Ready, willin’ and able: generosity and solidarity are key components of Williamstown singing group

Leaving Melbourne via the Westgate Bridge on a Wednesday evening, clouds of steam cluster and dissipate into the darkening sky. It’s fair to assume these plumes are output from the factories and refineries dotting the coast like pins in a board from Port Melbourne to Geelong. It’s also possible that part of the component entering the atmosphere is a heady mix of CO2 and endorphins being exhaled by the Willin Wimmin of Williamstown, having their weekly sing.

10583998_1446634612280983_6251822852438359669_nWillin Wimmin past and present were reunited last month to celebrate 25 years as a community choir giving voice to women, and spreading the joy of singing and community to audiences in the west and beyond. By their reckoning, this amounts to roughly 1000 rehearsals, more than 200 performances, over 300 songs and 250 women who have been involved since the inception of the singing group.

Worthy of a knees up, by anyone’s standard. The room was filled with friends, partners and family, everyone brought their own dinner, there was support with sound and lighting from their mates at the Newport Community Choir: it was a community event in every sense of the word.

The group sprung from the John Bolton Theatre School which was based in Williamstown, back in 1991. John employed Bronwen Barton as his music teacher who, with John’s partner and a few friends started singing together. The seeds for Willin Wimmin were sown and interest quickly caught on among the community. The singers were not only Willin Wimmin, they were feisty women with a will and the current members continue to embrace this identity: They set out as sisters doing it for themselves, collaborating as a cooperative and proudly eschewing the committee way of doing things until more recently.

The increasing requirements of funding bodies and venues requiring insurance over the years created a gradual push to become incorporated and adopt a more formal arrangement. Willin Wimmin eventually (reluctantly) bowed to the external pressure, formed a management committee and became incorporated last year.

Back at the start, Bronwen was a great vocal coach whose philosophy that anyone can sing set the value of inclusivity which has underpinned the group ever since. There have never been auditions and the women make it clear that no singing experience or knowledge of music is necessary. A good sense of humour, the will to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity and a shared belief in supporting, and welcoming one another is what counts. Willin Wimmin sing with heart and choose their material from an eclectic selection of genres including world, folk, choral and contemporary.

Julie Merritt has sung with Willin Wimmin for 18 of its 25 years, joining when the youngest of her three children was around 12 months old. The social side of belonging to the group drew her in; she felt a sense of belonging and like she’d found her tribe.

A strong social justice theme runs throughout the choir, and Willin Wimmin have sung on demonstrations and rallies, at sport, art, health and women’s issues events. They’ve trodden the boards at a variety of venues, too: Deakin Edge Theatre, Melbourne Recital Centre, the NGV as well as Fairlea Women’s Prison and Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre, to name but a few.

Willin Wimmin have been helped along their journey by the commitment from their leaders:

“We have been fortunate with our directors – they have each been fabulous, feisty, fearless, sometimes fearsome.  Each of them brought unique gifts and talents with warmth, patience and fun.  Without them, there is no Willin Wimmin.”

Bronwen Barton took the helm for the first ten years, followed by Jo Lange, Dan Scollay, Jennifer Lund, and since 2014, the group has been lead by Steph Payne. Collaborations with other choirs have enhanced their song filled journey, too. Willin Wimmin teamed up with Mark Seymour and the Victorian Trade Union Choir to sing in Dust, a musical by Donna Jackson about the devastating impact of asbestos. They were also joined by the VTUC and Newport Community Choir to sing excerpts of Dust when Donna’s book ‘Art & Social Change: Dust, a Case Study’ was recently launched.

Keeping Community and Women’s issues in their hearts and at the forefront of their philosophy, Willin Wimmin have sung at Reconciliation demos; the National Women in Construction awards and at the Victorian apology to women forced to give their babies up for adoption, where they sung for the Association of Relinquishing Mothers (ARMS). The list doesn’t end there.

Willin Wimmin were also way ahead of the current media frenzy that has gained such rapid momentum around women’s football, and sang at the Women’s AFL grand final before women’s footy was officially deemed cool.

