‘Come and Sing’ in Stawell

“At 7pm on a night in the dead of winter, there’s often nobody but me in the room.  As people come in they’ll say ‘ah there’s only three of us tonight’, then a fourth person turns up and there’s five… By 7:20pm, there’ll usually be eight of us and I’ll joke with them all – but it’s true – that I made this group, because I want to sing, and even if nobody else ever turned up, I’d still stand there and sing!”

It’s been twenty years since community singing leader, Dianne Stewart, made the move to Stawell in the shimmering Wimmera region of Victoria. Dianne relocated from Bendigo, via the Northern Territory: “I did my Grade 6 AMEB in Alice Springs at a time when they’d never had anybody do a voice exam there before, which was interesting. I come from the City of Bendigo which has this huge musical and choral culture, and I moved to Stawell where there was a two-act musical performance once a year which then disappeared. The state musical theatre wasn’t my background and it wasn’t my thing, but it was the only thing that was sitting in town that I could access, and I wanted to sing!”

Dianne approached Stawell Performing Arts Company (SPACi) and asked them about the possibility of creating a singing group or choir in the town. “They said if you put something to it, we can put something together so I spent the next year doing research and connected with CMVic back when Fay White was doing the Vocal Nosh stuff. Fay came to the Grampians to do some work around bushfire recovery and I went to a workshop she was running and I got some lovely feedback from people.”

Receiving the encouragement to ‘just start it and step out’ made Dianne feel a Stawell-based singing group of her own was possible if she adopted the Vocal Nosh model and set it up as a singing circle. Which is exactly what she did.

“I put the proposal to SPACi, told them this was what I wanted to do, how it would run and why it would work really well for them.” Dianne then started the Come and Sing  group and it’s been running ever since.”

“I’d never led a group before, never been a singing leader at all. I’d been a singer in a choir and a voice student, but I’d never run a group, it was all very new to me. I don’t play the piano and I didn’t feel I could do the kind of things I’d been involved with in the past because my choir leader and singing leaders had all played the piano and had been the accompanist as well, but I couldn’t do that… “

Attendance to Come and Sing is very relaxed with no expectation for singers to attend every week. “It’s come as you like; come each week, or just when you can – pay as you go, and there’s only a very small payment each week because it allows access to more people. I’ve done a lot of work with SPACi around people’s capacity to pay. We’ll probably have between 8 and 15, sometimes 16 or 17 people through the door. The ages range from a couple of senior high school students (and their dads come as well) all the way through to people in their 80s.”

Dianne finds the geography of the Western District of Victoria can make connecting up with other leaders and attending events something of a challenge: “Trying to build and connect with anything past Ballarat is more difficult because of the distance.  I see what Community Music Victoria is doing and a lot of the time the workshops are not accessible for me because of the distances involved.”

To stay up to date with professional development and for support in her singing leadership, Dianne seeks out resources and ‘stuff’ she can access online and in her own time at weekends. Despite the tyranny of distance, Dianne’s a member of several organisations including CMVic and the Singing Teachers Association, and these connections to the larger network give her the incentive to work at creating and making more of the community in which she lives.

“It brings me great joy. It’s the connection with other people and the community.”

“We always tell people come and see what we do, try it out, if we are your tribe, if we are your thing then you’ll continue to come, and if we’re not, then that’s ok too. The group is called Come and Sing because it’s for anybody at all who walks through the door who just wants to sing.”

Because Come and Sing sits within SPACi, for some people trying out for shows is a way to build skills and try bigger things. Being part of Come and Sing’s weekly sessions builds their capacity to prepare for the auditions which are a requirement of taking part in a rehearsed show. “They can choose to do that, or not. Quite a lot of our Come and Sing singers aren’t interested in doing that, but others are.”

“SPACi also runs a junior program which is very much a musical theatre program, and the kids who grow out of that tend to come and sing in the group, but being in the country, those kids usually move on and leave the community. “We don’t tend to get that 20 to 30 age group because they’ve moved elsewhere or gone to university and we work with that. I think we attract the people who are interested and we attract the people who want to do what we want to do!”

