Sidwell Mhlongo – going for number 5!
23 November 2015
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live and another one of the conductors who will be performing live with their choir at the finals of the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, Sidwell Mhlongo, Sidwell, welcome.
Sidwell Mhlongo: Thank you.
BB: It’s nice to catch up. We were joking before we started recording, we’ve actually worked together for a couple of years and we’ve never actually met.
SM: Ja, that’s how the world of broadcasting is, because we work different shifts.
BB: It’s actually very strange and I know you’re a massive fan of choral music, you do lots of it on SAfm for the SABC, I didn’t actually realise that you conduct as well, so you learn something new about your colleagues every day.
SM: Actually conducting is the thing that actually made me to be at the SABC.
BB: That’s so funny. Let’s delve back into your history and where your love for choral music began, where did it start for you?
A musical upbringing starts with your family
SM: Well, I come from a very musical family. My grandmother used to conduct a church choir. My maternal grandmother used to be a soloist, so both my grandmothers, they were in choral music. I was predisposed to love choral music because there was a lot of singing in the house and I eventually was a conductor as well.
BB: What drove that decision to become a conductor or to want to become a conductor? It’s one thing singing in the choir and being part of a group, but as the conductor, everything rides on you. What drove that decision for you?
SM: Well, I did not initially want to be a conductor because I’m very shy, but because I was so good with reading music and I corrected everybody else, I was asked to actually demonstrate what I was correcting in front of the choir and since then, I naturally became a conductor.
BB: Sidwell, this competition, the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, it’s been around for a long time, I think it’s the 38th year this year, it’s become an institution in the South African choral music fraternity. What in your mind makes this competition so special?
A real history behind this competition
SM: I think the history. People like to relate to history. A lot of the choirs that have been good in the country have gone through the National Choir Festival competitions. So all the new choirs that come up, they want to walk in the path of those great choirs and the great conductors. It makes participating in the competition special by its own, it’s the branding, Old Mutual is a great brand.
People want to associate with that as well and the innovations that they put in, they bring into the competition as well, they were the ones, the first ones that introduced the orchestra in the competition. People loved that and they were the first ones to introduce opera as part of the prescription. So people love that. That’s why people enjoy being here.
BB: For you, how proud does it make you feel to perform on that stage with the history of this competition? If you think about some of the big names in South Africa, they’ve been on that stage. For you personally, how does it make you feel knowing that you’re here?
SM: It’s like writing history. I’ve been with the competition for years. I started off in 2000, this is my 15th year and each time I get on that stage, it feels new because you write a new chapter of history.
Big ambitions like all the choirs
BB: What are you hoping to achieve in 2015 with your choir?
SM: Well, obviously with every choir, every choir wants to win the National Championship, so I want to win it for the 4th time.
BB: No pressure.
SM: Oh well, there’s a lot of pressure. The question in itself made me sweat, but I do want to win it. It’s always such an honour to win it.
BB: Gauteng, it’s obviously from a population perspective the biggest province in South Africa from a choir perspective, we’ve got some great choirs in Gauteng. What do you think it is, in my feeling, is Gauteng leading the way, why do you think it is, why is that the case?
SM: I think it’s the level of competition, we are very competitive in Gauteng, we all want to be champions. So all three choirs, there will be three choirs in our category coming from Gauteng and all the choirs want to win it. We want to hold, everybody wants to hold the honour of the province.
BB: Let’s talk about the three choirs from Gauteng. People are asking and wondering, how did you guys organise the draw, if you looking at the running order of the final, that it’s the Gauteng choirs that are closing the show?
Big draw, but does it make a difference?
SM: I think it’s just by chance. It’s good that we’re closing because we have a change of looking at the competitors and seeing what their strengths are and who knows, maybe one would change one or two things before you go on stage, depending.
BB: Does that really make a difference?
SM: It does.
BB: Be honest with me, if you were drawn first and you were the first performance, it gives you the opportunity; I know a lot of the conductors don’t want to go first, but it gives you the opportunity to set the bar and if you come out guns blazing and set that bar really high, it puts pressure on the other choirs.
