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WVYC: 50 Years of Song

It was the year when three American astronauts were launched to the moon. But in Canberra, 1969 also marked the launch of a unique cultural institution: Woden Valley Youth Choir.  Supported by his pianist wife, Barbara, former teacher and choirmaster, Don Whitbread, visited local schools and churches to gather support for a community choir which would be open to all children who passed a singing audition.  The first auditions were held in 1969, and twenty-two children between the ages of 9 and 16 attended the first rehearsal.  With Don conducting and Barbara playing the piano, the Woden Valley Youth Choir was born.


From the very start WVYC was something special and word soon got around.  The choir continued to grow as did its reputation around the country.   Supported by volunteers from the parent body, the choir moved from strength to strength, growing to 70 members and a long wait-list, leading the choir to record numerous albums and international tours.  In 1997, Don retired from conducting the choir, handing the baton to music educator, Alpha Gregory.  Under Alpha’s leadership, the choir enlisted a band of excellent musical educators to assist with the training of the singers.

After 20 years, and hundreds of performances, it was Alpha’s turn to retire and, in 2017, musician and educator Kimberley Steele became Artistic Director – just the third person to take on the role in the choir’s nearly 50 year history.  Kimberley brought a different approach to music education, heavily influenced by the Kodály Method.  Kodály is an approach to music education developed in Hungary during the mid-twentieth century by Zoltán Kodály.  In 2018 Olivia Swift joined the choir as Artistic Director.  A graduate of the ANU School of Music, Olivia is a passionate and experienced chorister herself  and also a composer – mainly of choral music.

During its long history, WVYC has built up an amazing list of achievements. They have appeared before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, sung for Prime Ministers, performed with the Australian Opera, and at major concerts with international guest artists, recorded numerous CDs and undertaken seven overseas tours including to South Korea in 2010.  An especially memorable highlight was singing at the ceremony for the conferring of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws on Nelson Mandela in 2000, where Dr Mandela thanked each chorister individually.  At home in Canberra, the Choir is probably best known as the organiser and choral contributor to Canberra’s official Carols by Candlelight.

Some notable performances include:

  • 1981 tour to West Coast USA and Canada

  • at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Australia, to sing to visiting Heads of Government at international conferences in 1981 and 1983

  • 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Queensland – performing for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at a Gala Concert

  • as invited guest artists at Government House, Canberra, the residence of the Governor-General of Australia

  • 1985 tour to Japan

  • at the opening ceremony of the World Cup Athletics meet in 1985

  • a world-wide telecast which launched Australia’s Bicentennial year in 1988

  • 12 choir members were in the Choir which sang at the official opening of Australian Parliament House, 1988

  • at Australia’s official flag-raising ceremony at Expo 88 in Brisbane

  • 1990 tour to New Zealand

  • performance for the royals again, in Canberra in 1992

  • 1992 tour to UK and Europe

  • 1996 tour to United States

  • at the prestigious International Society for Music Education (ISME) Conference

  • at the ceremony for the conferring of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws on Nelson Mandela in 2000

  • 2005 tour to USA

  • at the opening of the Australian of the Year Walk in 2006

  • the opening of the Pacific School Games in 2008

  • as guest artists at the Male Choir Association of Australia 2008 Festival

  • at the Prime Minister’s apology to Forgotten Australians and Child Migrants in 2009

  • 2010 tour to South Korea

  • singing with symphony orchestras, and at major concerts with international guest artists including with Opera Australia’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2016.

  • singing the Australian National Anthem in local Aboriginal Ngunnawal language (from memory) at the Canberra Business Chamber Gala in 2017.

  • 2018 singing for the Prime Minister and Governor General at the 50th Anniversary of the University of NSW, Canberra.


WVYC has had an extraordinary influence on the lives of countless young people. Choral music is a powerful art form and for nearly half a century the children associated with WVYC have given many stirring concerts.  In return they have developed a lifelong passion for great music. As performers, discerning consumers and supporters of art in the future, they will help mould a society that strongly values its culture.  Their commitment to excellence will serve them well in all walks of life.

Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
Historical photo of Woden Valley Youth Choir
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