Celebrating 40 Years of the Australian Girls Choir

Celebrating 40 Years of the Australian Girls Choir
March 7, 2024 AGC

Celebrating 40 Years of the Australian Girls Choir

40 years ago in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood, Judith Curphey OAM established the Australian Girls Choir. Built on the philosophy that “every child can learn to sing given encouragement and training”, the AGC has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and in August 2024 will launch our first international chapter in Singapore as the International School of Performing Arts (ISPA), including the Australian International Girls Choir (AIGC).

On our 40th Anniversary, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the pioneering work of Judith, and celebrate our proudly all-female choir that has forged a place in the hearts of audiences across the globe.

How the AGC came to be

“When I think back 40 years to the seeds of the idea that led to starting the choir, I recall wondering why there were no girls choirs. At that time there was the Australian Boys, National Boys and Victorian Boys choirs all founded and operating in Melbourne.” Judith Curphey OAM

In a landscape that had traditionally revered the voices of young boys, Judith felt compelled to empower the female voice as she was convinced that girls’ voices were as worthy of attention as the celebrated angelic boys choirs. With the encouragement from a friend at the time, Judith boldly named her little group of 150 girls, ‘the AGC’, ignoring the men at the registration office who questioned why she would want to open a girls choir when “we all know boys sing better than girls”. Judith’s tenacity paid off, and with the assistance of her 75 year old mother and her sister, Jacquie, within months she’d started the AGC in Adelaide, and by 1989 the first international touring choir flew to Canada with girls from the newly opened Sydney venue.

“At the first parent meeting I promised them that in three or four years they would be capable of undertaking an International Tour. Which we did.” – Judith Curphey OAM, AGC Founder

As if the AGC’s first International Tour wasn’t enough of a highlight, 1989 was also the year that the choir sang for Audrey Hepburn at Unicef’s Annual Gala Dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria. Despite the esteemed guest of honour, Judith kept the girls’ expectations low and prepared them for the audience to talk over their performance due to the nature of the event. To her surprise, the audience fell silent and watched the entire performance, including an enthralled Hepburn.

“I sort of turned around to acknowledge the audience, and the minute a turned around this woman threw her arms around me and started sobbing, stating “they were beautiful”. And I realised it was Audrey Hepburn!” – Judith Curphey OAM, AGC Founder

Qantas puts AGC on the world map

The opportunity for the choir to be featured in an ad for Qantas was something Judith could never have imagined when she opened the doors to her small choir 14 years earlier. But thanks to the pioneering efforts of Judith and her small team of women, including Nicole Muir AM (ASPA’s current CEO who was National Administrator at the time), by 1997, the AGC had sparked the interest of Qantas.

“When Qantas flew me up to Sydney to see the first ad, and I got up to Sydney airport and I nearly fell over. There was this photo of this child about ¾ of the size of the wall all over Sydney airport.” – Judith Curphey OAM, AGC Founder

Since the first ad aired in 1998, hundreds of girls have had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing from the world’s most stunning landscapes, reaching audiences worldwide and putting the AGC on the map. Not only that, the Qantas ads have also inspired the next generation of girls to be brave, use their voice, and take up space, as demonstrated on some of the world’s largest ‘stages’ including the Great Wall of China, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, Uluru and a glacier in Argentina. Most Australians will have watched at least one of the five iconic Qantas ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ advertisements, and probably even recall where they were when they watched the ad for the first time, showing the profound impact the girls have had on the hearts of Australians and international travellers.

The AGC spreads its wings

Driven by a deep commitment to providing opportunities for girls, the AGC has continued to grow across the country, expanding to Brisbane in 2002, Perth in 2011 and Canberra in 2018. Despite its growth, the AGC has remained true to its founding philosophy, and still serves as a space for girls to thrive, feel empowered and develop into the best versions of themselves in an all-female environment. And after 40 years, the AGC is still only getting started.

“When I watch our senior girls perform today, I marvel at the fact that every single one of them is full of passion and I really can’t believe the quality continues to improve year on year, year after year.” – Judith Curphey OAM, AGC Founder

Over its rich 40 year history, the AGC has performed for some of the world’s most influential people including Queen Elizabeth II, three popes, Former US President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela, who insisted on shaking the hand of every chorister after their performance and told the girls “you make me very happy.”

Not many school-aged girls can say they’ve met any celebrities, let alone sung with them, but the AGC has shown that girls can do anything, and have confidently shared the stage with an impressive list of celebrities including Hugh Jackman, INXS, John Farnham and Olivia Newton John.

They’ve performed at some of Australia’s major events including the ARIAs, Australian Open Men’s Final, the AFL and AFLW Grand Final, the Melbourne Cup, Carols by Candlelight and Carols in the Domain; three Hugh Jackman Tours, and the AGC’s iconic magenta pink uniform has regularly been splashed across national television screens on programs including Sunrise and The Today Show. Regardless of whether they’re performing at a major event or singing at a weekly rehearsal, the AGC has taught girls how to use their voice, both musically and socially, and hopes to inspire the next generation of women to do the same.

Embarking on our international chapter in Singapore

“The confidence of Judith’s decision to start the Australian Girls Choir when she was 55 lives large at ASPA. Not only has she instilled many traditional values in us all but she has also challenged us to stretch and strive, and absolutely never rest on our laurels.” – Nicole Muir AM, ASPA CEO

The ambition and drive with which Judith led the organisation over the years remains an important aspect of how we work at ASPA, and our ongoing growth mindset. At the suggestion of a member of the AGC Alumni, last year we began investigating the idea of spreading our wings even further, and in August will launch the International School of Performing Arts in Singapore, including the Australian International Girls Choir (AIGC). With 25 International Tours to our name, and the choir now training 6,500 girls across the country, we see that the AGC is a mature organisation that can welcome more girls from a range of cultural backgrounds into our community. We look forward to launching our first international chapter in our 40th anniversary year and continuing to grow on home soil.