Film and Book Reviews

Music expands horizons for outback kids in Wide Open Sky


By Emma Halgren

Khynan from Lightning Ridge, one of 130 students from remote New South Wales chosen for a children’s choir.

May 23 2016This is a film to set your spirits soaring into an upper register. Each year, Sydney conductor and music teacher Michelle Leonard drives some 4,000 kilometres around outback New South Wales recruiting children for the Moorambilla Voices choir, which performs new works by young composers at a festival in Coonamble each September.

Wide Open Sky follows Leonard as she auditions children in more than 50 primary schools, then leads them through a three-day intensive workshop in Baradine where they learn their songs, along with some of the basic musical concepts and skills that many of them have never been exposed to. The children aren’t given an easy ride – the repertoire is demanding and Michelle sets high standards, but she is gifted at warmly and firmly encouraging the young singers.

Leonard herself grew up in north western New South Wales, and her passion for the region and its people bursts through every scene she is in. So too does her passion for music – indeed, she is a crusader for music in schools and a believer in its power to enrich children’s lives and instil confidence. This is one of the poorest parts of New South Wales. Around 85 per cent of the children need to access financial help in order to be part of the choir, and part of Leonard’s work is finding the money to support them.

One of the greatest joys of this film is getting to know some of the children. Sensitive, artistic Mack from Lightning Ridge wants to become a dancer. His parents state pretty matter of factly that they could tell early on in his life that he wasn’t going to be a rugby star, but you get a strong sense of how much it costs him to have to keep his artistic spirit to himself in a sport-mad town.

There’s Khynan, a cheerful, ambitious Kamilaroi boy who says, “I didn’t even know what F sharp was until I came here”, and earnest, bright-eyed Taylah from Brewarinna who dreams of being a country singer. You see powerfully how much it means to them simply to be needed and believed in, to be part of something big and to be vital to its success.

This is a delightful and uplifting documentary but it also makes some important points about rural disadvantage, the sorry state of funding for music education in many schools, and how easily talent, hope and drive can be quashed when there aren’t enough opportunities for them to be nurtured.

It is also a rare opportunity to hear the voices of children from a remote part of Australia and to see how music can break open their worlds.