In recent days the media has been full of news of the sad loss of Richard Gill – conductor, teacher, composer, and powerful advocate for school and community music. Many will remember him as the somewhat eccentric man with a shock of white hair representing classical music on “Spicks and Specks”.
He passionately believed that every child deserves music, and that SINGING should be the basis of all music experience from an early age.
I have been personally fortunate to be a student, then a teaching colleague, and a friend of Richard Gill since the age of 15, when as a country girl I went to a NSW state music camp and played the violin under his baton in a full symphony orchestra.
At that stage I had never even seen a French horn, or an oboe, and the experience of sitting in the heart of 60 musicians playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, in a tent, in the rain, with flutes behind and violas to the side, was an early inspiration. “Cellos, can you SOB a little more?” said Richard Gill. I melted with adolescent musical emotion!
So many people have an anecdote about Richard Gill.
“He remembered my name when I ran into him, 35 years after I left school.”
“He got me to sing an improvised melody in Solfege over a ground bass in a workshop – and surprisingly, I could do it.”
“At music camp in 1967 he played the piano for an evening Barn Dance in the style of Chopin, then Buddy Holly, then Souza.”
“At a teacher workshop we did one round of saying our names, and he remembered all of the 40!”
“At a choral rehearsal, we sang a 4 part, 20 page Kyrie, and at the end he said ‘Tenors, your E at Bar 68 was a little flat.’ ”
At workshops and conferences for teachers, he made each of us feel that what we were doing was important. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said.
Kim Williams, a close friend of Richard Gill’s for over 5 decades, says: “Richard was a remarkable person – a true citizen of music, warm, generous, passionate, talented, kind, thoughtful and loyal. His legacy is rich and deep – I intend to ensure the essence of it is embraced on a continuing basis.”
Richard Kefford AM, the Chair of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra – which Gill co-founded in 2013, and which has been his deeply-felt passion in recent years – says: “Richard Gill will be remembered as a giant in Australian music, an iconic conductor, teacher and passionate campaigner for music education. His death is a massive loss to Australian music and to the countless colleagues, students, friends and audience members who loved him so much. . . We are truly moved by Richard’s request that the Richard Gill Memorial Fund be established. . .so that we may keep the flame of his remarkable legacy alight.”
Richard Gill was an outspoken promoter of music for every Australian, through music in schools and in the community, as well as in concert halls and opera houses.
He was a passionate supporter of music at every level, equally at home sitting on the floor with 3 year olds, leading a Flash Mob of 500 singers with “When I’m 64”, rehearsing a Mozart opera, or conducting a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.
His inspiration lives on in many of us as we work in music and spread the enthusiasm that he encouraged in many thousands of people of all ages.
Heather was a Community Music Victoria Board member for 9 years, at the end of a career of teaching music – in primary schools, to young children, and to people of all ages in community sessions. Her special passion has been home made marimbas (Jon Madin style) and in retirement on the NSW mid north coast she can’t resist volunteering in primary schools and introducing older adults (aged 65-85) to music-making through U3A sessions.
Richard Gill’s TedEx talk on the importance of a child’s music education can be seen here.
On Feb 5th this year I posted in a private feminist group I belong to, the following:
“Random thought for all singers (everyone) in this group: If I was to start a casual Inner North FEMINIST CHOIR, who would be interested? Singing tunes by powerhouse women of pop and indie including Beyonce, Peaches, Meryl Bainbridge. Like if you would be keen to come along x”
The idea for a feminist choir had been rattling around in my head for a long time, nurtured through chats with lefty, femmo, artist friends about what our creative responses to this unique cultural moment in history might look like. I made a playlist entitled ‘Feminist Choir’ that may or may not have included the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks. So when I got 12 comments of support under my Facebook post I thought ‘fantastic, great, let’s do this right away…’
Right away turned out to be 5 months, and change. I booked the room, made a poster, created a Facebook event and – for lack of any better ideas – titled it BIG FEMINIST SING!, thinking this would do until I came up with a much more clever and witty title.
I then proceeded to completely overthink what we would sing: What is a feminist? What does a feminist song sound like? Am I even a good enough feminist? What if I forget how to feminist and I am never allowed to feminist again?!!!!
After this initial bout of imposter syndrome, I realised that I needed to focus on what I wanted from a Big Feminist Sing. What I wanted was to express a complex set of conflicting emotions around identity. To do more than argue with strangers on the internet. To make a physical space for catharsis. To express vulnerability, anger, humour; to be fierce, silly and soulful. I wanted to be unapologetically critical of our leaders, cultural values and institutions. I wanted to build community, and I didn’t need to have all the answers!
It was important to me that the Big Feminist Sing workshop was a welcoming and safe space for all non-binary, gender fluid, intersex and trans singers. There is a disturbing amount of discrimination in some pockets of the feminist community and I wanted it to be clear from the outset that everyone is welcome. I have tried to do that by stating explicitly on all our promotion that we are for everybody. I have also been conscious of this when making song choices and lyric changes in songs. Not just choosing songs with lyrics about Woman power and giving pronoun options on lyric sheets. I hope that this has made the space more welcoming and I will continue to listen to feedback around this.
As with my other projects I knew that selecting material would be crucial to the success of the initial workshop. I wanted it to be satisfying and surprising, so the first song in our first session was the children’s song There’s A Hole In My Bucket, which was my dry and humorous way of finding a song that accurately depicted the domestic mental load and the infantilisation of adult men. We then sung a mournful a capella lament on the destruction of Mother Earth by trans singer-songwriter, Anohni, and Radiohead’s Creep,with guitar accompaniment and the lyrics re-written to be about Trump.
Over 40 people showed up to the first workshop and many were not regular choristers or singers. For the second Big Feminist Sing over 80 people came through the door and I was excited and nervous in equal parts. I now had an unruly mob of lefty feminists to wrangle and lead. What did they want or expect? Luckily our venue had a stage and my accompanist had brought a headset mic for me to use so I had physical command of the room. With prior permission, I had arranged Tiddas’ My Sister in two parts and in just under an hour we had something glorious and powerful. The video of that session was shared nearly 4,000 times and, by her own admission, we had Sally Dastey in tears.