Dianne is happy to share the role of leader and enjoys encouraging anyone keen to have a go. “I always say if anybody comes along with better skills than me I’d be really happy to sit down and participate or if somebody else would like to step up and lead, I’ll be very happy to learn from them.”

“…As a leader, at the end of the day it’s good to keep reminding yourself that what you’re providing wouldn’t be there if you weren’t.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with big thanks to Dianne Stewart.

Come and Sing meet on Wednesday evenings, 7-8:30pm; 52 Wakeham Street, Stawell, Victoria, Australia. For info, contact Dianne Stewart: 0427850278

Songs & Chants for Planet Earth: A Compilation of Songs by Jane Coker

“The outpouring of freedom songs went to the core of the struggle and expressed, as nothing else was able, the hope, belief, desire, passion, dreams, and anguish of the conflict.” Mary King speaking of the power of song during the US Civil Rights movement.

I put this selection of songs and chants for climate justice together with the specific aim of helping us all to find stuff that was simple and catchy enough to use outdoors at protests. I wrote a few and gathered a few from other people but this is only the beginning of my collection and there’s loads of other great stuff out there. The problem is finding stuff that is really short and easy to learn, yet effective. (Kavisha Mazzella’s Mother Earth song is a perfect example of all these things).

As yet –  to my knowledge – there isn’t a central place where this specific type of song and chant are gathered but the Extinction Rebellion Choir is a good model and has some good resources available on Facebook. Closer to home, Climate Choir Melbourne is also creating a great collection of resources, available here.

People are writing and sharing new songs and chants all the time. Singing together gives us enormous sense of our shared humanity, makes us feel strong and positive, allows us to express our emotions in these desperate times and communicates in a non-threatening way to people observing and participating in  our protests.

Jeannie Marsh, Jane York, Emily Hayes and others have been bringing singing to this week’s Extinction Rebellion protests in Melbourne. I humbly thank them for making this huge contribution to the campaign. Those of us who have the skills to enable people to sing together – now is our moment to make a huge difference to the face of the campaigns and the strength of the movements.  Act now!

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For recordings of these songs and chants, click below! Feel free to use any of mine as long as your protest is non-violent.

Sing out Strong!

Jane Coker
jane.coker@bigpond.com
October 2019

*Photo of the Spring Rebellion in Melbourne, courtesy of Hilary Walker

 

 

The Journey From The Song, by Stuart Ashburner

It is only a short song. In fact it was just the chorus that started it all.

Perhaps I should start from where it all began. Polly, my wife, has always loved listening to ‘a capella’ so for several years we would go to the Selby Folk Club’s annual a capella concert in Upwey. Then about 5 years ago, after the concert, I made the irrational decision to join Sweet Sassafras, one of our local choirs. Irrational because I’d not sung since my youth, and never in a concert. A few weeks after that our choir director announced that we would be learning Light by Light by Liz Frencham and singing it along with VoKallista, another local choir, at the Belgrave Lantern Festival and if we wanted to get started on the song, go to VoKallista on Wednesday evening.

That song, Light by Light, started a new journey in our lives.

I went along to VoKallista, got an amazingly warm welcome from Libby Price and met Barb McFarlane whose name was vaguely familiar. I knew by the end of the session that I needed to join VoKallista as well as being in Sweet Sassafras. It took a while to get Polly along, for the usual reasons. “I’m not musical, I can’t sing.” etc.  Within three months they were among her best friends, almost like family, and she had done a short solo recitative on stage at Daylesford during the Choirs Concert.

Then one day Barb Mcfarlane told me that she was on the Victoria Sings Steering Group at Community Music Victoria. I’d never heard of CMVic let alone the Steering Group. She said that the group consisted only of women and needed a male to give it a bit of balance and I was that male. That’s how I got involved. I decided to go to Treetops to find out what a CMVic camp was all about. Polly said I was on a high for weeks afterwards.

