A passion for conducting from a young age
01 January 1970
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Welcome to the first edition of the Old Mutual choir podcast. My name is Aphiwe Honono and throughout the weeks I will be bringing you podcasts of some of South Africa’s choirs and conductors. Not only South Africa, but the entire SADC region. Today I am joined by the SAFM DJ and choir conductor, Mr Sidwell Mhlongo.
Sidwell, you started conducting at the age of 16, while most children are still trying to figure out a way to pass matric. Tell me, what was this passion that had to be freed so much in you?
SM: Well, I don’t understand why I had this drive to do this. But I remember I had it when I was in primary school. I used to look at my conductor, watch her and when I got home I used to emulate what she did when she was conducting the choir. So it’s something that was born in me. Obviously I come from a family which had conductors. My grandmother was a conductor and then my maternal grandmother was also a signer and my paternal grandmother was also a singer. I suppose with all the singing that was happening in the house, I was predisposed to love choral music.
So when I got to high school, I loved the choir. I was not in the choir until I was in matric, when I was 16. You know after school we would remain behind and do some mathematics. Practice mathematics and the choir would be rehearsing in the hall. So I would hear them rehearsing and this one day when I was in matric, one of the guys that we used to practice maths with said to the conductor of the choir; there’s a guy who actually sings whilst you are rehearsing, but he’s not singing in the choir. Then she came and fetched me to the choir and that was the beginning of things.
Once involved I was hooked
From then onwards I was asked to be the assistant conductor, within two weeks of joining the choir, because I was correcting things so much. She asked me to come in front of the choir and explain what I was talking about. From then on I became the assistant and after matric we changed the choir from being a school choir to naming it Kagiso Youth Choir and I became the assistant conductor and eventually the conductor. I can’t explain to you how it happened, but I think the circumstances all pointed towards me being a conductor.
AN: Kagiso Choir must be a distant memory for you right now because after that, straight after that you joined the State Theatre Opera Chorus. Tell us about that journey, so you moved from the Kagiso Choir and here you are now at the State Theatre. This is bigger, maybe 10 times bigger than the Kagiso Choir you left behind. What did this journey mean to you?
Making the big time is awe-inspiring
SM: That explains the kind of passion that I had in music. I stayed in Kagiso and there was this opera house in Pretoria, one of my friends used to go there. He was also from Kagiso, so when he came back to Kagiso we talked a lot about this opera choir that he sings for. My interest was awoken from then onwards and then I decided that no, you know what, I think I like to be part of this opera choir. Although I didn’t know what opera was all about, but I decided that I’m going to travel from Johannesburg to Pretoria every evening.
I used to work during the day, I held a full-time job. So after I would knock off I would travel to Pretoria, the rehearsals started at 7:00 in the evening until 10:00 at night. I would travel to Pretoria, go to rehearsals and then go to Kagiso. I would sometimes stay with my friend in Pretoria, sleep over so that the following morning I can come back to Jo’burg to go to work. So that became my kind of life then, very strenuous, but I enjoyed it. But more than enjoying, I was learning a lot because it was a professional setting. They would get conductors from overseas to come and conduct the productions that we were taking part in and I would learn a lot from those conductors. Also from other musicians that were hired to come and be soloists from all over the world in Pretoria. So that was a journey that marked my career as a conductor because that’s when I started working with professionals and understanding the genre for what it is.
AN: That is exactly where I was going, when you started understanding and you started working with professionals, that was where we see in the year 2000. You were selected to conduct the Gauteng Choristers which you led to win the National Choir Festival. To be the National Choir Festival winners in 2001, 2006 and 2009, how did that feel for you?
Three times a treat at the National Choir Festival
SM: You know, that step that I took from being a chorus member in an opera company to becoming a conductor was a challenging one to become a conductor of a big choir like Gauteng Choristers. It was very challenging, but also rewarding. Look, they had been recruiting me for two years, since when they started the choir in 1998. I was only available to become the conductor in 2000 and from then on I told myself, let me start a new life of being a conductor. I stopped singing at the State Theatre and I concentrated on being a conductor because I wanted to take on new challenges and try to emulate what the State Theatre was doing in terms of the way they run the opera chorus professionally.
So I tried to do those things in Gauteng Choristers and instilled that kind of discipline that professional musicians have and that has been the journey with Gauteng Choristers. Us winning the National Choir Festival competitions was a bonus in the whole journey that we are undertaking. The pinnacle of that was when we won the Champ of Champs in 2012, which is the highest honour in the National Choir Festival competitions. But as I say, that is only part of the journey, the bigger picture being to turn Gauteng Choristers to be a professionally run choir.
AN: Just as a final question, what advice do you have for young musicians who are interested in getting into the world of choirs and composing and conducting. What would you say the first step would be for any young musician that’s passionate about choral music?
Where to start if it’s also your passion
SM: Everything in life succeeds because people work hard at it. So if you have the passion to become a conductor, you’ve got to also have a work ethic that will go with that chosen path that you are wanting to follow, whether conductor or professional singer. To the young people I would say that yes, passion is important, but it is now the work that goes behind it. As a young conductor you’ve got to learn from the older ones.
You’ve got to read a lot, you’ve got to watch the professional conductors do it. You’ve got to ask the questions, the right questions. You’ve got to go and find help. All those things, they will come together over time and they will make sure that you are matured and you ripen with time to become a conductor. Even if you want to become a singer, the only miracle there is, is hard work, really, nothing comes without hard work.
AN:Thank you so much for joining us Sidwell and we will be in touch with you very soon because we are approaching the National Choir Festival, and we want to find out from you what your expectations for this year are.
SM: Thank you for the opportunity.