We travelled to Docklands Library for the third session, inspired by the big turnout for the previous workshop in Northcote, however I want Big Feminist Sing to be of no fixed address and to move around, allowing different groups of people to take part. Although the turnout for the Docklands workshop was smaller, a third of those who attended did so only because it was held in a central location.
Our fourth workshop was a collaboration with Reclaim the Night were we learnt Mylk’s Quiet, the anthem from the Women’s march. We were then invited to sing it at the conclusion of the RTN event the following week. I made an online resource of the song so that people who couldn’t attend the workshop could still be a part of the evening event and on the night we had around 40 voices leading the crowd in song.
I have a lot of ideas for the future of Big Feminist Sing and am in the process of putting together a committee to help put them into action. The main question in my mind right now is ‘what is our activism’? What will it look, sound and feel like? I look forward to answering these questions and making music with the incredible humans who make up the BFS community.
Jane York October 2018
The next Big Feminist Sing is on 13 November, 7-9pm at Kindred Studios, 3 Harris St, Yarraville. Click here for info.
About Jane: Jane is a multi skilled musical instigator committed to the community building power of group singing. She is the founder and director of contemporary community choir ‘Just Holler’, musical director of Nillumbik Youth Theatre and producer and musical director of Big Feminist Sing. She has directed choirs and music groups for people aged 10-90 with a focus on mental health recovery and inclusive practice for the disability community.
When she is not waving her hands around Jane is producing community music events including choir jams, a sold-out tribute to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, It’s Our Side Project and#Sing4equality.
When Annie Fletcher and her family moved back from WA to Melbourne, Hurstbridge seemed a nice spot at the end of the train line. It wasn’t until they’d been living there a few months that Annie realised the rich arts community they’d been fortunate to move into.
Keen to get into more hand-drumming, Annie decided to hook into the local scene, in particular the regular jamming sessions at St Andrew’s market, which at that time had a weekly drum circle. This lead to a conversation with the local neighbourhood house about starting a beginners group and, fourteen years later as Drum Connection, the beat goes on.
“I wasn’t a particularly experienced drummer at that time but, because I’d been a teacher for many years, I used my teaching skills to work out what I wanted to teach and how and it just grew from there. My intrinsic love of rhythm had also been honed over many years with my passion and tertiary study in Dance.”
Numbers were low to start with, but running the group gave Annie an opportunity to assimilate into the community, “it helped me find my place and it was just so rewarding”.
Participation in the new group continued to grow with spots of natural fluctuation, but the community music experience continued as a weekly dose of positive good fun.
“I always say there are no mistakes in the drumming, there are just variations on a theme and a bit of jamming is fine. People like that and if they struggle with a particular rhythm, they can just play the first beat of each bar or the main beats of the rhythm and when the finishing call comes, they can whack the drum again and finish with the group, so it’s accessible to all.”
Annie has found that some drummers just keep coming back while others take time out and return after an extended break. Consequently, a consistent core has developed with several drummers having earned themselves a Drum Connection ‘10 Year badge’!
“Over the years we’ve built up a community which is really very special and the group always welcomes and nurtures whoever walks through that door.”
Drum Connnection participants vary widely in age, ranging from a few older school-aged kids through to seniors. Everyone jollies each other along, learning, nurturing and playing as a collective group. Annie runs two long sessions, one on Thursday evenings and one on Friday afternoons. Within these sessions, levels 1, 2 and 3 are covered in particular time slots, which allows specific groups to learn layers of the shared rhythms at a complexity appropriate to them.
Drummers are offered an opportunity to perform at community events and when this occurs all of the different drum voices are combined within a structure for the whole rhythm, so that the entire group can play as one ensemble.
Annie also likes to introduce a singing element into her workshops, when simple parts of traditional songs can be taught to accompany an appropriate rhythm. Annie saves this ‘surprise’ until around week 3 by which time anyone new has settled in. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘oh you’ll never get me singing but of course, in time, they all sing!”
Occasionally, people will express concern that they lack enough rhythm to join in, and some people certainly find drumming a bit trickier than they expect to, but Annie has found that when she can assist them to relax, the drumming falls into place more easily. A number of drummers come to Drum Connection as part of a personal recovery process. For people who have suffered some sort of trauma, loss, bereavement, separation, anxiety or illness it can be of assistance when they are at a transition phase in their lives. “Often people will say to me afterwards, “that was just the best thing”.
“Some people find they can actually switch off from the big thing in their life because they are concentrating so hard on drumming, others find they can go into this quite meditative state and those people might have one or two rhythms you can see really working for that person and they totally zone out.”
Annie believes it’s unnecessary to highlight the healing or meditative aspects of drumming for discussion in the context of these community classes, preferring to consider these positive outcomes as an added bonus of the experience of participation and rhythms in a shared music-making context:
“People will discover this for themselves, it doesn’t have to be labelled… it can still be having this effect for many people whilst other people are just enjoying the music or the social aspect. Drumming can be different things to different people and we don’t necessarily need to put a label on any of those.”
Kids have joined in with Drum Connection workshops over the years, usually accompanying a parent although not always: “Anyone over the age of around 10 is welcome. I have occasionally had someone as young as 7 and although it’s an adult class there’s no problem them joining in if it works for them. It can be a nice thing for a parent and child to do.”
This month Annie is starting a series of drumming workshops in Hurstbridge specifically for kids, to gauge interest and uptake. “There are some good music programs in the local primary schools but for any kids who can’t get in or are too young, it could offer a good transition… I’ll give it a go and see!”