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Stuart (left) at Treetops, back in 2014

So, we’ve just got home from our third CMVic Singing Camp, met up once again with the loveliest bunch of people on the planet, are both inspired from the workshops, from the interactions, the singing, talking and the warmth. Our lives have changed into totally new directions over the last four years with new confidences, new friends and new adventures. 

And it all started from that one little song.

Thank you Liz Frencham for Light by Light. And thank you Barb Mcfarlane, for getting me into CMVic, and thanks to all of you wonderful CMVic people.

-Stuart ‘Fuzzy’ Ashburner

Postscript: It is as relevant to me now in 2019 as it was when I wrote this in January of 2014. Wild horses wouldn’t keep Polly and me away from the CMVic Singing Camp!**

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Stuart and friends at the 2017 CMVic Singing Camp

**The 2019 CMVic Singing Camp at Amberley runs from October 18-20. It is a weekend of peer exchange for Singing Leaders of all experience levels, new, aspiring or experienced, and anyone who loves to sing! For information and bookings, click here. 

The Peace Choir: A Sanctuary of Song in Castlemaine

Not so quietly getting on with singing together in a little corner of its community is the Castlemaine Peace Choir. A beloved group, not particularly well known outside of the town, its spirit is forged by the values of inclusion and compassion which underpin it and are its reason for being. Peace Choir is a free, no-obligation community choir funded by philanthropy.

The Peace Choir was born after a couple who manage a small philanthropic fund within the town made it their mission to embrace the people who look on from the sidelines of society, marginalised from the offerings of the mainstream because of mental illness or intellectual disability, and bring them into the frame. Motivated by the effects of a profound personal loss, they approached the district’s community house, mental health support groups and disability services about establishing a choir.

They approached community singing leaders, James Rigby and Jane Thompson, who were aware that they were  running groups for people of a certain age and demographic from within their town: “We always said they were open access, anyone-can-join choirs but we just knew we were missing a whole lot of people who would have benefitted from the experience that these choir members were having.”

James and Jane were initially worried about the concept of mixing together people with intellectual disabilities with people with mental illness. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to both of those groups and we were worried that people with mental illness may not want to be classified as being the same as people with intellectual disabilities and vice versa. We ran separate workshops and then brought the two groups together and it was just a magical event.”

A minister in the town who was helping to coordinate the whole process gave the Castlemaine Peace Choir its name, something James says has been ‘an absolute gift’: “Many people with mental illness are just looking for some internal sort of peace, some stillness. It’s ended up being absolutely a choir for people who feel on the edge and there are also people in the choir who are there because they want to interact with these people who are on the fringes. We’re creating a space that actually and selectively recruits in the corners.”

People who work in the disability services in Castlemaine are aware of the choir. If you live in the district and you suffer from a mental illness, you’re quite likely to be referred to ‘Maine Connection’ and the fellow who runs that group is also on the organising group for the Peace Choir. This means it’s only a matter of time before he’ll say to somebody, ‘well look, why don’t you come along and have a sing?’ There are no processes or paperwork involved and its recruiting methods are pretty organic: Sooner or later you’re going to run across somebody in the town who has heard of the Peace Choir who will invite you along for a sing. “It’s a self-perpetuating thing.”

“We run from 5:30 with a late afternoon tea; then sing from 6-7. That afternoon tea is the best fruit you can get in the district; really beautiful, quality food from the local suppliers, delicious cheeses and good bread, it’s not flashy or extravagant but it’s wholesome and nourishing. A lot of people in this cohort are used to cordial and a plate of mixed bickies when they go to things, so to be able to off them decent, quality food is a way of saying ‘we’re going to look after you here’, and it’s extremely levelling. We eat for half an hour and that’s when all the catching up goes on. “Every time I walk into that gathering my heart just warms, you see this quite extraordinary mix of people carrying on like old friends. Nobody new is ever left on the outskirts. It’s all very low key but I don’t think there’s any chance anyone in this room would ever feel not attended to, or not cared about.”

