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The Invictus Choir & Games: Finding Strength in Weakness with Gareth Malone and Stewart Hill

The Invictus Choir & Games: Finding Strength in Weakness with Gareth Malone and Stewart Hill

For anyone watching the Invictus Choir over the last two weeks, you will have been taken on an emotional journey, to say the least. Diviner of voice, Gareth Malone, was brought on board to make a choir out of our injured ex-service men and women. Gareth had seven weeks to train them in the art of song to have the group ready for the opening ceremony of the Invictus Games in Florida. The journey and the result are nothing less than inspirational in the truest sense of the word. We here later from the man himself, Gareth Malone, and from choir member Stewart Hill about their experiences.

Both the games and the associated choir were created to help military service men and women who have suffered life-changing injuries while serving for their country. On leaving the military, these physical and psychological injuries can have a significant impact on themselves, their families and their reintegration into civilian life. These challenges can result in depression (and further medical complications) as they come to terms with their injuries; it can often leave these men and women - who once enjoyed the unity of a battalion say - feeling very isolated indeed.

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In 2013, Prince Harry visited a Paralympic-style event called the Warrior Games in Colorado. What he saw there was ex-service personal overcome, or manage, their injuries and illnesses through sport. It inspired him to set up a similar event here in the UK. Ten months later, he did just that, and the Invictus Games was born with the inaugural event taking place at London’s Copper Box Arena, used in the 2012 Olympics.

Please visit the official Invictus Games website for full game details.

 The word Invictus derives from a poem of the same name written by Victorian critic and commentator William Ernest Henley. After complications with tuberculosis, he had a leg amputated and wrote, the now, famous poem while recovering in the infirmary.

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Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

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Although full of hope and British bulldog spirit, with Churchill utilising the last two lines in a speech to The Commons in 1941, it still manages to illustrate the hurdles one has to overcome to reach a place of fortitude. It has the night’s 'black as the pit' and ‘the horror of the shade’. With these, we begin to understand the journey involved and furthermore, why the organisers borrowed the poem's title for the games. 

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The injured ex-service personnel have experienced such horror we only seem to understand blithely via movies we have seen. This is not a movie. Not even close. When the credits roll, their struggles and difficulties continue on a daily, hourly, and sometimes minute-by-minute basis. Their journey is from a hell we cannot imagine and - for most - there is no completion, no ‘recovered’. It’s a journey with no end but one with – it is hoped - progress being made.  The poem then, the games and the choir are themselves beacons for those who’ve survived and for those still in the darkness looking for a way out. It is simply about hope.

henley.pngWilliam Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

Choirmaster, Gareth Malone, is known for bringing people together who have not necessarily sung before. He has gone into workplaces and set up staff choirs, and he is probably best known (to date) for his work with The Military Wives Choir whose song, Wherever You Are, reached the Christmas number one spot in 2011. It seems fitting then that Gareth was brought in to set up the Invictus Choir and conjure the voices up from within our group of injured ex-service personnel.

We caught up with Gareth on the phone, who was still in Florida for the remainder of the games, and started by asking him about the experience as a whole. He said it was one of his toughest challenges but also 'The most intensely human experience I’ve had, of human frailty and strength'.

For the Invictus Choir, Gareth explained how he auditioned people from across 50 years of conflict to form a 10-person choir who each has been affected physically and/or mentally. Some of those include Paul Jacobs, who lost his site and parts of his arms and legs after a fellow soldier stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan; Staff Sergeant Andy Mudd lost his legs in a car bomb in Northern Ireland, and Gemma Morgan, who suffered severe PTSD after experiencing ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. 

Once he selected his choir, Gareth had seven weeks to transform his novices into confident singers so they could perform at the opening ceremony of The Invictus Games in Florida.

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Choirmaster Gareth Malone

Gareth admitted he had ‘a wobble’ after initially working with the choir and their particular mental and physical challenges. With just four weeks to go until the opening ceremony, he had a dawning moment where he said: 'Oh no! I have actually done something this time that is not possible'.

