This week, our inspiring founder Judith Curphey OAM celebrates her 90th birthday.
35 years ago at the age of 55, after retiring from a career teaching music in high schools, Judith decided to start a choir for young girls. The Australian Girls Choir has since grown into an internationally recognised cultural icon. In celebration of her incredible achievements and contribution to the performing arts, we asked Judith to reflect on her legacy with the choir, her passion for empowering young people through music, and her hopes for the future of the organisation.
How the Australian Girls Choir began
When the Australian Girls Choir was established 35 years ago, no choir like this existed for girls in Australia. In fact, when our founder Judith Curphey OAM went to register the name, the man at the registration office told Judith she wouldn’t be able to call it “The Australian Girls Choir”. Judith wanted to challenge the accepted convention that boys sing ‘better’ than girls, and create a female choir with a uniquely Australian sound.
“The reason I was starting a girls choir was because there were boys choir; there’s the National Boys, the Australian Boys, the Victorian Boys. I thought, ‘Well why isn’t there one just for the girls?’ I thought I’d get 40 or 50 kids and I’d build it up, but on audition day 450 girls auditioned.”
Judith says the reason for this was that no other choir existed for young girls at the time. For centuries, boys choirs have dominated cathedral choirs, but from early on she believed that girls choirs could sing just as well as boys choirs.
“I had a parents meeting and can remember clearly saying to the parents, ‘These girls are really good and they’re going to continue to improve, and within four or five years they’ll be at such a standard we’ll be able to take them overseas and perform. I promise you.’ I promised the parents that. It was a bit bold to do that, but I believed that they would be.”
The Australian Girls Choir has since toured 43 times since 1989 to destinations all over the world, and has performed for dignitaries including President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, The Honourable Julia Gillard AC and Pope Benedict XVI.
Becoming a cultural icon
A turning point for the choir was in 1998 when they were invited to be part of Qantas’ ‘Spirit of Australia’ television commercial. The story goes that Qantas made contact after seeing the AGC perform with the National Boys Choir at Carols by Candlelight.
“I remember our CEO Nicole [Muir] said, ‘I’ve just had a call from Qantas and talking about doing an advertisement, and they want a group of girls. It sounds extraordinary.’, and I said ‘What do you mean extraordinary’ And she said, ‘Well, they’re talking about around the world’. I said ‘What? All around the world?’, and she said ‘Well, they’re saying, South America, Africa, India…’”.
“So I had a meeting with them and signed the contract. I can remember saying to my mother at the time, I’ve just signed the biggest contract of my life!”
Since then, the Australian Girls Choir has represented Qantas in their highly acclaimed ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ advertising campaigns since 1998. The filming of their five major campaigns have taken place in spectacular locations around the world including a glacier in Argentina, a Massai village in Africa, the Terracotta Warriors in China, and the breathtaking Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory. Nearly one thousand Australian Girls Choir choristers have been involved in the filming of the advertisements over this now twenty year relationship.
Co-founding the charity Girls from Oz for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in remote Australia
Driven by a desire to find ways to improve educational and employment outcomes for girls in remote and regional Australia, Judith envisioned a not-for-profit organisation that would provide education-based opportunities through the performing arts. Drawing on more than 30 years of experience with the AGC, g-oz was founded to inspire and motivate girls and young women to regularly attend school and to meaningfully and actively participate in their community.
“I believe so strongly in what music and performance and singing can do. Now when I see a young woman from Halls Creek who’s been through five years of our program, and you hear that she’s now in Perth doing a university degree, it’s fantastic.”
Since 2010, more than 100 g-oz girls have participated in Travel Programs to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to expand their horizons in the performing arts and consider their own future education and employment pathways in whatever profession they choose. Of these girls, 89% are employed or still studying at their local school or in higher education.
Reaching thousands of kids through school music programs in regional Australia
Judith has always been committed to empowering young people from all backgrounds, and supporting them to find their voice through music. She has instilled in the choir a sense that gathering together and singing as a group develops confidence, creativity and builds young people’s sense of community, while developing a life-long love of the performing arts.
“What’s most exciting for me is the Australian School of Performing Arts. We have all of these fantastic tutors from the choir that go into schools around the country and do programs in schools with boys and girls who have never had much of a music education.”
“Last year, it was something like ten thousand kids we reached who were taught to stand up, be confident, smile and sing. The best thing is that you ask the kids if they enjoyed it and the kids say things like, ‘It was the best day of my life’”.
Leaving a legacy that impacts generations of women
Judith has built an organisation that at its heart has an unshakable faith in the performing arts’ ability to powerfully engage young people and meaningfully change their lives.
“What pleases me the most is to see this whole new generation of girls. Girls who were in the choir who are now in their forties and still have their choir friends. And many of them have little girls of their own who are in the choir. It’s a whole generation of little six year old girls, whose parents believe that it was so good for them.”
The most important outcomes are those delivered through the ‘hidden curriculum’; improved confidence, self-esteem and communication skills. Nurturing the creativity of young women encourages them to take risks and find their voice. By focusing on powerful feelings of success and self-confidence, the flow on effects of this are far reaching.
“You just come to believe so strongly in what happens to people when they’re involved in singing, drama, and the arts. Some parents worry, ‘Well, if she joins the choir, that’ll be the end of her year 12 results.’ Well, no it won’t, because on the night they come rehearse, and the week they take out for music camp, they feel so happy and rejuvenated. They end up getting better results than they would sitting at home alone, doing more study and having a few more cups of coffee.”
Next week on Tuesday September 17, Judith will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in Paris. Judith will be joined by 56 current AGC choristers for a small celebration at the home of Australia’s Ambassador to France, His Excellency Mr Brendan Berne, followed by a day of sightseeing with the girls at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Happy Birthday, Judith!
Follow the Australian Girls Choir on Facebook for updates on Judith and the choristers International Tour of Europe.