Aroundtown Meets: Barnsley Youth Choir

Through an uplifting chorus of local children and young people, the inspirational and talented singers of Barnsley Youth Choir have become an international flagship ensemble for our town, embodying the true grit and determination that has become symbolic with Barnsley.

Earlier this year, the dynamic and diverse Latvian capital city of Riga rang out with a plethora of multicultural patriotism as the third European Choir Games came to a close. The Olympics of the choir world, thousands of accomplished competitors from across the globe arrive at a different metropolitan city each year to battle it out at Intekultur’s European or World Choir Games.

Yet in the midst of 10,000 participants from 160 choirs stretching across 39 European countries, our little old town of Barnsley sang true throughout Arena Riga as Barnsley Youth Choir became double Champions for the second time.

As God Save the Queen echoed triumphantly around the stadium in the name of Barnsley, a flurry of over 60 of our young people were joined by their musical director, Mat Wright, to take centre stage and collect their prestigious awards.

In the lead up to the screams of elation and tears of joy, Barnsley Youth Choir have collectively dedicated the past eight years to singing, starting from social community beginnings to now being ranked 22nd in the top 1,000 choirs in the world from the many thousands that compete.

But beneath their extensive repertoire, superlative pitch and authentic sound, the children and young people involved have shaped strong futures for themselves and have been given opportunities many would never have imagined possible.

Born from a background in music

Mat Wright (centre)

Instrumental to their international success, musical director, Mat, has been the heart and soul of the choir since its inception in 2009.

With a strong musical background of his own, Mat won a full music scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield aged eight and became the main chorister in the Wakefield Cathedral Choir during his childhood. After studying at Bretton Hall College, Mat went onto become a secondary school music teacher, taking his first job at the home of Kes – the former Edward Sheerien School in Athersley.

As an Advanced Skills Teacher, a title given to only the best teachers in the country, Mat became Head of Music and also worked as a local authority music advisor to over 100 local schools, providing music education training for teachers and helping expand the music curriculum in Barnsley.

Hungary for more…

In 2005, through his connections from working on big projects involving up to 500 children, Mat brought over singers from the renowned Aurin Choir, based at Hungary’s Kodaly Institute, to work with his students.

Sat in awe of these girls who formed one the world’s best choirs, this inspirational visit forged ideas to start a choir of their own and discover talent here in Barnsley.

Together with retired history teacher, Keith Norton, Mat launched a youth choir four years after the Aurin visit, holding open auditions in February 2009.

“We expected about 30 kids to turn up but there were 167 singers who came to the audition. Keith and I were sat in the room thinking how are we going to manage?

“Most of the children had had no formal training and couldn’t read music, some were from very tough backgrounds, but we always set out for it to be a community choir,” Mat says.

In the community

Breaking down barriers for singing, the choir is all-inclusive, inviting young singers with different backgrounds, singing experiences and abilities as long as they live, study or work in Barnsley and are under 24.

A not-for-profit organisation run by trustees and volunteers, they also hold the belief that money shouldn’t matter; although the choir receives no public or private funding, many of the children receive bursaries to enable them to attend rehearsals. The choir relies on the generous support of the local community and businesses to operate.

At its birth, parents were drafted in to help run things, with the choir quickly gaining speed and volunteer vocal leaders flocking in to give their time for free to help the children rehearse. Mat even drove around estates picking kids up to attend rehearsals to save parents the worry of getting them there on time.

Starting at age seven, the youth choir goes right through adolescence up to young adults in their early 20s. However, combining the two age spectrums proved difficult and so Mat branched into two choirs soon after to provide both a children’s and senior choir.

Today, there are three youth choirs making up a total of around 300 singers who all perform at an exceptionally high level; an Intermediate group aged 10-16 was recently formed to bridge the gap between the big step up from the children’s choir to the senior squad.

Due to the demand, Mat has also launched an adult’s choir called Barnsley Singers with 150 people regularly rehearsing including some former youth singers who wanted to carry on singing.

Time to fine tune

Starting with a raw and basic sound, Mat had the challenge of fine tuning the choir, working with a ten-piece professional band to improve their tone and melodies.

