Chong Lim AM was initially hesitant to accept the role of Music Director for the Victorian State Schools Spectacular (VSSS).
“I was a little reluctant, not because I didn’t like it, but because I was already very busy … I thought I’d last two or three years and then I’d probably pass on the baton or I’d get the sack, but you fall in love with the place, you fall in love with the students – the old ones and the new ones coming in. You fall in love with the romance and the fairy tale of the concert … It’s so rewarding to see them succeed,” explained Lim.
Chong Lim joined the VSSS team in 2011, but some of the performers have been involved even longer.
“There’s a particular girl, Imogen (Spendlove), and she’s been in the show before I joined. She started in primary school and this is her last year. I remember when I first started, she was just a tiny little girl doing a tap routine singing show tunes and now she’s one of the main stays of the show!”
Lim has watched performers start out in the choir and become backing vocalists and then principal singers. He’s met students from the “rougher side of the tracks” who have burst into tears when their journey with VSSS has come to an end.
“It becomes a family,” Lim reflected.
The 2018 VSSS is happening on Saturday 15th September, but planning for this event has been underway for twelve months. Director Neill Gladwin starts planning the next year’s event as the current one is coming to close. Once the vision for the event has been decided, the selection of music becomes a collaborative process.
“If Neill really has some sort of vision he’ll tell me he wants it done this way, but most of the time I’m left alone to my, you know, evil little devices, and I just do what I feel is right! I try to make things as amazingly difficult and complex as I can, but they always rise up to the occasion,” laughed Chong Lim.
Lim admits that some songs are really better as studio recordings and can be challenging to produce live.
“And some songs are very hard for students to perform. I provide fully professional charts and expectations for them and I think in general, we treat them not like school kids, but like professionals – because we try to prepare them for the real world. Those who want to get into the professional world of theatre, or pop music, or wherever they want to go, we try to prepare them for the (VSSS) concert, but also to learn from the professionalism and learn from the expectations we have of them.”
“By about October we have some kind of framework and then by about December we start auditioning – singers, musicians, dancers etc. We finalise everything around March. Then we start preliminary rehearsals and then for me, in the music department, I start getting arrangements together and so forth, and starting the children on their singing,” explained Lim.
“I’m kind of permanently on the job!”
The VSSS is a huge event and it requires a large team to make the event a success.
“There are individual tutors for each section of the orchestra … and then we have a Head of Voice who takes care of the of the principal singers and supervises their work and also the harmonies and their interaction with each other. Then we have a Backing Vocal (BV) teacher who teaches them their parts. We also have a choir teacher who takes care of the performing arts student choir … and of course the mass choir,” said Lim.
Some of the schools don’t have a music teacher and the songs may be taught to them by a PE or a Science teacher. Staff from the VSSS team will visit schools as needed, particularly to those schools involved for the first time.
“Then twice in the year we have all the students come together at the Melbourne Town Hall and we teach them all the parts, including their choreographic moves,” said Lim.
Among Chong Lim’s team are the Head of Music, who rehearses with the orchestra every fortnight (and then conducts the orchestra for most of the show) and a Rhythm Section Teacher who looks after the band section.
A choreographic team run their own rehearsals to prepare the dancers. The VSSS also has a stage management program, with students working behind the scenes.
“And meanwhile Neill, the director, runs through all the acting elements and the direction – the moves that the dancers have to make, where they stand on stage. It’s like a military operation! We have to coordinate not just their dancing, but what door they come in, which school is at which door … It’s all in this humongous, I don’t know how many pages there is, in this spreadsheet Neill has. But every movement is in there. If someone wants to scratch their head, there’s a line for them! But you know, we have to, otherwise bad things will happen. Every movement is choreographed,” explained Lim.
“To be honest, it’s bigger than an Adele or a Beyoncé concert, because not only do we have a band, we have a 60 piece student orchestra, we have 2000 voice choir, we have massed singers, massed dancers, principal singers and so forth. It’s well lit, with a protruding stage. That’s a whole lot or work. But it’s well worth it when you watch it and it looks really good and the kids have worked really hard. You feel really nice at the end of it all, when they fulfill their goals and their dreams. It’s really wonderful.”
“It’s a year long operation and a lot of the kudos goes to Neill, the director. He’s been rehearsing them and directing them. From time to time we’ll run the whole show, whether it’s really rough or really smooth, so that by the time we get to the stadium the kids already really know their steps. And then the week at the stadium is spent doing things like the sound checks and all sort of things. We have a couple of dress rehearsals.”
Chong Lim said VSSS is more than just an opportunity to perform.
“Apart from giving kids an amazing and wonderful chance to perform, it’s really for kids who normally wouldn’t have the chance to be in a play or a musical or a band or an orchestra. It fills the gaps. You think about a really small country school – they’re not going to do a musical. Forget about music education, they probably don’t even have an art class, So we’re providing those opportunities. The kids might be catered for football or basketball, but the kids are not catered for the arts, and we hopefully provide that.”
Some VSSS Alumni have gone to have successful professional careers, but that’s not the ultimate aim, according to Chong Lim. He wants the students to receive an artistic education.
“I always tell the students they’re there for one thing – to understand and appreciate music and to be able to enjoy music art at a higher level. If they choose to become professionals, then we’re preparing them for that. But if they’re not, then at least it gives them a really good insight into the art form, and when they go to a concert they’ll be able to appreciate and enjoy it at a higher level.”
After eight years, Chong Lim can’t imagine leaving VSSS.
“I’ll keep doing it until they sack me!” he laughed.
VSSS 2018 is happening on Saturday 15th September at 1pm and 6.30pm.