The choir has borne witness to some pretty extreme behaviour from some of its members over the years too. “It’s not just a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – they are a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – but these are people who are prepared to really actively challenge themselves to look after other people who they might not normally be with.”

“We had a guy in the choir for a while who was floridly psychotic, he was very heavily tattooed and he had a very intense flat aspect to his face and he was lean and dangerous looking; he used to just stand up and sort of prowl during the sessions and start pulling off martial arts stances. He looked like he was about to kick someone’s head in but people in the group would settle him down and he kept coming back for a couple of years. For a time we were able to give this fellow a connection to his town and an introduction to some people who would continue to care for him. He could be an intimidating presence around our town and yet the choir was a place he kept coming back to, somewhere to be present with a group of people who were all happy to have him in the room. We were all a little bit uncomfortable but a little bit of being uncomfortable is a good thing for you, I think.”

James used to be an Emergency Department Nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and has plenty of experience of people disrupting a situation: “I’m not actually scared by scenarios where people come in demanding attention. I guess I’ve worked in places that have been full of very scary people on many occasions and I’m not frightened of people with mental illness or who demonstrate extreme behaviour. The number of people who are actually dangerous is vanishingly small. And there’s a massive amount of compassion and care among the Peace Choir singers. If I have to take somebody outside to calm them down there’s a whole lot of people who have got my back, I’m not going out on a limb or doing this on my own.”

James thinks the choir’s repertoire is absolutely the guts, the heart of the whole thing. “We sing a lot of songs about taking care of each other, caring about other people, and we’ve got some old folk songs from back in the era when peace songs weren’t unfashionable.”

But it’s digging into songs written by Indigenous musicians such as Archie Roach where the group finds relevance. “The group can really see and identify with the marginalisation which comes with being Aboriginal and living on the fringe and songs written about coming from an underprivileged demographic. We sing songs like ‘We won’t cry’ from Archie Roach and they’re songs about resilience and strength and the choir just totally gets it.”

These people who have lived with these scenarios for ‘years and years and years’ tell James that ‘these songs absolutely tell my story and they tell the story of the people who have helped me to survive.’

Another important aspect of the choir there since the beginning is that people come along with their carer, whether that’s their mum, their sister, or whoever: “Every song we sing has an affirmation of the experience and the aspirations of the people in the choir”.

One of the singers in the Peace Choir is David, a man in his mid-30s, who comes along with his mother. David has autism and is nearly non-verbal although he has been known to burst into song in the supermarket. “David is a gentle, beautiful looking man, but vocalises with squeaks, grunts and whistles and makes all these crazy noises through the singing of these sensitive songs about peace, and nobody in the room turns a hair. David’s part of the group and if he’s making noises, good on him, we don’t care.”

At the end of David’s first year with the choir, his mother wrote a letter to James and Jane. In the time since her husband had died, this woman had never been able to do anything without wondering first what she was going to do with David. The Peace Choir was the first time in their life that they had been able to go and do something together and be involved in a community activity together.

James spends a lot of the time teaching people to listen. “As the years have gone by, we’ve sung more and more quietly, we have a massive dynamic in the choir now, and here’s this bunch of people with every problem under the sun and it’s absolutely the most beautiful sounding choir I’ve ever worked with. I find myself in the middle of a tender song about peace or the Melanie Shanahan song, Walk with me, written about mental illness and about crying out for people to just please help, it’s very passionate, a really raw song and we just sing it soooooo beautifully and it’s so achingly tender. And I think ‘how on earth do you teach this lot to sing that song with such commitment or insight?’

I believe it’s because they really care about the people on the other side of the room and they’re really listening to what the other people are singing and nobody in the room wants to be the person singing louder than everyone else… They’ve just become the most incredibly beautifully tuneful choir; we keep shocking ourselves.”

The Castlemaine Peace Choir is run by James Rigby and has around 60 regular singers. It runs for 30 weeks each year on Wednesdays from 5.30pm and everyone is welcome.