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Annie Fletcher
If you would like any more information about these classes or single workshops for specific groups, contact Annie: Mob: 0407 102 578; Email: email@example.com; fb: Drum Connection Aus
The following article was co-authored by Jim Morrison, who is a senior Noongar man, a traditional custodian of Western Australia’s pristine southern coast. He has been operating in a range of pivotal roles dealing with Aboriginal advancement for more than three decades.
This is the story of how karaoke, that quintessentially global entertainment, came to Noongar country in Western Australia in the 1990s and was transformed into Noongaroke, a 21st-century version of corroboree events of bygone days.
Noongar people engaging with karaoke created a contemporary process for cultural healing and wellbeing that dealt at a profound level with the anguished politics of death in their community. Leading the charge was the “deadly Noongaroke singing DJ” Jim Morrison.
Jim’s parents, both from the stolen generations, survived to raise their large family whose members are now prominent in Noongar service organisations, politics and the arts in Perth. Jim generously shared his journey in an interview with my partner Darryl Kickett and myself that is quoted extensively here.
Noongar people are the traditional custodians of the south-west region of Western Australia. They bore the full force of settler invasion and colonisation: the deaths, dispossession, loss of land and culture, racism, segregation, removed children, forced assimilation and dire poverty within a rich country.
What survived of their way of life was invisible to most outsiders: the ancient family lineages, connection to country, kinship values and obligations, hidden knowledge and rituals and elements of language.
Today most Noongar people live in city suburbs and country towns. Numbering more than 40,000, they constitute the largest Aboriginal language group in Australia. Many identify as members of a distinct Noongar nation within the Australian settler state. In 2006, Noongar claimants won Australia’s first and only successful native title claim over metropolitan lands.
This was a rude shock for most West Australians, who assumed there was no Noongar culture. In 2013, the West Australian government presented an offer intended to resolve native title claims across Noongar country but one of the negative effects has been to divide the Noongar community and encourage public racism based on fear and ignorance.
What karaoke can do
Karaoke is a form of public singing using the simple technology of a microphone and sound box and a book of lyrics.
Popularised in Japan in the 1970s, it soon spread to South-East Asia and then further to become a global phenomenon. In her 2012 book Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugresic uses karaoke metaphorically to denote the “unoriginality” of global culture that is repeated everywhere, endlessly and that encourages bad late-night performances, such as the actor Bill Murray singing More Than This in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation.
In Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon, Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco present a contrasting perspective. They describe karaoke as “an interactive global network”, a form of “global traffic” with “no centre or periphery” moving out in all directions. Like a fluid, karaoke takes on different forms as it “rushes and trickles” through.
Local people incorporate karaoke into their cultural traditions and imbue it with their own “cultural-specific meanings and symbolisms”.
That’s exactly what happened when karaoke came to Noongar country.
Noongaroke was far more than a good night out; it was an inspired intervention to support grieving Noongar families during an unprecedented crisis of deaths in the community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Noongaroke nights were performances of global culture enmeshed in Noongar ways of being and doing. Noongaroke merged karaoke technology and public singing with Noongar traditions and strategies of survival.
The simple technology fitted neatly into family gatherings to mourn loved ones by providing an attractive way to sing and dance and to restore wellbeing in the manner of earlier corroboree events. It was this combination of the past in the present that powered Noongaroke.
Performance theorist Diana Taylor describes a similar process in Mexican village communities where contemporary performances are structured according to hidden ancient principles and relationships and how performers draw on this embodied knowledge as a repository of strategies for their current struggles and for envisioning new futures.
Jim Morrison started Noongaroke in the late 1990s after years of DJing for Noongar fundraising events and working with street kids in Northbridge, the heart of Perth’s club scene. His first intention was to raise funds for funerals and impoverished families. He recalls that Noongaroke quickly gathered a huge following:
It grew and grew and grew, if you did a head count, you know, thousands and thousands of people have come through Noongaroke. There are people who were just there every night. They just love to sing. It’s always a good atmosphere.
In fact it was a unique atmosphere of pride and enjoyment from being together as Noongar people. Apart from sports carnivals and funerals there were few other community gatherings, although in early days corroborees had been a constant activity. This was due to a lack of resources – land, venues, funds – and an over-zealous police force.
So what was so Noongar about Noongaroke?
We may as well ask what was not Noongar, apart from the equipment and the venues. The singers were all Noongar people and the audience was made up of their extended families. The atmosphere was relaxed, warm and friendly. Noongar colours – red, black and yellow – were everywhere to be seen in flyers, decorations, flags, coloured lights and clothing.
The venues were rooms in hotels in Noongar suburbs that were private and “Noongar comfortable”.
Sadly we had to use a hotel because we don’t own nothing. Aboriginal people don’t own nothing. We don’t have our own places.
Noongar values of respect replaced the usual impersonal rules for behaviour at karaoke nights. Few people drank alcohol. Jim explains:
there’s a code of conduct based on respect: respect yourself, respect others, respect other people’s property and respect other cultures. And that was the Kanya Code of Conduct, Kanya meaning, shame, behave yourself.
But Jim admits it would have been unusual if there weren’t any problems because:
it’s part of our culture. That’s a culture thing. If we’re going to disagree we’re going to do it publicly so you accept it. But mostly, they’d never bring their fights to a fundraiser.
And there were the unmistakable sounds of Noongar talk – the words, tones of voice and the accents – as families reminisced about the good and sad times and the texture of the singers’ voices and their choices of nostalgic rock and country songs – Johnny B. Goode, Brown-eyed Girl, Neon Moon, Satin Sheets, Seven Spanish Angels – from the Noongaroke Top Ten and a book called Lubbli Songs.
And there were Noongar people dancing – young girls and women in groups and couples skilfully negotiating their way around them. Jim explained:
When you go to a karaoke night, it’s mostly singing. But ours was about singing and dancing … you had to do it – it was a bit of a balance.
Community music-making continued down the generations. In rural areas, families segregated in town camps and the bush made their own entertainment: corroborees with traditional singing and accompaniment and family dances round the campfire with singers, harmonica, piano accordion and guitar.
