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Andrew Raiskums: A living vessel of music

Andrew Raiskums Gloriana Chamber Choir

Founder, director & conductor of Gloriana chamber choir

“Melbourne has so much variety at all kinds of junctures in music. There are the barbershop quartets, the college choirs, the big choirs and everything in between. It’s extraordinary. And it’s inexhaustible.”

It's late in the day. Our shoot with Andrew Raiskums outside St. Paul’s Cathedral wraps up just the shadows begin to soften. By then it's almost impossible to find a casual venue that's quiet enough for an interview.

After mulling over a few options, Andrew suggests we head to the Australian Music Examinations Board, the home of his day job as an examiner for the past eight years.

We walk up Flinder’s Lane and pass a group of young people heralding the long Labour Day weekend in high spirits and with raucous laughter. As their voices trail off behind us, Andrew quips, “Welcome to Friday night in Melbourne!”

Little does he know that he too will soon be swept up in the same exuberance once we broach the subject of his love affair with music and conducting.

Andrew is the founder, director and conductor of Gloriana, one of Melbourne’s finest chamber choirs. Mainly an a cappella choir, it is also known to collaborate with instrumental ensembles, chamber orchestras and some of the best musicians in Australia.

“Gloriana sits outside what a lot of other choirs are doing,” Andrew says. “There are certainly points of intersection but there aren’t any choirs doing exactly the music we do.”

“Our concerts are usually mixtures of the familiar and the unknown. When we started out we sang early music from the Renaissance or earlier.”

As the choir grew over the last 23 years, Andrew gradually introduced more contemporary music. Gloriana, he proudly says, has now sung right across the music history timeline from the 12th century to current times.

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Walk us through a brief history of Gloriana.

I’d been singing in choirs for five years when I began getting big ideas on what I wanted and could do with music, and I decided it was time to step in front of a choir instead. So I brought together 16 choristers and we began rehearsals in my parents’ lounge room.

One of the choristers soon heard of a space in Brunswick so we moved our rehearsals there. Then we moved to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Middle Park, which has spectacular acoustic. After three years, we went to St. Mark’s in Fitzroy where we still rehearse every Monday. Now we’ve made Sacred Heart in Carlton our concert home.

The choir has since grown to 30 people but I add up to 10 more when we perform big pieces, like Spem in alium, which we’re doing in June.

How did Gloriana get its name?

It’s the hardest thing in the world to come up with a name that hasn’t been used before! Because we were singing a lot of early music then, one of the sopranos suggested Gloriana after Queen Gloriana, a character in Edward Spencer’s The Fairy Queen.

It was emblematic of our music and reflected the spirit in which we came together. And it stuck. There have been times over the years when I’ve wondered if it was the right name for us but there’s no going back now. We could never change it.

When and how did your personal relationship with music begin?

When I was three, I would put on my father’s classical records and start dancing. That opened a whole new world for me. In school, I learnt to play the guitar, recorder, clarinet and piano. But I was also very good at sciences and thought studying science at university was a sensible decision.

In less than a year, I realised I’d made the wrong choice. But I stuck it out to finish my degree and then auditioned to pursue a Bachelor of Music at Melbourne Uni. That was when I started singing in choirs and was told I had perfect pitch. I had no idea!

During my second year at uni, I had an epiphany. I was a serious piano student and would spend hours practising. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t like spending six hours a day alone in a room.

I wanted to be around people. I wanted a more social way of making music and of course, choirs are the perfect way to do that. So I took vocal and conducting lessons, and this is where it led me.

Most people with a perfect pitch would pursue a solo career. What joy do you find in singing with others?

When you sing in choirs, you sing harmonies and counterpoint. For someone with a musical brain, this is fascinating because you can hear how the harmonies layer up and where you need to tune up or back off.

It calls in all of your training, not just as a singer, but also as a musician. Singing, especially big pieces, with other people requires just as much of your brain as it does of your vocal chords. And I love it.

What keeps that love alive after 23 years?

I’m a perfectionist but this journey is still full of wonder for me. Every rehearsal has its magical, spontaneous moments. No matter how many times you perform a piece, it never gets stale. It's always fresh in my mind. I'm so blessed that there’s always magic to be made.

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Would you call Melbourne a musical city?

Oh very much so! Even more so than Sydney. And our Melbourne audience is very switched on to choral music. In the early days, we used to sing in office foyers at 101 and 333 Collins Street. It was a wonderful experience and we had huge audiences. People loved to listen to us. And of course, the acoustics were great!

Do you still get nervous before a concert?

If I do, it’s usually about an hour before the concert starts. All sorts of things can go wrong. Singers can have a cold or bad hay fever or an allergic reaction to perfumes. Until you’ve got everybody there and ready, there’s a bit of tension in the lead up. But once I get up on the podium, I’m not nervous anymore. But because I put out so much energy during a concert, I always need a stiff drink or two afterwards!

How does one learn to be a conductor?

I have a controversial theory about this - you either can or can’t do it. It’s not like learning scales on a piano.

So how did you know you could?

It comes from a deep-seated need to express myself. So it doesn’t feel like I’m conducting. It feels like I’m shaping the music. It's very natural and instinctive.

But surely there's also value in technical skills. Where does that fit in?

Conductors who only master the technicalities and precision sometimes don’t give out joy or any deeper spiritual vibe. They’re just bandmasters who know all the pulses.

A good conductor makes you feel like the music is travelling through them. Their whole body is involved in communicating and expressing that music.

Good conducting takes years of work and self-reflection. It’s not about standing in front of a group of singers or musicians and telling them what to do. We’re all working together.

What about body language?

So important. You have to make sure your frame is open and you make lots of eye contact. Even to this day, I have to constantly check what I’m doing.

You spend a lot of time waving your arms at a mirror and watching for what isn’t working. And even when you practise at home, you only realise something doesn’t work when you’re actually standing in front of the choir. You’re always adjusting.

Singers work off the energy you give them and if they sense you’re unsure or distracted, they’ll reflect it back at you straight away. So for instance, if you’re autocratic and tense in your arms, that same sound will come back at you.

I’ve also learnt that when the beats get higher, how I move my arms can actually convey panic or distress. So I have to relax and bring the energy back in.

One thing I’m trying to stop doing is rising on the tips of my toes when I get excited. You take yourself off your centre of gravity when you do that, and allow yourself to get carried away by the music when you need to be grounded at all times.

You also shouldn’t lock your knees because a locked posture isn’t good for you or for the singers. Another bad habit conductors have is lunging forward with their head. If singers need an entry point, it should come from your hands not from your head.

What would you like to tell someone watching a concert for the first time?

Close your eyes, open your mind, read up on the music and think about what it can do for you.

In A Snap:

Favourite performance venue: Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Carlton

Favourite live music performance: Anything with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Favourite city café: City Wine Shop on Spring Street

Where do you stroll for a shot of inspiration: Flinders Lane, along the Yarra and Fitzroy Gardens

Complete this sentence. To be a Melburnian is…to enjoy life to the fullest.

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