For more info, contact office@makingmusic.com.au, 0408 547 511

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby and Jane Thompson

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold Choir Tecoma offers Songs for the Dying

For the close-knit community in the hills above Melbourne, comfort and support in the form of song will soon be available to those on the threshold of life, offered by a fledgling new group of singers, Threshold Choir, Tecoma, led by experienced singing leader, Barb Mcfarlane.

“I went to the Sacred Edge Festival about four years ago and there was a singing session which, of course, I went to. The woman leading it was from the Threshold Choir in Melbourne. Speaking with her afterwards I was fascinated by the idea of singing for the sick and the dying and immediately wanted to be part of it, but Melbourne Threshold Choir meets on a Wednesday night which is when my choir Vokallista rehearses.”

Barb let the idea ride for a while until the subject came up again in conversation with her friend, Christina Reeves, who is a trained death doula. A death doula supports the person who is dying and their loved ones in whatever way is required to come to terms and be able to deal with what is happening. Christina shared and encouraged Barb’s excitement about the idea of a Threshold Choir and the possibility of forming one based in the hills. And so, this particular story begins.

‘The Mother Ship’ as Barb calls it, is the Threshold Choir established in California in 2000, by a woman called Kate Munger. The Threshold Choir is a secular organisation run by volunteers which supports people all over the world to establish their own chapter of the choir with the shared goal ‘to bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying’.

Permission to sing Threshold Choir songs is granted only to members of the organisation. There is no set rate to join; singers pay what they are able or would like to, from one dollar upwards. This membership facilitates access to tips, mentorship and a cappella singing resources to support them in their journey.

It was important to Barb to feel completely at ease with the rules set by the Threshold Choir before introducing any of her singers to the organisation. “I thought about going maverick and doing it my way, then I thought some more. The Threshold Choir Mother Ship has many beautiful songs which are tested, tried and trusted. They also offer mentoring support meaning if something happens I can contact my ‘coach’ or anyone else I meet through that network, and say, ‘hey look, this happened…what would you have done?’ It’s a way to de-brief and check in. On balance it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”

Barb’s coach, Cathy, is based in the US and mentoring is possible via Skype and email. Cathy has been available to Barb since the inception of her initial idea through to the launch of Threshold Choir, Tecoma. It’s an ongoing relationship and she offers Barb mentoring and advice on some of the more common questions which come up, and advises how to prepare the singers for the emotional aspect of what they’re preparing to do.

Barb knows that it’s difficult for anyone to know what to expect in the emotional sense: “There’s a huge range of possibilities to prepare for in a room where someone’s dying.” Threshold Choir, Tecoma rehearsals runs for three hours and at the end Barb finds people are keen to stay and keep talking and singing.  “It’s common for people to feel that we’ve lost the art of talking about death and dying and the experience of belonging to the Threshold Choir allows a way for the singers to reconnect with memories and share their own experiences of bereavement and loss should they wish to do so, or if they find grief and emotion is triggered by what they are doing. It’s a safe, empathic space where people are free to open up. If you bring it out by way of tears and having other people listen it’s always a healthy process.”  

Having spent a year familiarising herself with the material, Barb now has 15 Threshold Choir songs which she’s taught to her group. “We sing them for a long time, each of them might be the length of a Short Stuff style song, and we’ll sing that for around 15 minutes.”  

As somebody highly experienced in leading community choirs and singing groups, having guidelines to follow has required some adjustment for Barb. “I’m still getting my head around how to behave within the rules, cos that’s a bit of a challenge for me, I’m used to doing my own thing, but I also feel protected by it as well because they’ve all been doing it for a very long time.”

In preparing for a session, Barb sets up a circle with a reclining chair covered with a blanket and cushions in the middle. The singers are then invited into the centre to experience the sensation of being sung to for themselves. “We’ve taken a lot of time to do that. We’ll sing for a good 20 minutes to give the person in the chair the feeling of what they might be giving to someone else when they go out and start singing. We then allow for some space and listen to whatever they might want to share about sensations or how they felt.”