In the early 1950s, when the policy of assimilation was in force but Perth was still a prohibited area for Noongar people, an Aboriginal political organisation, the Coolbaroo League, held popular dances at the Coolbaroo Club in a hall in East Perth with Noongar musicians like drummer Ron Kickett and singer Gladys Bropho and visiting Afro-American performers.
New song and dance styles spread through the Noongar community at Coolbaroo dances organised in country towns. Noongar rock bands were playing in Perth in the 1970s for youth dances at the Aborigines Advancement Council Hall and in the 1990s at the Kyana festivals on Perth Esplanade. Whenever the opportunity arose, Noongar people joined in to sing and dance.
During the rush of deaths in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Noongaroke helped to clear distressed bodies and minds of sorrow and haunting spirits.
Jim described how DJing and singing at the events raised his sense of wellbeing:
You see, singing is really good for therapy, you know, to really tear yourself inside and sing a good rock and roll song … and with all the people in the room, the temperature goes up.
This link between singing and wellbeing, known intuitively by singers, has been the subject of much research in recent years, demonstrating improved physical and mental fitness and relief from stress, depression and anxiety. Noongaroke performances were special events that we were all privileged to attend. Sitting in the audience we were carried away by the power of the singing to unite us and to evoke memories and emotions.
You never know where life as a Singing Leader will take you next. Several years ago now, The Lucky Wonders, an indie folk pop band from Byron Bay, toured Germany. In need of a break after a few gruelling years in the music industry, Jessie Vintila and her partner Emma Royle took off for a drive through Spain and France, and found themselves in St Jean Pied de Port, a small French town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Turns out, St Jean Pied de Port is a common starting place for people walking a spectacular stretch of the Camino Francés, the most famous of all the Pilgrimage routes across the mountains, and on this particular day the atmosphere of the town captivated them both in a powerful and life changing way.
“We saw all these people in hiking gear with walking poles and there was a kind of magical hush over the town. There and then we got the bug for the Camino. Emma has been a keen hiker all her life and she was determined we would walk this track as soon as possible.”
But with return flights booked and paid for it was time to head home to Australia leaving the two women unclear about how they could justify an imminent trip back to Europe. “Being musicians it’s not that easy to travel across the world”, Jessie laughs. Their quest was something to ponder, something requiring time and creative thinking but the vision and the place persisted to play in their thoughts.
On a walk out one evening, an idea and a solution to the situation popped clearly into Jessie’s head…and after all that thinking it turned out, rather ironically, to be a bit of a no-brainer.
Jessie was fortunate to be born into a singing family. As a multi-instrumentalist for most of her life she has also been a passionate choir leader since she was 18: “I can’t get enough of it, I’m an absolute harmony addict, I love having people all around me singing harmonies all the time.” Emma, who is also a musician, is an ardent fan of walking.
The freshly hatched plan combined all these skills and, most importantly at that point in time, gave Jessie and Emma a legitimate reason to head back to the Camino together to explore the idea of setting up their potential new venture: A Singing tour of the Camino for other people to do.
“If we could go over there and set up this project, we could do it!”
Within a few months of their original visit, Jessie and Emma went back to Spain and walked all 800 blister-busting kilometres of the Camino. They decided to focus on the final 200km stretch which they decided would be the ideal distance for singing walkers to cover on a twelve day tour. A significant amount of their time on that first trip was spent researching places to stay away from the traditional and crowded boarding houses or ‘albergues’ typical of the region, and immersing themselves in the culture and lifestyle of the area.
“We found all these special little stops run by families to stay in along the track and pieced together an itinerary which, by the time we’d finished, was gorgeous. A lot of the self-organisational skills we’d honed from being in a band came into use… I only had about 12 words of Spanish but I managed to book 12 rooms for the following year for people who didn’t even exist yet…”
Jessie acknowledges that a huge part of being able to take the plunge and do this was the trusting, welcoming nature and enabling culture of the Spanish people. And it worked.
With Jessie’s vision and Emma’s pragmatism, the women established ‘Sing the Camino’ and, in 2014, took their first group of 9 singers on a 12 day, gospel singing tour through Spain from Ponferrada to Santiago. They were living their dream. The following year they took two groups of 16 people each.
Each of the groups who have Sung the Camino with Jessie and Emma has its own unique character. Some of the singers will know each other and have booked in as a group. Others arrive as individuals on adventures of their own. The tour is inclusive to singers of all levels and experience and non-singing partners often come along too, though they rarely remain non-singers for long.
“Singers of all abilities are welcome… we have found that in a supportive environment, with the right help, everyone is able to experience the joy of singing.”
There will be people who want to flash mob along the track every single day, or put on a performance for the town they arrive in at the end of a day, whilst other groups are not open to these capers at all, and that’s fine too.
As Jessie says, the singers who go out on a limb always have an entertaining story to tell at dinner that night, about how they made the man in the cheese shop cry, or how the man in the fish shop is a fantastic singer and he went and brought in his brother and they sang a song together. Beautiful spontaneous things can happen, but none of them are planned. Which is as it should be.
One of Jessie’s favourite aspects of these trips are the nights when local guest musicians come and sing for them all, and Jessie and Emma have spent a long time building relationships with these people:
“We’ve had the good fortune to discover some really amazing genres of music we didn’t even know existed… like Tuna which I knew nothing about. One evening staying in a little apartment in the town square in Ponferrada, I was already in bed in my pyjamas and almost asleep when I heard this wonderful music come floating up. I hurried to change into my clothes as quickly as I could and ran down to find the musicians as they were packing up. I had to chase these guys – again with my very limited Spanish – and in a garbled way ask them if they’d come and sing for our group on Thursday. They said yes, and have been coming along ever since wearing their traditional capes and singing sonorous harmonies with lots of string instruments of various kinds, accordions percussion and tambourines, sometimes they even have bag pipes, they’re a cheeky bunch.”
