir has been performing original songs and ballads made famous by several well-known artists, such as Mark Holden and Bruce Woodley.

A feeling of being valued

Out of the 47 original members that started in 2006, Dr Welch - who has been at the helm since it started - said only 15 have remained.

He said the choir helps members turn their lives around.

"It's fantastic for our members and it's great to see people getting so much joy from music," he said.

"One of our original members just finished his masters in organisational psychology, having been struggling with homelessness and addiction issues for a decade.

"The choir gives people confidence. That's what I see time and time again. It helps build people's self-esteem to be able to move onto other things in their lives."

Dr Welch said the close-knit choir leads to members feeling valued.

"People feel sidelined when they have special needs, because of their health circumstances," he said.

"Singing makes them feel valued.

"One of the biggest ills we have today in our society is loneliness and isolation, and I see choirs enforcing the sense of community and belonging."

The choir recently put on an impromptu performance at Melbourne Airport to mark its 10th birthday.


How it all began

Seeing family members suffer with various mental conditions was the catalyst for Dr Welch's interest in helping disadvantaged people.

"It was very close to me," he said.

"I always felt very helpless about knowing what to do to help. I thought here's something I can do using music."

After hearing about the Montreal Homeless Mens' Choir, he decided to form the Sydney Street Choir for homeless people in 2001.

In 2005, he was approached by Fremantle Media and the ABC with the idea to form a 'Choir of Hard Knocks'.

The choir rose to prominence as the subject of a five-part ABC documentary television series broadcast in 2007.

The program won a Logie Award, for Most Outstanding Factual Documentary TV Series in 2007, and the soundtrack took out the Best TV Soundtrack award at the ARIAS.

"I never thought after 10 years that I'd still be here and the members would still be here," he said.

"The 'Choir of Hard Knocks' documentary had an amazing impact 10 years ago, when people were struggling to talk about issues around mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and homelessness.

"The music did shine a very bright light on the issues that we were trying to talk about... but they were talked about better when we were singing about it."

Dozens of street choirs have since formed around the world, including the 'Dallas Street Choir' and 'Singers of the Street' in the US.

The future

Despite reaching 10 years, Dr Welch is hoping to build a fund to keep the choir running well into the future.

"I can't put a full stop on this... they might have to carry me out in a box," he said.

"My plan is to build a fund for the choir so they can continue singing forever."

His ultimate goal was to affect government policy, by having arts and cultural programs incorporated in national programs for society's disadvantaged.

Information about the Hope and Inspiration tour can be found here.


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