Threshold Choir guidelines suggest that singers go out in groups of 2-4 to avoid crowding  out a space. Most hospital rooms and private bedrooms aren’t able to accommodate more singers than that without their presence becoming overwhelming. This means that the singers who attend not only have to be confident in singing their parts but need to be able to hold it on their own, which is what takes the time for most people.

Barb now has around 30 singers who’ve been to gauge whether singing in a Threshold Choir is something they think they could do, with a good core of 12 coming along to most sessions. She’s happy to allow for a slow build of interest, the work may not be for everyone. Barb’s also working to factor in obsolescence for herself in order to ensure longevity for the group. As an ongoing part of rehearsals, Barb models and shares solid CMVic Singing Leadership skills, offering others in the core group the opportunity to teach and lead songs, encouraging them to develop their own skills in leading rehearsals and eventually, to deliver the actual work with people in the community.

The services of the Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be available for people in Palliative Care at home, or in a hospice. The songs may also be used as a way for soothing the room down after somebody has passed. Effects of the singing are reported as calming, peace inducing and pain relieving for the person who is ill, for their relatives, for the staff if the person is in a facility and, of course, for the singers themselves. 

Living in such a connected community, Barb foresees a high demand for the services of the Threshold Choir Tecoma in time and is hopeful to have enough singers available to manage a roster service available to voluntarily sing for the sick, the dying and their families. 

This weekend, Christina Reeves, Death Doula, is heading up a ‘Dying to Knowexpo being held in the Hills (August 8-11). The focus of the weekend is to explore ways to ‘create a world where we all know what to do when someone is sick, dying or grieving’. Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be singing at this event and Barb will host immersion sessions on Sunday 11th August for anyone keen to experience the songs or who would like to try singing with the group and find out further for themselves, what this incredible service is all about.

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, and Barb Mcfarlane for Community Music Victoria.

Photo by Bobby Stevens on Unsplash

Music Helps Spoken Language Development For Children With Impaired Hearing

A new study from the University of Helsinki has found that music, in particular singing, is beneficial to the brain of children with hearing impairment, and the development of their spoken language.

Ritva Torppa, a university Lecturer of Logopedics and Speech Therapist, and Professor Minna Huotilainen have published their findings together with those made by other researchers in a comprehensive paper called “Why and how music can be used to rehabilitate and develop speech and language skills in hearing-impaired children” published by Hearing Research.

This paper is a comprehensive review of the reasons why music could and should be used for improving the speech and language skills of children with mild to severe hearing impairments with cochlear implants and/or hearing aids, and contains a series of ten guidelines by Torppa and Huotilainen for the use of music with children of different ages and varying backgrounds for parents, caregivers, educators and therapists.

These recommendations can be found in section 3 of the paper, sub-titled How to use music to enhance speech and language skills of hearing-impaired children. Emphasis is placed on the value of using singing as your main instrument, especially with a young child, and the benefit of supporting the musical hobbies of teenagers with hearing impairments. The recommendations are made on the basis of the intervention studies and correlational studies described in the article, and on the basis of the traditional auditory rehabilitation, music therapy methodologies, and speech and language therapy methods.

“…the current evidence seems enough to urge speech therapists, music therapists, music teachers, parents, and children and adolescents with hearing impairments and/or cochlear implants to start using music for enhancing speech and language skills. For this reason, we give our recommendations on how to use music for language skill enhancement in this group.” – Rita Torppa and Minna Huotilaienen

Read the full article here: Hearing Research. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2019.06.003

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Intercultural Collaboration: An Ocean of Possibilities

Dr Laura Brearley

Intercultural collaboration is a slippery and elusive art. I find it a spacious and revealing place to work. It sings to me and draws me in and on. I think it was a mixture of naivety and courage that led me to working in this field. I am a singer, song-writer and creative researcher with an Anglo-Celtic and Scandinavian heritage. What I have learned over the years is that an ocean of possibilities is available when we open our hearts and take the risk to make genuine contact.