Singing the Camino is like a roaming Vocal Nosh. Whilst everyone does the day’s walk at their own pace, they all come together again for a big feast in the evening and an hour’s singing to re-energise, re-connect, and round off the day.
“We always do some Spanish and Galician songs” (Galician being a language of Spain which is more like Portuguese). “We’ll sing in Galician because this is the region of Spain where we spend most time on the tour and the people there proudly identify as Galician, speaking Spanish mostly because they’ve been made to. Generally, we make sure we’re singing whatever people have the energy to do at the end of a day’s walk.”
Jessie enjoys the challenge of meeting a fresh new group of singers, assessing what they’ll respond well to and selecting the right material and repertoire she feels will work best for them all. For this, she draws on her experience of leading singing groups in all sorts of community settings over the years including groups for people with disabilities, kids’ groups, and a rehab choir. “It’s a nice challenge to feel you can rise to.”
“We change the repertoire every time depending on whether the group is an amazing choral group which can nail four part harmonies, or whether they’re there simply because their friends came and then we might want to sing some Carole King or some Abba songs. I keep a printer handy so we can bring in new material if that’s what we want.”
Self care is also an important element of the tours for Jessie and Emma. They find that meditation is a fantastic way to retreat and restore their energy levels. “It goes an incredibly long way to keeping the battery fully charged and we feel a lot less exhausted at the end.”
A significant number of their past singers have been asking if they can all Sing the Camino Portuguese and so Jessie and Emma have done the research and are embarking on this next, in an exciting new phase of their venture. After all, there’s a lot of world to walk out there, and a lot of songs to be sung.
Findings from new research conducted in the Netherlands show that structured music lessons have a significant and positive effect on a child’s cognitive abilities, improving verbal intelligence, inhibition and planning skills.
“Despite indications that music has beneficial effects on cognition, music is disappearing from general education curricula,” said lead author Dr. Artur Jaschke, who is a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “This inspired us to initiate a long-term study on the possible effects of music education on cognitive skills that may underlie academic achievement.”
James Rigby spent years driving past the mighty Murtoa Stick Shed in awe of its size and wondering how on earth the monolithic structure looming up out of the landscape could still be standing. He never imagined that one Spring day in 2017 together with Jane Thompson, he would lead around 300 community singers in a Big Sing under its cathedral-like roof of bush poles and corrugated iron.
The idea for a Stick Shed Sing was conceived by Judith Welsh, Chair of the Committee of Management which took over the running of the shed when it was gifted back to the community in 2016. The vision was to create an event to reflect the ambience and glory of the Heritage listed building and bring singing into the shed for the first time as part of Murtoa’s Big Weekend celebrations.
“We wanted an event that anyone could join in on but which gave local choirs, the singers from the Wimmera, an opportunity to perform as part of a massed choir, as well.”
As highly experienced community singing leaders, Jane Thompson and James Rigby expressed their interest in coordinating the event, working with Judith to decide a shape for the day, which included a massed singing workshop open to anyone keen to sing in the shed and a concert by any community choirs attending, who were happy to perform.
The first Stick Shed Sing was held in October last year, attracting a huge amount of interest from within the local community and further afield with around 6 full choirs performing at the concert and individual singers from many other choirs attending too.
“We had the signing choir from Horsham Primary School where AUSLAN is taught as a second language, which was lovely as it meant there was lots of children’s energy in the building too.”
The Signing Choir sign what they sing, culminating in a dance-like blend of a song’s rhythm and the natural gestures of the signs. This theatrical style of delivery is well suited to the vast, 270 metre-long Stick Shed where you can occupy as much space as physically possible and still feel incredibly small.
James and Jane found that facilitating singing of any sort in a space the size of the Stick Shed is not without challenge – all part of the excitement of being there. For a start, there is the all-important issue of acoustics.
“The shed is like a tent with an incredibly long, high pitched roof so the acoustics vary dramatically, whether you go in near the edges close to the roof, or whether you stand in the middle of it underneath the ridge, at which point the acoustics disappear. What we found was that about two-thirds out from the edge you hit this magic sweet spot where the natural reverb of the shed is really flattering to the singing and meant we could hear ourselves and, when singing as a group, what the group was sounding like.”
As luck would have it, this particular area of the shed is well lit by a line of skylights set into the roof enabling the singers to see all that is necessary whilst feeling a part of that beautiful big space, and with the added option of gazing at the clouds moving above them over the Wimmera.
For the workshop, James and Jane used ‘Here in the Stick Shed’ a short warm-up song written for the occasion by Jane, and a song about trees by Scott Wise called ‘Hold up the Sky’.
“We sang a beauty about trees and how they hold up the ground in mines, and on the land they hold up the road, and then when you get to the forest they hold up the sky. It’s a beautiful song about how trees prop up everything all around us and of course we’re standing in a shed where there’re these ridiculously tall little skinny mountain ash poles holding the whole thing up…”
For everyone involved in the Stick Shed Sing, James believes the first show stopper of the day was probably the magnificence and scale of the shed itself:
“You approach this massive looming building through the Wimmera wheat lands, it’s bright, it’s flat and then you go into the shed through this administrative area and suddenly you’re inside this dark and immense space… I can only say that it’s like walking into the most amazing, ancient cathedral in Europe, that’s the sense of scale and the sense of awe it inspires when you first walk in, you can’t quite believe it.”
The venue is too big to simply whip a vacuum or broom over, so a day before the community choirs and singers arrived armed with picnics and BYO seating, a street sweeper from the neighbouring shire was brought in and driven up and down to prepare the space. Pieces of conveyor machinery still hang from the ceilings in some spots, evidence of the shed’s industrial heritage.
On a personal and professional level, James and Jane were delighted to have assembled another group of community singers in such a unique setting.
“Jane and I have worked quite a bit in the North and the West of the state and had probably connected with a lot of the individuals who sang with us on that day at some point previously, but we hadn’t worked with any of the choirs before and had no idea of their skill levels, we were assembling a really diverse bunch of singers. In finding a song by an Australian songwriter which spoke about trees and then feeling like we were standing in a forest was a very powerful thing and it connected the people and the place and the music. On an emotional level it worked really well.”