Inspired by the Kodaly Institute, Mat uses the Kodaly method developed by Zoltan Kodaly to introduce children to difficult music concepts. Through movement, games, exercises and hand signs, the child-development approach reinforces everything from rhythm to key notes in the easiest possible way to make learning to read music a joy rather than torture.

Mat and his team of assistant directors create new arrangements on well-known songs for the choir to perform; their repertoire includes songs from every genre from pop and rock, to gospel and classical, and even reggae and world music.

They also perform relaxed and upbeat songs in Glee-club or Barber Shop styles, working with harmonies and a capella soloists.

One song alone takes 25 hours to arrange the vocal parts and another ten hours to arrange the band music – that’s before rehearsal time with the choir and the band.

Let’s take to the stage

However, the hard work quickly paid off; after just a few short months as a group, BYC performed their first two-night, sell-out concert that summer in the great acoustics of Emmanuel Methodist Church on Huddersfield Road- a place where both folk singer Kate Rusby and the famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band had performed before.

Invitations started to land on the mat, with the choir asked to perform at venues such as London’s Olympic Stadium and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

After just four years as a choir, Mat unwittingly entered BYC into the World Choir Games one evening in 2013 while researching the choir Olympics; the biggest singing competition in the world.

“I’d always been worried about competitions as there’s a notion of success and failure which can be unpalatable. But I’d become fascinated in this so-called choir Olympics and only put my details in for them to send me more information.

“I woke up to an email saying ‘thank you for entering the World Choir Games.’”

On the road to Riga

Planning to take 40 members of the choir, the countdown was on to raise £50,000 needed to travel to Riga in Latvia where the eighth world games would be held the following summer. Local MP Dan Jarvis MBE and other significant local people got behind the campaign and the choir managed to raise the money.

They also had to tailor their song choices to the two categories they would be entering: Popular Choral Music and Gospel in The Open Competition for amateur choirs.

With 30 new songs to learn, the choir even tested their abilities to pick up foreign languages through singing, learning difficult variations in Latin, Greek and even Mandarin.

At the event, 27,000 singers made up 460 choirs from around 73 countries across the world, many of whom trained daily in the run up to the competition. BYC were given the chance to be coached by global music stars and perform in front of a crowd of 22,000 people.

“I told the choir, even if we finished bottom of our categories, it wouldn’t matter. The opportunity alone was mega for them all.”

The choir went on to achieve two Gold Diplomas, winning the Popular Choral Music category and coming second in Gospel.

Subsequently, BYC were invited to the European Choir Games in Magdeburg, Germany the following year.

“We’d proven ourselves at World level and had now moved up into the Champions Competition which is like the Champions League in singing. We’d be up against outstanding adult and university choirs so would we be up for the job?”

We are the champions

To go to Germany, Mat was planning on taking a bigger choir of 60 children and so the heat was on to raise £80,000 to get there. Through sponsored 13-hour, non-stop Sing-a-thons and other community events, the choir managed to raise the money and headed off to the European stage.

The choir entered two categories, Jazz & Pop and Gospel & Spiritual, both of which they won outright. Due to their success, they were automatically put through to the Grand Prix of Nations against some of the best choirs in the world including American, Chinese and European choirs.

During the competition, a panel of jurors assess each choir on strict criteria which includes tuning, intonation and authenticity. Each choir is awarded points based on these, with 60 points gaining a bronze medal, 70 for silver and 80 for gold.

“There was an American college choir in our category, Singcopation from Mt San Antonio in California, who received 95 points which was an incredibly high score and it was clear that they would win the competition. Our choir went on to win the category with a score of 96.5.”

After this victorious feat, BYC went up in the world rankings from 450th to 44th in their category. Today, they sit fourth in the Pop, Jazz, Gospel, Spiritual & Barbershop Choirs.

Rising through the ranks

Their reputation as a force to be reckoned with rocketed, with Mat being asked to become an international juror and give workshops to other choirs from China to Russia. Other well-known musical directors also made visits to Barnsley to work with the choir, such as Grammy award-winning tenor, Paul Phoenix.

The choir also worked with Simon Humphrey, former CBS music engineer responsible for The Clash’s early recordings, to produce a charity Christmas single, raising £10,000 through sales which they donated to Barnsley Hospice.