Gareth says when he usually works with new choirs he can wrap them in a confidence bubble but this model - having worked previously – was lacking with this vulnerable group of people. However, Gareth goes on to say ‘There is no substitute for time’ – albeit time in short supply – and in that four weeks he was able to forge ahead, change the model accordingly and build the group's confidence in stages - particularly around increasing audience size incrementally. The process brought the group together, a camaraderie returned to their lives and with this, a growing confidence in themselves, and more importantly, confidence in Gareth. If Gareth said it was going to be OK, it was going to be so.

Not only did Gareth get the group to sing he also worked with them to write a song that truly reflected their lives. What they revealed about themselves and their experiences are remarkable and in showing their weaknesses, strength is found and out of the darkness, comes light.

For Gareth, the Invictus Choir and Games are opportunities for the people involved to rebuild their identity and for the wider public to understand these individuals who have fought for our country. Gareth explains that despite the military cultivating a ‘terminator like image they are in fact people who have needs and feelings – just like anyone else'.

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British Army Royal Military cadets alongside U.S. Army cadets 

Gareth concluded by saying 'It has been a life changing experience for me; working at that level – as doctors do all the time – working with people in great need. It has been extraordinary'.

We hear now from choir member, Stewart Hill, who is a previous subject of a Speakers Corner Q&A. In 2009 Stewart Hill suffered a traumatic brain injury during a second tour in Afghanistan. A Lieutenant Colonel, Stewart was blown into a ditch when one of his men stepped on an IED. He was found some distance away with his radio antennae embedded in his skull.

In the programme, we see Stewart audition in front of Gareth singing a South Pacific number. We started by asking him why the song choice?

“Many years ago, when I was courting my girlfriend, now wife, she was in an amateur operatic production of South Pacific. I went to meet her after a Sunday rehearsal but had been out with her father for a few pints during lunch. I turned up in good spirits, and when the Director reminded the cast they still needed to recruit male members, I volunteered, having never sung before”. Of the song Stewart goes on to say the most memorable song was "‘Nothing Like a Dame’ as I had one solo line to sing and I practised for many, many hours”.

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Stewart Hill

After bursting into amateur dramatics, Stewart admits his singing career stalled and was only called on to sing “In the car, quietly at weddings and birthdays, loudly at Rugby Internationals and Officers’ Mess dinner nights”.

Stewart describes his condition of his brain working from 'the power of a very small battery' making it difficult for him to process information. The main challenge for him was the speed of learning, working with other people, understanding timing and tempo while being filmed. Tough for most – given the deadline – it did result in sensory overload for Stewart with him having to remove himself from rehearsals on occasion with exhaustion and headaches. He did, though, learn in his own time and once he had it down, everything became a lot easier.

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On asking what he learned from the experience, he said with surprise ‘I can sing some notes’. He goes on to say the experience reaffirms to him “how important the arts and the creative process (be it painting, theatre, poetry, singing, etc) is in improving one’s life and mindset. These all create wonderful, positive feelings in the mind and brain”. Painting has, and continues to play, a crucial part in Stewarts ongoing recovery and life.

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The power of art; Stewart with one of his paintings

For those who have seen Gareth's Invictus Choir, you will, of course, understand what has been mentioned here, and what has not - as the programme ventures further than we can ever do. For those who have not seen, do please watch the programme. It is truly moving to see choir members open up – some for the first time – about the most harrowing experiences while communicating a strong message of hope. Whatever your thoughts and beliefs on conflict these are - as Gareth argues - still people, with needs and rights who are rebuilding and redefining themselves.The Invictus Games and Choir reveal a very human story. A story of hope, inspiration and returning to Gareth for a final word: thanking them for their service.

The Invictus Choir song, Flesh & Blood, is now available for download with all proceeds going to the Invictus Foundation.

Many thanks to both Stewart Hill and Gareth Malone for their invaluable input in this piece.

 

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