CALEB Foster-McLachlan could barely contain his excitement yesterday, the eve of his departure for the ancient cathedrals of Europe where he will perform with the Australian Children’s Choir.
”I’m so excited I can’t get to sleep at night any more. I just want to go,” the 17-year-old said.
Foster-McLachlan, who has high-functioning autism, said he tends to worry too much: ”I get stressed about expectations and results a lot of the time. Sometimes I think I’m going from one stressful thing to another.”
That made his first night in the choir after his successful audition particularly nerve-racking. ”It was very scary at first,” he says. ”I was so nervous my voice wobbled and the conductor commented that I sounded like a pregnant turkey being strangled.
”But I learnt quickly and the last comment I had from him was a few months ago – he said I had too much of a cheeky grin, which was off-putting from a distance!”
The choir’s tour of Europe has been two years in the planning. For just over three weeks, 50 children – aged from 10 to 18 – will sing in several cities across Germany, Austria and England.
The schedule culminates with a performance at Canterbury Cathedral, where the group will take part in the International Children’s Choir Festival, singing with young choristers from six countries.
Choir director and conductor Andrew Wailes says he has been able to organise for the ensemble to perform in some remarkable venues – places far removed, and not just geographically, from the children’s normal base in Mitcham.
”It’s mind-blowing just to walk into some of the glorious Gothic cathedrals in Europe and know they are between 500 and 1000 years old,” he says. ”And when you go in there to sing, it’s the most inspirational setting. These spaces were designed all those years ago to make the human voice sound its best.”
Wailes says the tour party is excited and nervous – and that goes for the accompanying adults, too. Last week, he held the final briefing for parents.
”Suddenly one of the kids looked up to me with these forlorn eyes and said, ‘We’ve only got one rehearsal left!’ And I said, ‘Yes, you betcha. I’m acutely aware of that, young man’.”
The choir’s repertoire for the trip comprises 43 songs, including a Latin Mass and a few pieces in German, all learnt since the beginning of the year at twice-weekly rehearsals.
”It’s a huge amount of music for the kids to have prepared in six months, but they’ve got there. We’re ready and raring to go,” Wailes says.
”They’re going to come back different people, with a whole lot of experiences and wonderful memories to inspire them.”
Foster-McLachlan has felt restless for the past two weeks, but this time it’s out of anticipation, not anxiety. He has been daydreaming about walking in German forests, descending upon mediaeval castles and singing in thousand-year-old chapels with gilded walls.
”I could have spent my sleeplessness productively, packing my bag,” he admits, ”but instead I sit there imagining being inside the Canterbury Cathedral or how I’m going to talk with the American choirs we’ll meet.”
The year 11 student’s mother, Brenda McLachlan, says being in the choir has helped him understand the subtleties of communication and socialising in a group – scenarios that can be challenging for autistic people.
”Singing in the choir is calming and therapeutic because at times he can get quite wound up,” she says.
Wailes said the benefits of singing are clear for the young and the old.
”It’s the basic human form of relaxing that doesn’t require gym fees or expensive equipment,” he said. ”When you’re singing, that’s all you think about, you don’t worry about anything else. It’s good for the soul.”