Leichardt Espresso Chorus

Leichardt Espresso Chorus with Michelle Leonard (Founder and Artistic Director)

Music in Communities Awards case study

Michelle Leonard grew up in Coonamble, received her musical training at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has had the opportunity to work with many outstanding conductors and musicians in her career. She started the Leichardt Espresso Chorus (LEC) after being approached by some parents of the students in the choir she managed at Newtown Performing Arts School. Ten years on, the choir has nearly 100 people on its books including its waiting list, and is mentoring relationships with a number of regional choirs - both adult and children.

Michelle Leonard talks about the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus with Tim Webster on Radio 2UE


The LEC aims to stretch the boundaries of excellence in community music and, in doing so, help participants achieve more, musically, than they ever thought possible. It promotes choral music in its community and with community arts organisations and fosters new Australian choral music by commissioning local composers. It shares its passion with remote regional communities of Western NSW, which it visits every year to develop concerts and workshops with the regional children's choirs, schools and local adult groups and has, for the last three years, been the choir in residence for the Moorambilla festival of new Australian music in Coonamble.

The LEC is a vibrant, enthusiastic group of people from the inner west of Sydney, led since its inception in 1998 by founder and Artistic Director Michelle Leonard. Members come from all walks of life and are aged from sixteen to sixty five.

What is the driving philosophy behind the LEC?

In many ways it is aspiration. We want to produce excellent music, where we create a meaningful experience for ourselves and our audiences. We want to commission new work, so that we, and others, can sing great Australian music. We want to do outreach work with communities who don't have as many opportunities as we do in the city. We want to keep on developing our own artistic voice and maintain high artistic ideals. Do we want to have the best musicians available working with us, asking to play with us? Of course! Just because we are a community doesn't mean we have to expect less or not be professional in everything that we do.

You need to believe in people and that they can do anything. I do.

We're not exclusive. We have a non-audition policy, so anyone can sing with us. But we aim high in our work and that keeps everyone challenged, sustains their interest and increases their skills. Musical decisions are very important in this. If I get bored I'm pretty sure others will get bored too, so we are committed to constantly learning. People who self-select to take part know this and rise to the challenges we offer.

You are an experienced musician. Do you think that everyone who leads a choir or music group needs to be as experienced?

There needs to be some level of musical knowledge, but more important is the desire to learn and keep on learning - a deep commitment to improve yourself and the ensemble. Yes, I am a professional musician, but I have developed enormously over the last 10 years since we started the LEC. Leading a choir means that you shape them, and they reflect your strengths and your flaws. It is very humbling. So to do the best by them I needed to keep on getting better. I'd take notes after every rehearsal; I'd learn from other people. I have been absolutely stretched leading this choir - intellectually and musically.

How does your Committee and governance structure work?

We have a fantastic Committee who are all volunteers. We make each of our activities ie tours, concerts, workshops a distinct project. Each Committee member contributes to the project with their own skills, and each project has a drive or manager to coordinate and manage the delivery of that project. We've found over the years that people's expertise increases markedly through this kind of work. Many of them have developed skills they simply wouldn't have developed otherwise. The environment and infrastructure we have now is really supportive.

Ultimately, we only ask people to do things they want to do, and mould tasks around them. We're not rigid and we don't allocate tasks regardless of people's interests or capacities. You won't sustain people's support by doing that - this can make the gaps a challenge, but it seems to work with some arm twisting behind the scenes!! We've also agreed that the Committee supports the artistic and the administrative vision of the Artistic Director. It's important that that position has free rein in that regard.

I'm paid as the artistic director and conductor, and we pay all our artists and our accompanist, but everyone else is a volunteer. All choir members pay a term fee, which helps with costs. This helps us schedule and plan ahead for concerts and specific projects we've got through the year. We aim to run our concerts at a profit, but more often than not this profit is helped along by the celebratory drinks we put on in our bar afterwards. We might get paid for the odd concert where we're asked to perform, but in reality we self-fund most our activities.

Building sustainability is important. I'm mentoring an assistant conductor, so it's not just me who has this role; artistically we want to build long term relationships, so we've got a string quartet, a young artist in residence and a composer in residence. This develops our capacity and skills as well as theirs, and we're also trying administrative mentoring. It's a big investment, because it takes so much time, but artistically it's worth it.

You have Leichardt Council on board in a three-year partnership. How did you develop that?

Persistence! As a choir we have worked for over six years to get Leichardt Council on side for our Carols on Norton project, which we started as a yearly event. We took a triple bottom line approach to our activities, where we argued that we provide more than a concert at Christmas time every year - we provide financial and social benefits and we have a deep and positive reach into the community, which we believed Leichardt Council should support. We looked at their Cultural and Community Plans to see where we fitted in; we looked at the NSW State Government's Cultural and Community Plans to see where we fitted into that bigger picture, and we met with all the Councilors to talk through. In the end, they agreed to support us in a longer term partnership. We had to move the goalposts and break new ground to secure that.

Relationships with local Councils are very important for organisations like us. I would suggest that anyone in community in music should find out what their local Cultural or Community Plans are in their local Council; find out who their Cultural Arts Officers or Tourism Development Officers are and develop relationships with them that are mutually beneficial.

What about other partners?

I think our best partnership is with our audience. We have a very loyal following which has grown through word of mouth. The partners and friends of our singers are part of our community and they bring others along, and word spreads, and our audiences grow. We've had many people who've seen every performance for many years. Together, we make, and we enjoy, meaningful musical experiences which create strong connections between people on a whole range of levels. Ultimately that's what it's all about.

We have developed good partnerships with our local media, which help promote our concerts and projects. We sit down and develop an MOU with them about what kind of coverage we can expect, then we help them find the stories, the pictures, and do everything we can to make their job easy.

We have excellent musical partnerships, with artists in all professional walks of life - classical and non because of our reputation and credibility - we always pay on time and as well as we can. We have long standing relationships with venues and have developed mutually productive relationships with a whole range of providers and suppliers such as insurance companies, florists, caterers - you name it.

We still don't have a coffee company as a partner - maybe next year!

Michelle's tips and ideas

  1. Just because you're a community' doesn't mean you can't be a professional'. You CAN balance participation and excellence by retaining a commitment to be as good as you can. If you believe people can do anything, they will!
  2. Don't assume that having a non-audition policy will compromise quality. People who put themselves forward to join have invariably already got a commitment to being as good as they can be.
  3. Make each of your activities a distinct project' and form a volunteer committee to manage it, with a project manager' to drive the team eg for things such as tours', concerts', workshops.'
  4. Make your Council your friend. Study Council's Community and/or Cultural Plans and find out how your group helps deliver Council's objectives - this can lead to funded partnerships.
  5. Work with your local media to develop story ideas around your group and help get photos and interviews scheduled in advance.
  6. Be courteous and pay promptly in your dealings with providers and suppliers - from composers and musicians to caterers, venues and florists. Remember that mutually productive relationships are the things that will ensure your reputation and credibility, however good you may be musically.