Anything can emerge when trust is laced with risk. What we share and what makes us different has room to come alive. There are no formulas for success and this, I think, is a good thing. The riskiness of it keeps us awake and alert.

The capacity to listen and the qualities of trust, respect and openness are central to fruitful intercultural arts collaborations. This is never more so than when the intercultural collaborations are between First Nation community members and people from other cultural backgrounds. We work together against the backdrop of colonisation, the massacres and government policies of enforced dispossession and attempted cultural genocide. The impact of these policies continues today and are evident in disproportionate rates of incarceration and inequities in health, economic and educational opportunities. The list of inequities goes on and is still being experienced by First Nation peoples in Australia and across the world. 

There are many compelling reasons why trust takes a long time to build in intercultural collaborations. Collaborations across cultures can create a bridge for connection, but it can be a perilous crossing. The potential risks of neo-colonial appropriation and misunderstanding are ever-present. The space in-between is where reconciliation can occur.

I have come to see that trust is everything. It is slowly gained and easily lost. Trust is what keeps the conversation alive. There are so many reasons not to trust in this world but in my experience, a kind of magic emerges from the in-between spaces when music and art are involved and an interdisciplinary approach is taken. A spaciousness appears. The reasons not to trust will always be there, but creative engagement and active participation can enable people to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. This is what bridges are made of and this, I believe, is why the work is worth doing. 

There was an opportunity to have a direct experience of these in-between spaces at the Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival, held on the 5th – 7th July in Cowes on Phillip Island. The Island Whale Festival, now in its third year, celebrates the arrival of humpback whales and southern right whales in the coastal waters off Phillip Island as they migrate north to the warmer waters off Queensland.

The Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was designed to bring people of all ages and cultural backgrounds together through music, art, science and a love of the natural world. Steve Parker named the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival, ‘Balert Yirramboi’, which translates as ‘Strong Future’, literally ‘Strong Tomorrow’. Steve is a Traditional Custodian, an artist and musician and one of the Directors of the Yowengarra Bun Wurrung Balug Clans Aboriginal Corporation. Steve has lived on Millowl (Phillip Island) all his life.

Activities of ‘Balert Yirramboi’ included Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace weaving together music, art and science. Elders and Special Guest Artists lead the activities, all of which were designed to deepen intercultural understanding, strengthen community and raise environmental awareness.

The 2019 Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was auspiced by Community Music Victoria, an organisation dedicated to bringing people together and strengthening communities through the power of music.

Here’s a link to a short film ‘Singing with Whales’ from the Intercultural Arts Program at the 2018 Island Whale Festival. https://vimeo.com/288066243

We acknowledge the power and beauty of the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung Country on which this event takes place. We honour and thank all the Ancestors and Elders who have lived on this land and sung it into being the strong place that it is.

Dr Laura Brearley leads a song at the 2018 CMVic Music Camp

**The latter part of this article was updated by CMVic on August 1, to reflect the fact that the 2019 Whale Festival is now a past event.

Love Songs for Whales… & A Creative Invitation

by Dr Laura Brearley

The Whales Are Back

The whale migration season off Phillip Island has begun again and the texts have started to arrive …

  • Wednesday 29th May 9.45am

First Island whales this season. Two whales off San Remo jetty, heading to Cape Woolamai.

  • Tuesday 4th June 3.31pm

One humpback sighted 1.4 kms of the Nobbies, heading towards Pyramid Rock.

  • Friday 7th June 10.48am

One humpback whale, close to shore at Cape Woolamai.

We live at Cape Woolamai and although I was deep in work at the time that this third message came through, I answered what I felt was a call to action. When I arrived at Anzacs Beach at Cape Woolamai, the car park was full. A crowd of people was standing looking out to sea. There were families with children and people who had never met before were talking and laughing with each other. Just as I had, everyone there had dropped what they were doing when that text came through. Excitement was in the air and it felt like a shared experience of connection with the whales, as well as with each other.

