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Sharing the love of music


Gearing up for the annual Catholic School Music Festival later this month, Denise Rothall says seeing the joy on the faces of the students – coupled with the surprise of the audience – makes the ‘hard slog’ of months of rehearsals worthwhile.

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It’s fair to say that Denise Rothall probably has one of the most recognisable backs in Adelaide’s music scene!

As the music director of the Catholic Schools Music Festival for more than two decades, as well as her involvement with Adelaide’s Cantabile Singers, the rear view of Denise conducting choirs has been witnessed by tens of thousands of concert goers over the years.

Later this month she will once again be a central figure on stage as about 2000 students from 67 Catholic schools around the State wow audiences at four concerts in the Festival Theatre. Each evening Denise will lead 350 upper primary school students singing in the massed festival choir, along with others who will perform in the instrumental ensembles, vocal groups and solo acts.

And while the rousing applause after each performance will be the icing on the cake after months of hard work by the students, their choir trainers and the music festival team, Denise says it is what happens next that keeps her motivated.

“The highlight after those performances is going back into the hold – where we put all the students afterwards – walking into that room to congratulate them and they are all so proud of themselves. It’s seeing the joy on the students’ faces…they are walking on air because they are so proud of what they have just done,” she told The Southern Cross.

“I also enjoy seeing the absolute surprised or shocked looks on the parents’ faces afterwards. They’ve been dragged along to see yet another performance and instead have witnessed something that is totally different to any school performance.

“I’ve also walked past teachers and they’ve been in tears because they are so proud of their students.”

Being able to share her love of music with the younger generation is a blessing, adds Denise, and reminds her of how her own music journey began.

Growing up in Murray Bridge, she said it was the Josephite Sisters at St Joseph’s School who not only educated her but nurtured a love for music.

“In fact, Sr Colleen Roberts, who was the founder of the music festival, was my piano teacher for four years when I was in high school,” she said.

“My mum had all of us (two sisters and a brother) learn the piano, while Dad got us doing sports.

“I loved music. I didn’t always find it easy and had to work hard at it…but because I loved it so much I spent the hours needed to practise.”

After leaving school she auditioned and was accepted into a three-year course at the Flinders Street School of Music. Required to play two instruments, she added the cello to her repertoire, but tuning it hurt her fingers so she moved onto playing the flute.

Later she graduated from the Adelaide College of Arts with a Bachelor of Education in music and drama and began her teaching career at Marymount College.

“I loved that school…the people I worked with were great and the students, you got to really know them because it was a small school back then,” she explained.

Denise Rothall

When one of her fellow teachers was getting married, Denise was asked to coordinate a few students to sing at the ceremony and soon realised she had “no idea what I was doing” when conducting a small vocal group.

Eager to learn how it was done, she started attending some workshops run by the Australian National Choral Association.

While serving on the SA Chapter committee she was encouraged by Dr Carl Crossin OAM, founder and conductor of Adelaide Chamber Singers, to undertake a summer school at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, USA.

“I did the six week course there and learnt an enormous amount. There I also met young up-and-coming choral conductor, Constantina Tsolainou.

“When I returned to Australia, I realised I wanted to be a choral conductor and develop that skill, so I auditioned and was accepted to study under Constantina at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, USA.”

Over the next two years Denise completed a Master of Music majoring in choral conducting, slowly learning the art of “listening and responding”.

“It’s difficult to explain but when you’re conducting a choir, you’re really hearing the individual parts…you listen, then respond; responding immediately to the sound you are hearing. From there you shape the sound,” she said.

Back in Adelaide and ready to utilise her new-learned skills, Denise was excited to be given the opportunity to work as the music director for the festival from 1996-98, managing to juggle it with her teaching commitments at Marymount.

As the festival continued to grow so too did the need for a full-time music director and in 2000, Denise accepted the role. This year will be her 24th consecutive festival and 27th in total, and despite the many years involved she said she never tires of seeing the outstanding musical talent of Catholic school students.

Some of the ‘stars’ she has worked with at the festival include former Loreto College student Michaela Burger (nee Lucas), who has performed in cabaret festivals and is currently writing a musical in New York; Harry Baulderstone (Mercedes College) and Marcus Ryan (CBC) who perform a Simon and Garfunkel tribute show at events such as the Fringe Festival; and Charlee Watt (St Joseph’s School, Port Lincoln), who also presented her own solo Fringe show these past two years.

“There is plenty of talent out there – it just needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” Denise commented.

When the curtain falls after the last festival concert on Friday September 29 and the euphoria has died down, Denise will quickly turn her attention to the next year’s extravaganza. During Term 4 she will be busy selecting the songs, applying for copyright, preparing and getting the book to be used by teachers and students printed, and producing an audio recording of the songs to assist in rehearsals.

Then, when the new school year begins, she will be ready and waiting to start sharing her love of music with the next batch of students. For some – as the 2023 festival theme suggests – this will be ‘where dreams begin’.

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