James and Jane were mindful of the distance some of the singers had travelled to participate in the Stick Shed Sing, and due consideration was given to this in planning the concert element of the day:
“The trick of running an event with multiple choirs is to really balance the effort that choirs are making to get there with the opportunity to showcase what they do and what they’ve learned. You can’t ask a highly rehearsed hardworking choir to drive 3 hours to Murtoa and then only give them time for one song. Neither do you want to force a smaller choir, meeting less frequently, to get up and sing five songs. It’s a challenge to make sure we respect the capabilities and the ambitions of all of the choirs.”
The mighty Murtoa Stick Shed is a monument to an older time, built during the second world war to stockpile grain at a point when no steel was available, it is the world’s largest remaining timber-built shed and its iconic void is filled with echoes of its industrial past where the dust motes carry history as they drift in the shafts of light. It’s an evocative place with the capacity to emotionally move anyone stepping into it.
If you missed the opportunity to make the sticks ring last year, there’s an opportunity for community choirs and singers to do it all over again and make music together in this amazing space on Saturday October 6. With Jane overseas, James will be going in on his own this year but, as he says, he knows what the challenges are and is already genuinely excited and looking forward to stepping back into the Stick Shed’s phenomenal space:
“…there will be the need for some big moments. You have a big crowd in a big space and it’s very satisfying to have a go at filling that mighty venue with sound.”
Join James Rigby for the second Stick Shed Sing on Saturday October 6th, 2018. For more information and to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or afternoon concert with your choir (or as an individual!) contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby
Main image: photo: National Trust @NTAV All other images supplied
It’s never too late to pick up a musical instrument. In fact there are many reasons why it’s a great idea, particularly in old age.We normally hear about reasons to increase music education for children, and for good cause. There are many cognitive and social benefits to playing an instrument that aid a child’s development. Consequently, as an older adult, there are long-term effects of having taken part in these musical activities, as it can limit cognitive decline.
Even a small amount of training can have long lasting effects. But this doesn’t mean that those who have never played an instrument in childhood have missed the boat. The ageing brain is plastic: that means it is able to learn new things all the time. So, should we consider an increase in music programs for those in the third age?
Playing music as a workout for the brain
Learning to play a musical instrument is an extremely complex task that involves the coordination of multiple sensory systems within the brain. Many instruments require precise coordination between the eyes, the ears and the hands in order to play a musical note. Using the resulting sound as feedback, the brain prepares for the next note and so it continues. The act of music-making is quite a brain workout.
The relationship between the motor and auditory parts of the brain is strengthened when physically playing music. This may explain why adults trained to play certain melodies have an enhanced representation of music in the brain compared to adults only trained to listen to the same melodies.
As playing music involves many different parts of the brain, even a short-term program for older adult musical novices can lead to generalised improvements for cognitive ability.
Music as a workout for the fingers
Learning to play an instrument such as the piano involves many complex finger sequencing and coordination tasks. As such, it can be a great test-bed for learning to move fingers independently.
The creativity of music and the enjoyment people take in playing is particularly important for rehabilitation, as it encourages sustained practice leading ultimately to higher benefits.
It’s thanks to this that piano lessons have been used to successfully retrain hand function for patients who have had a stroke. The immediate auditory feedback from each finger movement is thought to help adults reduce errors in movement and work towards moving at a more regular pace.
Music training is an excellent environment to train cognitive and motor abilities, both in the contexts of child development and for rehabilitation. The question for older adults is this: can learning a musical instrument not only put the brakes on cognitive and motor decline, but actually allow development of new skills?
Of course many activities can be novel such as juggling or knitting, but the advantages of learning an instrument can be found in the breadth of skills required to play. At Western Sydney University, we are currently investigating how piano training can be used with healthy older adults to improve their general hand function in unrelated daily tasks.
Music for health and wellbeing
Often, the worry is that playing an instrument will be too difficult for older adults to manage. On the contrary, learning to play an instrument can provide a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.
It’s suggested that this is a consequence of decreases in stress that can happen when taking part in musical activities. However, further research is needed to determine exactly how this relationship functions.
Music for all
It’s vital to understand how we can aid the current generation of older adults, in terms of both health and personal enjoyment. With the myriad benefits provided by playing a musical instrument, it would seem beneficial to have a wider variety of musical activities on offer to the older generation.
Wouldn’t it be great if the third age wasn’t viewed as a final descent from some mid-life peak, but some new act of life that opens up these opportunities? Perhaps we should give older adults the chance to develop in ways they could never have imagined before.
Activities such as singing in a choir, or playing the piano can provide this opportunity, as well as offering many general benefits to health and wellbeing.
Contra dance… que’est-ce-que c’est? For those of us who’ve never dipped a heel or toe into this aspect of the folk or social dance scene, a quick spot of online research explains contra dancing as ‘social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.’ A hot stepping cousin of square dancing or bush dancing, contra dancing is done in pairs with couples moving up and down a line or in sets in response to a caller. It originates from North America and is steadily gaining an enthusiastic following of new, young dancers here in Australia. It is also a fantastic way to link social dancing with community music making.
Melbourne based musician, Judy Oleinikov is a big fan of the inclusive nature of contra dance and for the past three years or so has been doing her bit to bring a wider awareness of it to musicians and dancers alike: “ Contra dances can be more vivacious and also a little bit more informal than some of the other dances we have here… unlike something more structured such as Scottish Dancing, it isn’t intimidating to beginners.”
It may be a relief to hear that a sleek technique isn’t required and you don’t need to point your toes to take part. Contra dancing is open to anyone of any age and people seem to find it highly addictive due to its inherent element of fun. That and the amount of spinning involved.
For Judy, Contra dance kicks come from her involvement as a fiddle player for the dance:
“What I love about social dance is seeing a roomful of people in sync, the dancers and the musicians. There’s just nothing better, that buzz of live music and everyone responding to it.
