Rugby League’s 14th man? Manchester singers hope to spur on World Cup stars

By Eve Commander

They’ve spurred on crowds and players at the Ashes and in sporting venues across the country but one Manchester musical team’s next challenge will be to inspire the world’s greatest rugby superstars.

They say the best football crowds have the power to be the ‘twelfth man’, their chants motivating players to go the extra yard that can make the difference between victory and defeat.

It’s this same rousing affect that Chant Productions hope Greater Manchester children will produce when they sing the all-important national and sporting anthems at the Rugby League World Cup this autumn.

Joined by international opera singer Sean Ruane, children from more than 100 schools across the North West will sing in some of the UK’s iconic sporting stadiums.

Pupils from schools such as Manchester Grammar and William Hulme’s Grammar School will be standing alongside the world’s leading rugby stars when the tournament kicks off on October 26.

The team’s Strategic Director, Wil Woan says they are incredibly excited to be part of the tournament.

“We started preparing for this before June,” said Woan. “It’s going to be an amazing tournament and should be an incredible experience for all the children singing at it.”  

Set up by Ruane and Woan in 2011, they say their aim is to combine sports and music by using sports stadia as theatres for young people.

In the last few months they, along with award winning soprano, Sally Johnson, have been working with local primary and secondary schools to provide choirs of 120 to sing at venues including St Helens, Warrington and Old Trafford, where the Grand Final will take place. The team feel music has an important role to play in the sporting tournament.

“Sports stadiums are probably the world’s biggest theatrical stages,” said Woan.

“Performing on them is an important way to spread music to audiences and show what a tangible and important effect it can have on people.”

Creative Director Sean Ruane studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and will sing with the children on the pitch.

He has performed to opera aficionados in Covent Garden and football fans at Wembley Stadium but he explains that the idea for Chant came after he was approached by the chairman of Wigan Football club, Dave Whelan, to sing at a match in 2005.

He said: “I was contacted by Dave because there was an international match between Italy and England at the DW stadium but no music had been arranged for it. Dave’s father was an opera singer so he decided to ask someone from the Royal Northern College of Music, where I was studying at the time, to go and sing.

“I hadn’t really thought about performing in sports stadiums before. I suppose you could say it’s because of Dave that the idea for Chant productions originated.”

Sally Johnson, their Vocal Director, who also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music completes the musical team.

She leads the musical workshops in schools around the country, which students from local universities and schools have also helped out at. 

Ava Blaise Podgorsky, a music student at the University of Manchester, will be part of the team for the Rugby League World Cup as well as when Chant perform at Children in Need later this year. She said teaching children at the workshops allows her to share her love of music:

“I enjoy seeing how the kids develop from the start to the end,” she said. “In the last set of workshops I helped with, some of the kids were very shy and to be with them on the pitch as they sing is very rewarding.”

Chant were invited back for a second consecutive year after impressing Children in Need’s organisers by performing with a deaf, signing choir. Since they started their pioneering scheme, Woan says the response from organisers, schools and players has been effusive.

He recalls an email he received of the organisers after they took a choir of children to perform at the Ashes this summer that said many of the England team, including enthusiastic singer and England spin bowler, Graham Swann, had been inspired by their stirring renditions of the national anthem and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.  Pundits on BBC radio five lives’ commentary team were also charmed by the novel sight of singers on the pitch.

They hope to replicate this effect in October. Their performance at each match will last nine minutes and, alongside the anthems, crowds will be treated to renditions of popular songs like Bastille’s ‘Pompeii’ and Gary Barlow’s ‘Sing’.

Woan, whose weekends begin at eight o’clock, fits the scheme around his permanent job and says there will be intense period of preparation from here until the first rugby game.

 “Rehearsals will be on-going throughout the tournaments. With each choir assigned to a team, once they reach the knock-out stages, performances will be with short notice. “

Luckily students at the workshops so far have been are excellent at picking up unfamiliar anthems like Papua New Guinea’s and singing in Maori.

“Perhaps the hardest are the Italian and French anthems actually because they have such tricky staccato rhythms and are fast,” he said.

The project is warmly welcomed by schools and Woan says they have almost doubled the children involved from the original number they told Rugby Football League (RFL) they would provide. As well as helping to improve student’s behaviour in lessons the workshops also open up music to people who would never usually consider getting involved in music.

He said: “Some of the boys had turned up to a workshop in one school who were on the rugby team and probably wanted a chance to see their heroes. They had never really sung before but now they’re in their school choir.”

Just being on the pitch and seeing the tangible effect the music has on these professional athletes can be both a revelation and confidence boost for the children who take part.

“One girl we worked with was absolutely petrified of public performances, could barely stand up in assembly and had her hands covering her ears as we went on the pitch,” Woan said.

“However, we managed to talk her through it and when it came to the instrumental in the song she started playing air guitar.

 “I don’t want to sound like a sob story, but her parents were watching in the crowd and started crying.”

The team are also looking forward to performances with Southampton Football Club later in the year. For now, however, they have their eyes firmly focused on the World Cup.  If they manage to transfer any of their passion to players and fans this October it will be an awe-inspiring affair.

Chant Productions will be singing at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, starting October 26. For more information see:

Picture courtesy of Chant Productions, with thanks.

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