Why do 60 singers turn up each week to Gospel Folk rehearsals?

A large part of the answer is our dedicated, energetic and good humoured musical director Brian Triglone.

Music runs in Brian’s family—both his grandfather and his mother were choir conductors, his mother also a pianist. But Brian attributes his love of singing to the Methodist church and the rich four-part harmony of its hymns. “My sister and I used to sing harmonies all the time,” Brian explains. “When we were doing the washing up, we’d make them up.”

Brian grew up in country NSW, with spells in Bathurst, Goulburn and Queanbeyan. In 1964, at just 19, Brian formed a folk group called the Treble Folk with two friends, Bette and Michael. The Treble Folk sang folk music, in the style of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Highwaymen, the Brothers Four and the Chad Mitchell Trio. Brian taught himself guitar—just enough to play accompaniments. “In those days—well, these too—you could play almost any song with about four chords. I knew the four chords and I had a capo, so we could get by.”

They did better than just get by. The Treble Folk sang live gigs and did TV work for three years until conscription reduced the trio to a duo. Brian and Bette (who married along the way) kept singing and made the finals of the national television talent quest Showcase in 1969.

Flash-forward to the 1990s and Brian found himself Assistant Conductor of the Rugby Choir, an all-male community choir in Canberra. In response to requests from local churches and retirement homes, Geoff Smith from the Rugby Choir approached Brian to help him set up a new mixed choir dedicated to gospel music.

With Geoff Smith as its manager and Brian its musical director, the Gospel Folk was formed in 2003. It started small—just 10 people turned up to the first rehearsal. The next week it was 12. “I remember saying, ‘Well, if it doesn’t get up, let’s just call it off,’” Brian says. “But it kept building up.” Within a short time the Gospel Folk had 80 members, and it’s kept its membership at that level for the past 12 years.

Why? Because Brian’s first goal is for people to enjoy singing. “I understand the therapeutic value of music,” Brian explains. And he makes sure that rehearsals are full of laughs and good will. But his ambitions for the choir go further than leading a large sing-along each week. “I want people to stretch themselves so we’re not embarrassed when we sing. And so I’m not embarrassed when we sing!”

So the Gospel Folk members learn about voice production, harmony, performance style and the basics of reading music. They sing in four parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), using arrangements often written by Brian who taught himself to write harmony on the computer using a music notation application.

Although their repertoire includes many gospel favourites, like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and By the Rivers of Babylon, the Gospel Folk also sing popular hymns (How Great Thou Art), folk songs, African songs and even contemporary songs like ABBA’s I have a Dream. Brian is always on the hunt for “simple songs with good melodies, a workable ‘range’ to suit the choir’s voices and words that aren’t banal”.

The choir sing at non-commercial gigs around the ACT. In 2013 the choir sang in many events associated with Canberra's centenary, including giving concerts at the National Arboretum and the High Court.

Even with a non-auditioned choir that takes all comers, the biggest challenge, Brian says, is not the musical one. “Most people can sing in tune,” he says. The struggle is to get people to commit to making the choir worthy of the regular public performances it gives. “That means learning their harmonies before rehearsals so we can concentrate more on the sound of the choir and the dynamics of the music. Once we’ve got the notes, that’s only the very basic start.”

The Gospel Folk also memorise all their songs. Brian supports members to learn their parts between practices by transcribing the songs into a free online music application. At home, members can sit at their computers and sing along to their parts.

Then he encourages them to learn to perform the songs, not just sing them. “When you sing, you enter into another sphere—or you should,” Brian says. “This is one of the things I’m trying to teach the choir—that you’ve got to move from just being a person to being a performer.” But Brian admits that inhibitions can get in the way. “If we had a kids’ choir they’d be throwing themselves into it because they’ve seen it on TV and video. We didn’t have all that. So it’s very hard for people to lose themselves in music, which is what you need to do.”

Brian admits it can take months for the choir to polish a song until he judges it’s ready for public performance. But Brian is a patient man. And the evidence is that choir members appreciate his emphasis on high standards. “People keep turning up,” he admits with pleasure. “If I’m doing nothing else, I’m giving people some enjoyment once a week. But of course I hope for more than that!”

The hard work Brian expects from choir members is balanced by the friendly, cheerful atmosphere and sense of community he creates. The Gospel Folk choir is distinctive not only for taking its music seriously but also for its camaraderie. “One the things everyone says about our choir is that it’s got a wonderful feel to it,” Brian says. “I love hearing that.”

New members are always welcome—there are no auditions, and anyone can come along to a couple of no-obligation rehearsals. But Brian suggests there’s one “little rule” for members. “If you decide to join, throw yourself into it. We’d love you to come but if you decide to stay, then there’s a certain level of commitment—to the rehearsals and to the gigs.”