In addition to the fact it’s fun, Judy considers the resurgence in contra dancing important in helping to sustain a complex skill and a vital element of musicality which she believes is at risk of becoming lost: the ability to play for dancers.
“A lot of Celtic musicians learn the music completely separate from the dance and so they haven’t quite got the feel… they can be brilliant players but to a dancer it just wouldn’t be right. We’ve grown used to hearing recordings or playing tunes in pubs and so what I really like about bringing a dance back is doing it while people are learning the music to go with it.”
Contra dance music is lively, and drives and energizes the dancers. Like all forms of music, it has originated from a blend of traditions, noticeably Irish, Scottish, Breton, Québecois, Cape Breton, New England, and Appalachian, and is constantly evolving, as living traditions do. As an avid player of Celtic music herself, Judy explains that the origin of this form of music was in playing tunes for people to dance along to as entertainment.
“People used to dance every week. There’s the story of how in Ireland, people used to meet on the crossroads whenever there was a full moon because there were no halls big enough to fit everyone into… it’s been people’s enjoyment for so long.”
While this form of dancing fell out of favour as other new and exciting ways to pass the time were thought up and invented throughout the twentieth century, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when people rediscover it as a form of unplugged entertainment, it becomes a bit of an addiction.
As a musician, one of the things Judy loves most about this form of traditional music is that tunes are learnt and carried by ear. There are no scores to follow and whilst a framework is essential to prevent chaos breaking out on the dance floor, musicians can be spontaneous and creative in their playing and because they’re not following markings on a piece of paper, their interpretation can come across.
“Because there are no hard and fast rules about chord choices and where the notes should be played, you’ll hear something different about the melody each time… there’s no break out like there is in jazz, it’s more about taking the framework of the tune and finding elements in it to change around or highlight, and that’s really exciting.”
For the past four years, Judy has run the Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle Weekend, a music camp dedicated to French Canadian music, a type of Celtic music that’s “as much fun to play as it is to listen to” which has remained very rhythmic, very lively and is a style extremely well suited to contra dancing.
Each year, Judy has included a dance in the camp’s program, inspired by the social dancing she’d seen in Quebec to this particular style of music. “I thought it would be absolutely brilliant to run a dance like that here at my camp!” Two friends of Judy’s are dance callers and dancers in different styles, and they each asked if she’d consider a contra dance.
“They’d fallen in love with the style and knew of hardly any contra dance happening here in Victoria. Once we had a go I could see their point – it’s a really great form of social dancing.”
Jeanette Mill, who is an experienced Contra dance caller from Canberra, has worked with Judy for the past three years. “Jeanette is highly experienced with a range of dances up her sleeve for whoever comes along and, in order to be as inclusive as possible, starts each of the dances quite simply.” As Judy points out, the skill of the caller has to combine with the skill of the musicians to ensure that the dancers can pick up and maintain a rhythm and flow.
“We have kids, we have parents holding toddlers, we have more elderly people and even teenage boys joining in! It’s great to get all the age groups up and dancing with people they may feel too shy to sit and talk to and, as some of the dances are progressive, it mixes everyone up.”
Whilst Contra dancing isn’t actually a French Canadian thing, it’s been carried across the borders into Quebec from the New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, the heartland of Contra Dance. Subsequently, a lot of the musicians from that region make their money as dance players and tend to be extremely good at it.
In November this year, Judy will once again be hosting a four-day French Canadian music camp in Gippsland ‘which will honour the traditional way of learning music by providing an environment open to all players, teaching the music by ear and enjoying a great community atmosphere.’
The Quebec Fiddle Camp will offer musicians and dancers the opportunity to participate in an afternoon’s contra dance workshop led by visiting musicians from Quebec. “Australia has very few musicians who can play for contra dances so far, and it’s great to have the opportunity to book visiting musicians here who are strong in the genre.”
Judy is keen to encourage players who attend the weekend to have a go at the dancing in order to experience it from a dancing perspective, to feel the music and the impact it has.
The 2018 Quebec Fiddle Camp will take place over cup weekend, (Nov 2-6) and on Monday November 5, (Cup Eve), Judy is planning a big contra dance in Trafalgar. This event will be open to anyone out there in the community who’s keen to join in and – literally – give it a whirl.
For information about the annual Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle weekend, visit www.quasitrad.com
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Judy Oleinikov
John Williams has been singing for 80 of his 90 years on the planet. Growing up on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, there was little opportunity to express himself musically and John really had no idea he could sing. “The headmaster of the school would bring in a local girl to sing with us all once a week, My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Rule Britannia, that kind of stuff. When we moved to Mitcham, my mother and I joined the local Methodist Church choir and I started singing alto alongside my mother at the age of 10.”
John has been singing ever since and was a key player in the founding of the Mitcham based Maroondah Singers, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary as a mixed voice community choir.1 It has encouraged young singers starting out and provided end of life care, too. It is a living, breathing singing entity as vital now as it was half a century ago, and it owes its origins, in part, to John.
“I was there before Maroondah Singers even existed”, he laughs.
The idea for a choir came about through a conversation between John and his good friend, George Irvine. At the time, George wrote a weekly column in the Nunawading Gazette, called ‘As it appears to me’ where he would comment on various social issues relevant to the City of Nunawading. George also worked in the same place as John in South Melbourne and the two men would often travel home together, putting the world to rights as they went:
“I found that usually, whatever we talked about on the way home would appear in the newspaper the week after next where he’d say ‘my friend John says’… I got used to it!”
One of their conversations was about what had happened to all the good choirs. A subsequent column posing the same question elicited a strong response from within the community so the following week George suggested trying to set up something locally and called a public meeting to gauge the level of interest. He hired a space in the Old Orchard Shopping Centre in North Blackburn, set a date and promoted it through the newspaper.
