Jeff Borradaile - musical director of Blackburn People’s Choir
- Credit: Pics; John Cocks
Lancashire’s answer to Gareth Malone is helping choirs across the county hit the right notes.
At a recent celebration to mark his 20th anniversary with Blackburn People's Choir, musical director Jeff Borradaile had a catch in his voice as he thanked the singers who attended. He was, he told his captive audience, so lucky to be doing a job he loved.
With seven choirs under his direction around the North West, as well as ongoing projects such as the schools musical outreach programme Sing Together in collaboration with Blackburn Cathedral, squeezing everything into his diary is a challenge.
Even weekends can be overtaken by his choirs, with competitions or trips abroad. In spring his ladies a capella choir Decibelles, also based in Blackburn and a relative newcomer at just over two years old, took first place in its class at the Hazel Grove Music Festival for the second year running. The following day he attended the Manchester Amateur Choral competition with Gathered Voices, whose 86 members come from his Preston and Morecambe choirs.
While winning is great, the journey - both for Jeff and his choirs - is even better. 'For me, it starts with repertoire,' he says. 'That's the thing that enthuses people and keeps them coming back year after year; something that challenges them and sets them apart from other choirs.
'Finding new music has become a real passion for me. I'm quite single-minded about it and proud of the music we've sung over the past 10 years. We sing what we think will wow audiences as well as what is challenging vocally and technically. All my choirs are non-audition and yet we sing against top choirs who focus on just six or eight songs.'
On average Jeff's choirs perform about 45 concerts each year as well as travelling in the UK and abroad to take part in festivals and contests; the Isle of Man, The Hague and Krakov are on the calendar in the coming months.
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But leading choirs full time was never Jeff's plan. At 19 he took a job as a singer with an all-female dance troupe and spent 18 months touring with them in Japan and Hong Kong. 'It was magnificent,' he says, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. He went on to take a music degree in Manchester, trained as a primary school teacher and was on the road to a lifetime in front of the whiteboard when he had the opportunity to help with the school choir.
'Before you knew it we had a choir of 130 children from very diverse backgrounds and we did lots of concerts,' he says. The timing was just right, so when news came that the Manchester Commonwealth Games organisers were looking for a choir … well, the rest is history.
'We spent a fantastic three months with those children celebrating the Games, including taking part in the opening and closing ceremonies,' he says. 'It confirmed my feeling that I wanted to pursue this further and my school agreed to pay me to come in and run the choir. That started me off and I soon had 15 schools signed up. That's where I learned my craft.'
By this time Jeff, who sang in church as a child, had also joined Manchester Community Choir and started attending workshops to hone his skills. When one of the leaders of a workshop he attended fell ill at the 11th hour he stepped into the breach and proved his credentials, resulting in the organisers inviting him to lead a choir to mark the opening of the Lowry in Salford. It was there he met a small group of singers who were on the look-out for a musical director of their own to lead Blackburn People's Choir.
'That was 20 years ago and there were only 10 or 12 of them at the time,' he explains. 'But it's just grown and grown.'
Now, as well as this large mixed choir, Jeff, who lives in Bolton, leads the female-only Decibelles and male-only Maelstrom, the latter with only 16 members; Vocalise youth choir; Ordsall Acapella Singers and the two groups that come together as Gathered Voices. All sing without accompaniment.
'I love the challenge of a capella,' says Jeff. 'The singers have to be technically spot-on, stay in tune and know the music inside out; you can't sing with a copy in front of you.'
In contrast to this pure sound, he likes nothing better in his spare time than listening to what he describes as 'ravey' dance music.
Jeff's other passion is communication, which he describes as being like a triangle, with the choir at the top, him at one corner and the audience at the other. 'Music is about telling stories and so getting across that passion and love for the music is very important.
'It doesn't matter if it's not perfect; if they're communicating to the audience that's everything to me.'
His enthusiasm and commitment are apparent - to his choirs and their audiences - a little like a certain TV choirmaster. Does he ever get compared to Gareth Malone? Jeff laughs.
'Yes, all the time, but that's fine. He shouts out from the hilltops about singing, and that's helped a lot of people get through the front door, which is one of the hardest things to do.'
While Jeff shows no signs of moving on, his aim is to ensure all his choirs have longevity. 'If they're all at the top of their game they'll always have top directors clamouring at their door to take them on.'