Whether in gumboots arranging a bouquet of chrysanthemums, music director of a stage show or teaching aspiring singers, Jo Castelow is full of vim, vigour and passion. It seems that nothing can hold this dynamo of a woman down. Her smile is wide, her passion intense and humour infectious. You simply can’t help but be affected by her generosity of spirit, integrity and honesty.
Music has always played a huge part in Jo’s life. As a young child she learnt to play the piano and always had a passion for singing, but never took voice lessons until she was 15 years old. “I grew up in Methven and sang in a choir at the Mt Hutt College. I had to work really hard when I first started taking singing lessons, as I had a big, uncontrollable voice, which had to be tamed. Mary Adams-Taylor, my third singing teacher, was an Australian and a ‘spade was a spade’ with her. I vividly remember her first comments to me after hearing me sing. Mary said, ‘You’ve got a gorgeous voice love, but you sing like you’ve got a gumboot on your head; I can’t understand a word you’re saying and by the way you’re a soprano.’ All in one sentence! Of course, she was right, I was a soprano,” Jo laughed.
“I do worry for students today, because often they are a bit delicate and don’t take negative feedback the way it is intended. With Mary you either did what she said or you could go home crying, but the point is, I absolutely loved her – she was hysterical. Everyone adored her. She made me laugh so much and got the best out of me,” Jo reflected. Mary taught many singers who have gone on to become very successful, such as Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
At 18 years of age, Jo auditioned for the BP New Zealand Youth Choir as a second alto and ended up a year later as a first soprano in the BP New Zealand Youth Choir Chamber Group. “It took a year to change my voice from low to high, so now I can sing Alto or Soprano,” Jo explained. The choir had approximately 100 members, but only 40 were chosen to tour internationally in 1988, Jo being one of them. “The tour started in Wales, travelled around Europe and finished in England. We all had to fundraise to make the trip and I was very fortunate as the Methven and Ashburton community and service clubs really got behind me and contributed a great deal of the cost involved,” Jo said.
Jo then moved on to singing in Musical Theatre, her first role being Sandy in ‘Grease’ for the Ashburton Operatic Society, then as the Narrator in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ and a few other roles followed before the birth of her two daughters.
Once Jo’s daughters began to attend kindergarten, Robert Aburn, a music teacher at the college, asked her if she would like to teach singing and direct the junior choir. Jo agreed and went on to become musical director of the Phoenix Choir for 10 years. Under her tutelage, the Phoenix Choir has achieved many accolades and had much success, most recently bringing home Gold and Bronze medals at the National Glee Championship finals on the Gold Coast in Australia.
Jo privately tutors singing students in Ashburton, Methven and Christchurch. “I love tutoring. It is so rewarding and interesting. It is particularly rewarding to see those students who don’t appear to be naturally gifted persevere, find their voice, blossom and achieve great things. This gives me great satisfaction and it is a thrill to be part of that journey with them. Equally, sometimes students with the most talent aren’t prepared to put the work in required and don’t achieve what they could,” Jo said.
Musical Theatre is one of Jo’s greatest passions and her talents as musical director were evident in the recent Ashburton Variety Theatre production of ‘Sister Act’. “I was actually very conflicted about ‘Sister Act’, as I really wanted to audition to sing in the show. It is one of the few shows where there are roles for more mature singers, but ultimately I opted for the role of musical director as the harmonies in the show are amazing and I really wanted to work with that. My husband, Paul, did have a part in the show though, which was great. We all had a blast. It is one of the few shows where the jokes are still funny, three months after you begin rehearsing them!” Jo laughed.
“I believe that everyone needs music in their lives, whether they are naturally talented themselves or not – music takes people on a journey; removes them from their everyday life for a period of time and bring moments of joy,” Jo said.
Jo has had many humorous incidents in the music business, one involving difflam. “I used to sing in a trio and had quite a sore throat, so decided to take some difflams to help me get through the performance. Of course, you are only supposed to take one difflam every four hours, but I think I took two, the end result being I completely anaesthetised my vocal cords, which meant I couldn’t sing! It really was quite funny,” Jo laughed.
In 2000, Jo started the ‘Mid-Canterbury Summer Singing School’ as a vehicle for the talented singers who lived in the Mid-Canterbury area. The reputation of the school is such that it now encompasses students from Christchurch, Timaru and beyond. “It is like a musical bootcamp really, but they do all have lots of fun. The students come through Summer School learning how to sing and move at the same time, which requires great motor skills. The week culminates in a musical show which is always well-received by the public and gives the students a chance to get on stage and perform before an audience. Alice Sollis assists as director and choreographer. Several summer school participants have gone on to great success. Paul and I decided to offer a scholarship system six years ago, the criteria being a minimum of three years attendance at the summer school. The scholarship helps towards student fees if the student decides to pursue a tertiary course in music or opera,” Jo explained.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to keep anyone busy, Jo and Paul also run ‘Smithfield Flowers’ and ‘Smithfield Cottage’ (Air bnb). “We have a five acre block of land and needed to do something with it. Paul had studied horticulture at Lincoln University and to put himself through Lincoln he worked for someone who grew chrysanthemums, so we started growing flowers and were initially intending to just sell bunches of flowers, but then I decided to arrange bouquets as well. It is a lovely sideline and I just love being out picking and arranging flowers early in the morning. It is completely different to music and is an ‘out’ for me. Being in gumboots, out in the shed putting bouquets together is my ‘happy place’. I love it!” said Jo.