Coincidentally, at that same time, the Mitcham Methodist Church had moved to join the Presbyterians in a joint building venture which had just achieved completion. The very night that George called for the choir meeting, the Mountview Church property committee was meeting to allocate space for community rent.
“I should have been at that committee meeting but I apologised and went over there (to join George) Well, when we looked around and saw the number of people who were enthusiastic about the idea of starting a group, we realised things were going to roll. The meeting continued with everyone agreeing that Monday night would suit, if only a space could be found.”2
Experiencing a light bulb moment, John told everyone to talk amongst themselves, then hopped in his car and gunned over to the Property Committee meeting. “I rushed in, said, ‘Have you finished the meeting? Do you have any space on a Monday night? With a piano?? Yes? Yes!’ ”
The first rehearsal of the Maroondah Singers was held in Mountview Church Hall the following Monday night in 1968, and has continued as a weekly event ever since. Numbers grew quickly under the leadership of Jim Watsford who, at that time, was conductor of the Mitcham Choral Society: “Jim came to that meeting in the hope of securing recruits for MCS. Instead, he got a whole new choir!”
Following Jim’s belief, “if you can follow the words you can sing” the Maroondah Singers was destined to be a success.
Within twelve months the choir had given its first performance with George publicising the event through the newspaper once again, and John continuing to use his powers of persuasion to recruit Lela Wright, his church organist as their first accompanist. (She stayed ten years.)
Fifty years on, and the Maroondah Singers has sung at venues all over Victoria including the MCG for a grand final, for nine years as part of Carols by Candlelight, the Myer Music Bowl, regional church halls, the Dallas Brookes Centre, and Melbourne Town Hall, among others. The Singers is an inclusive and welcoming bunch and Monday night rehearsals are open to anyone keen to drop by and listen. It isn’t essential to read music and there are no auditions, however there is a voice and ear test to determine a singers’ part.
“We’ve never said no – we’re full, to anyone who has wanted to join so we have a lot of sopranos and could do with more tenors. There are more women than men in the choir and a couple of them have moved from the alto line to sing tenor, which works well. And we’re always trying to find younger people, if we can.” Some members of the Maroondah Singers weren’t even born when George and John held that first public meeting, half a century ago!
Since 1991, young singers have been drawn to the choir each year through a scholarship program established to commemorate three of the choir’s founders, George Irvine, and May and Mervyn Vagg, the choir’s first President. This program has proved a sensational singing springboard with past scholarship singers now working with international and State operas, and the process and experience providing a huge amount of pleasure to the choir members in supporting and encouraging these young singers during the early stages of their musical journeys.
Maroondah Singers pride themselves on performing from memory, firing on all neurological cylinders and giving their brains a weekly work out with songs from a wide repertoire by composers from Handel and Verdi to Rodgers and Hammerstein; Elton John to Billy Joel and beyond.
Currently directed by Lyn Henshall and accompanied by Dr John Atwell (who returned in 2010 for a second stint with the choir having previously accompanied them between 1980 and1997) the choir also sings in Japanese, Italian and Latin, and holds an impressive back catalogue including ‘Big Sings’ such as Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. From time to time the singers team up for performances with other choirs and their comrades in the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.
There is no pressure on anyone to ‘perform’ until they feel confident and ready to take this step.
“Everyone is issued with a CD with their part line, explains John, in my case Bass 1, emphasised in a digital recording of the score. All the items for the forthcoming concert are on that CD. Alternatively, they can be downloaded as an MP3 file. Playing these through with the music reinforces the memory, then without the music which strengthens it further.”
Innovation is an important contributor to longevity and the Maroondah Singers is enterprisingly equipped to hit the road and share its songs, thanks to a pop-up tiered platform designed to hold up to 100 singers. Bringing his background in engineering to the fore, John drew up designs for the staging, held a working bee at a college woodworking centre one weekend, and the end result packs down into a trailer, perfect for regional touring.
John’s commitment to the Maroondah Singers and his love of singing and community is evident. For the past 50 years he’s helped out in various ways to keep things going with the choir when needed, including as President for thirteen years and stepping up on the rostrum as leader for a while, in spite of a physical disability in one arm:
“I got the message over, I couldn’t wave two hands about all over the place but I could wave one, nod my head and smile. I get a lot of satisfaction from singing, I get a lot of satisfaction from conducting…. it was deeply satisfying to have to step up at short notice to conduct 104 singers to an audience of 800.”
His warmth and dedication is clear. Every choir needs a John.
Strong endorphin fuelled bonds have been forged between the Maroondah Singers members over the years as they do in all community choirs. When former member, Bill Holmes, was forced to retire due to ill health, he struggled without any family to look after him. ‘Team Bill’ came together from within the choir and closed ranks around him:
“We took care of him in his home until his health deteriorated to a point he could no longer stay. We were fortunate to get him into respite care. We were then able to continue to support Bill until he died in January this year. We saw him through and the four of us were at his bedside singing to a Maroondah Singers CD to him as he died. We knew he could hear us even though he was in and out of consciousness. And we sang him out.”
What greater testimony could a community choir have? At the end of the day, we sing together to connect. It’s the connections we forge whilst doing what we love that enrich our lives and extend out into the wider community, strengthening the quality of its fabric for everyone.
The story and spirit of the Maroondah Singers is certainly one to celebrate. Here’s to John; here’s to each and every one of the Maroondah Singers, past present and future and here’s to the next fifty years of singing and music making in Mitcham and in communities everywhere.
Written by Deb Carveth with thanks to John Williams and Nick Hansen
1: John was also the founding member of the Methodist Youth Singers
2: there were 45 people present at the public meeting called by George Vagg in 1968
*The Maroondah Singers will celebrate a special 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday June 17 at Melba College Theatre, 20 Brentnall, Road, Croydon starting at 2.30pm. The spectacular concert will feature the choir’s past four Vocal Scholars. Tickets are $30 Adult, $25 Concession, under 12 Free. Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/373628. Contact: Anne on 0422 050 323.