I’ve noticed this sense of connection on whale cruise boats too. We board the boats as individuals and when the first whales are sighted, any separateness between passengers seems to dissolve. We sing and clap and whistle to the whales, reaching out to them together. Sometimes, they’ll swim along with us, even diving under the boat. If they’re feeling playful, they seem to dance in the water, breaching and splashing with their bodies and tails. It’s a profound experience to be part of that joyful play.

The whale at Cape Woolamai a few days ago was surfacing from time to time. I found it moving to see a whale in this early stage of the season and to know that the age-old cycle of the whale migration was underway again. With all the human interference of the natural world and the damage done, the rhythm of the migration endures. It is larger than all of us and that is a wonderful thing.

Humpback Whale Research

Over the last few weeks, I have been in touch with members of a team of international scientists who have been undertaking research on whale songs for many years. Led by Dr Ellen Garland (St Andrews University, Scotland) and Dr Jenny Allen (Griffith University, Queensland), the research has been tracking how the songs of humpback whales are transmitted over time and distance in the Pacific Ocean. The two lead researchers, Dr Ellen Garland and Dr Jenny Allen, have both expressed interest in the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival.

Their research has shown that whale songs are communicated across the South Pacific, moving from populations from eastern Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east. The whale songs appear to come originally from the Indian Ocean, west of Australia representing a transmission of almost 10,000 kilometres. The research team has found that thousands of male humpbacks can synchronously change their song to a new version introduced from a neighbouring population in as little as two months. Their research in song learning has revealed that humpback whales employ some of the same learning strategies as songbirds and humans when acquiring a new song.

Below is a short film about this research:

Creative Responses

With the support of local First Nation community members, Bass Coast Shire Council, Destination Phillip Island, Community Music Victoria, Cowes Uniting Church, we are currently organising the Intercultural Arts Program ‘Balert Yirramboi’ of the Island Whale Festival happening in Cowes on Phillip Island on the 5th – 7th July, 2019.

A talented group of musicians, artists and cultural advisors is coming together to help celebrate the whales through song, story, dance and collaborative art-making. Activities will include Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace which weaves together music, art and science.

Jazz pianist, Steve Sedergreen, is composing music in response to the scientific whale song research. During the Festival, he will be performing his new composition with his long-time collaborators, Wamba Wamba didgeridoo player, Ron Murray and jazz drummer, Mike Jordan. Camille Monet, who is coordinating the Collaborative Artspace at the Festival, will be facilitating arts activities in response to the whale song research. Participants will be invited to create visual responses to the whale songs, making patterns on long sheets of paper which will be carried in the Whale Parade at the end of the Festival. Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir has generously gifted local Boon Wurrung language to a Whale Song Cycle that I have composed and that Trawlwoolway artist Lisa Kennedy has illustrated.

Creative Invitation

We would like to extend a creative invitation to you. If you are someone who loves whales and is interested in creative collaborations, song-writing, poetry or story-telling, there is an opportunity for you to share your ideas and make a contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Whale Festival.

If you are seeking inspiration, one way of getting focussed is to reflect on some core questions, such as …

  • Why do you love whales?
  • What do whale songs stir in you?
  • What does the sense of connection with whales feel like for you?
  • If you had a message to send to the whales, what would you say or sing to them?

If you would like to make a creative contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program, please send an email to Laura Brearley  laura.brearley@tlc21.com.au by COB Friday 28th June, 2019 with your contact details and a brief description of what you would be interested in sharing at the Festival, eg song, poetry, story. The program has been designed with activities in which creative exchanges and collaborations can occur. The copyright of all material will remain with the contributing artists.

The full program of the Island Whale Festival is available at: http://islandwhales.com.au/program/

Many events are free and bookings for ticketed activities can be made on-line.

And … next time you hear that there are whales off the coast, and you are nearby, just stop what you are doing and take some time to be near the whales and feel the gift of their presence. I suspect they will feel you too.

-Dr Laura Brearley

Featured image ‘Whale Tail’ by Lisa Kennedy

We can all make music! Inspirational stories to celebrate and champion the practice of community music making.

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