SM: If you open, you’ve got to be really good, but then if the competition gets tougher, you don’t want to go first. You want to assess and see what are the strengths of your competitors and then you can adjust one or two things that are adjustable in your performance, so it makes it better to perform last.
BB: Talking about raising the bar, three times champion, how do you keep coming back and making sure that you improve, because you don’t want to keep doing this thing to keep doing it, you want to get better every single year. Does that come with its own set of challenges, trying to raise that bar for you personally, not worrying about the other competition?
SM: Ja, you are always judged against your own history, you know? When you are ascending the stage and you don’t perform as well as you did when you won the competition, even if you could have been the better devil on the day. But because you have kind of dropped from what you did, then people say, but it’s not as good.
So it’s hard, it’s always hard to try and match your previous best, it makes it so hard, but one has to do it. It’s better to be judged against your own strengths because you know what your strengths are and you can always improve on those. Actually, I’ve won it four times, so I’m going for the fifth time, I had forgotten!
BB: Talk about those strengths, tell me about the choir itself and where you believe your strength lies?
Playing to your strengths
SM: Okay, when I take my choir through rehearsals, I make sure that the small things are taken care of. There’s a lot of detail in the score that we neglect as conductors. So I go back and try and fix those little things that are in the music score and once you’ve fixed those things, the bigger things take shape by themselves because you don’t have to worry about those small little details.
They are taken care of and then the music takes shape and the only thing that you need to do as a conductor is to kind of give an overall interpretation of the performance. But if you don’t take care of the small details, you find that if you want to do the overall interpretation, things don’t come together as well because there are some loose nuts that were not tightened earlier on. So that’s our strength.
In our rehearsals, we stop and we take care of those small details and that some people might think, but you’re wasting time, why are you spending so much time with those, but eventually, then it pays off, really. Also, the fact that some of my students have gone through musical training, some of my choristers, they’ve been to music schools, so they help the ones that have not been to kind of catch up quickly, it gives us an edge.
BB: Where do you think the biggest competition is going to come from in 2015?
SM: It always comes from Gauteng, with three choirs coming from Gauteng, the defending champion is from Gauteng. The choir that is on top in the league is from Gauteng, so it always comes from there. KZN also brings good competition. Eastern Cape, we’ve got a veteran coming in who has won the competition six times, so one can never know where it’s going to go. But the toughest competition that I foresee, the fiercest, is going to come from Gauteng.
BB: Sidwell, what have been some of the challenges that you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are personally in your journey today?
Developing yourself helps develop your choir
SM: Well, when you develop to become a conductor, it takes years and years and years. So, my biggest thing was that I’ve worked. I’ve been to the state theatre, at the opera chorus there and I’ve watched great conductors from all over the world coming through to conduct operas in which I was involved and I learnt a lot from them.
Also, having come from a family that had conductors, I learnt so many things without knowing that I was learning about them. It’s only when I start working with the choir that I realise, no, but I remember my grandmother used to say this, this and that.
So I think it made my journey a little bit easier, than it would have been, otherwise it’s quite tough out there, especially if you are to produce the type of quality that the followers and the fans are expecting from a great choir, it becomes tricky.
The other thing as well that I do, I take conducting lessons, I’m a student of Robert Maxym who is a great conductor, who has conducted in Europe many times. Each time when I have to deal with some difficult things, I consult him and he takes me through those things. Those I could imagine it would be tough for somebody who does not have that kind of resource, to fall back on.
But as a conductor you have to find people that can help you along the way, it makes it easier. You don’t want to learn things that people had learnt 30 years ago. You don’t have to learn them, they can tell you what not to do, what to avoid and what to do, so you short circuit the learning process by consulting with other people.
BB: I think that’s amazing advice and that applies to any aspect of life, that if you’re trying to do something, why try and figure it out yourself, find someone who has done it and follow in their footsteps. Sidwell, good luck for the final run in to this competition, I know there’s lots of work still going on behind the scenes, safe travels to Mangaung, we’ll see you at those finals and best of luck.
SM: Thank you.
BB: We’re looking forward to seeing the choir perform.
SM: Thanks, nice chatting to you as well.