Performances were now further afield, with venues encompassing everything from Stockholm Cathedral to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“Our name was on the Fringe advert which was surreal. There was 50,000 things to see, who’d come and see little old us? But we were regularly pulling audiences of about 30 most performances, which wasn’t bad when the average is about seven people.

“By the end of the week, we were performing to over 200 people, some who’d driven back just to see us again.”

Another recording session ensued with the release of their debut 12-track album, When You Believe, which was recorded in a church and sold worldwide on iTunes.

Back to Riga

After a year away from the games, this summer saw the choir return to Riga to compete at the Euros with the pressure mounting to keep their reign over Europe.

“People obviously expected us to do well but many didn’t realise we were up against choirs who meet twice a day, six times a week, whereas we just meet for an hour and half every Thursday to rehearse.”

Also, the majority of the musical directors are full-time conductors, whereas Mat gives his time for free while holding down his ‘proper job’ as Vice-Principal of Horizon Community College, ensuring that around 2,000 students are fully engaged and are safe, with raising three small children.

“Most of the MDs questioned why I didn’t just concentrate on my best 60 singers and just solely practice with them for competitions. But we don’t do things like that at BYC. I want to work equally with each singer to make sure they fully flourish and improve with us.

“We have over 300 children involved. Sadly, whilst they all have wonderful opportunities, we can’t take all of them to international competition. Every child has to audition for a place on the team beforehand which is tough saying no to them when they’ve worked so hard.”

Up against choirs who take the competition deadly serious, the intense level means singers must train like athletes, monitoring food, water, vitamin and sleep levels before performances – if they haven’t had enough, they simply don’t perform.

The choir won both their categories again, gaining high scores in the 90s. Again, BYC were automatically put through to the Grand Prix of Nations for two categories, where they surpassed the UK’s highest ranked choir, Cantamus, by ten points in the Jazz, Pop and Show category.

A second family

While competing in Riga, the choir were also asked to perform with Kate Rusby at Underneath the Stars Festival where some of the younger members sang in front of 2,000 people.

The children’s choir is led by Mat’s wife, Eleanor, a fellow AST teacher, accomplished violinist and former member of the National Children’s Orchestra.

With three young children, daughters Ruby and Maisy are both choir members with their births having been somewhat of a prophecy into them joining the family of singers.

“My wife went into labour with Ruby on a Thursday which is rehearsal night so made life difficult. I went to practice and told her to text me if anything happened. With Maisy, Eleanor went into labour while I was on the way to a sell-out concert with people coming as far as from Spain to watch us.

“Luckily, I managed to change the order of performance round to put the more difficult songs at the beginning and ran out the doors in the interval, arriving at hospital just as Maisie was born.”

Younger brother George came with no drama but unfortunately has no choice but to come along to rehearsals, too.

Children’s Choir and Eleanor

With long days at work followed by rehearsals and planning at home, choir life can be challenging for the Wrights, especially when Mat has been asked to fly off to Spain, France, Russia and South Africa to deliver workshops and adjudicate competitions.

“I have a very understanding wife who just so happens to be a great mum and tells me to crack on with it. But it’s not just about me, I take joy from others doing well and hope that what we achieve together and the connections we make will give these kids a better chance and outlook on life.”

Along with expert singing training, Mat has also been surprised to see that their joint experiences have helped shape the choir in an unexpected way.

“We started it to give these kids something to do on an evening, but they’ve all become really respectful, ambitious, disciplined and focused too. They all get on like a big second family and are all so supportive of each other’s individual successes. We’ve even had numerous young people gaining places at top Universities such as Oxbridge.”

Recognition they deserve

As international success has prevailed so too has the list of events scheduled in the choir’s diary. While preparing for the 2018 World Choir Games in South Africa, the choir have also been asked to perform at an awards ceremony closer to home at Blenheim Palace, following in the voice boxes of Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift.

But with over 450 members in both the youth choir and Barnsley Singers, the struggle to find a venue to house them all on stage is real. Concert days now consist of three performances and start at 6am with a midnight bedtime to ensure it all works together in harmony.

In June, the choir as a whole received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, recognising the hard work each of the 45 volunteers dedicates to the choir during their structured roles and responsibilities.

“Most of all, we’re really proud to be putting Barnsley on the map. How wonderful it is for people from all over the world repeatedly asking us where Barnsley is and if they can come to visit us.”


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