“We have, very importantly, also just sung for each other, in times of sadness, joy, longing, celebration and always with love.”

The wimmin are willin in more ways than one and are happy to offer inspiration and support to everyone who comes into their orbit, irrespective of how long they choose to stay on and sing with them.

About five years ago, Julie recalls an influx of women to the group, aged around 40. Each and every one of them found their voice through the supportive environment before moving on to form off shoot groups or find other, more challenging ways of nurturing their singing souls.

Julie doesn’t pause as she emphatically describes this as ‘brilliant’, seeing it as a natural part of what Willin Wimmin exists to allow; an integral component of its entity and a tangible example of the generosity required for a happy, cohesive community spirit. She acknowledges that seeing people move on is bittersweet “like a parent waving a child goodbye”, but that it is more wonderful to enable people to literally find their voice.

Many members have a story of ‘finding their voice’ thanks to Willin Wimmin.

Confidence, courage and strength are uncovered through singing and performing within a group of supportive, welcoming women, week in, week out. Julie offers herself as a prime example and has felt her confidence grow gradually “not just enough to sing in small groups, but to be back-up conductor, speechmaker, even president of the committee.” This has extended beyond the context of Willin Wimmin and into other areas of her life, proving once again, how impacting and profound the values and benefits of community musicking can be on the lives and well being of its participants.

So congratulations to Willin Wimmin on 25 years of singing together, supporting each other and creating opportunities for community cohesion and connection in lucky old Williamstown. There’s no sign of the sun setting in the west, anytime soon.

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members of Willin Wimmin celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary back in August

Written by Deb Carveth with Julie Merritt, President of Willin Wimmin.

If you’d like to join Willin Wimmin, they meet on Wednesday evenings at 7.30-9.30pm during term time, and further information is available here.

Tides of Welcome keep on rolling: A Queenscliff community choir celebrates 13 song-filled years

Tides of Welcome Choir has been celebrating diversity and harmony through a shared passion for singing, and has just blown out the candles on its thirteenth anniversary cake. The choir comprises locals from Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, who enjoy the experience of singing together and creating soulful harmonies under the direction of their dedicated leader, singer songwriter, Andrea Robertson.Tides of Welcome

Based in Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House, Tides of Welcome has never struggled with numbers enjoying a consistently strong turn out and cohesion from day one, back when it was lead by Sarah Carroll and known as The Ripchords.

Carolyn Williams is one of the founding members, and has been heavily involved in the development and evolution of the choir from its outset, participating in the fun stuff at the front end, and overseeing the administrative nuts and bolts behind the scenes:

“Myself and a few other people were keen to start up a choir and had been for some time but we knew we had to find the right person to lead it, somebody charismatic who would bring people along with her or him. And we found Sarah Carroll who at that stage was in the Melbourne based country band, Git, and had recently moved down to the Bellarine Peninsula. We approached her and she was very keen, so we advertised and on the first night we had about 40 people. Given that Queenscliff is a small population this was a real coup!”

So was it something in the sea air, or was there simply a gap in the singing market?

Carolyn believes it was Sarah’s reputation that drew singers in and the hard to resist attraction of what she had done previously in her own musical right. The group found a home in the senior citizens centre in Queenscliff, changed their name to Tides of Welcome Soul and Gospel Choir, and remained singing with Sarah, for the next 7 years.

One clear problem emerged extremely early on, during the group’s first year, and stemmed from an ebb and flow in the number of people attending. “At times there were 20 people who’d turn up, while on other nights there’d be 40. Sometimes there would be an entirely different group from one week to the next based on who came to sing and who stayed at home. “

This caused a few challenges around the practicality of teaching songs to a group whose dynamic would shift and change, and where people were remembering the repertoire in varying ways and to differing extents.

The choir committee decided to nip the problem in the bud by introducing termly rates, and this immediately fixed the problem. “Once people weren’t paying on a weekly basis it really sorted things out, reiterated everyone’s commitment to the group and regardless of whether you were on holiday half way through term or whatever, you were in it for the duration.”

By 2004, the choir was performance ready and scored themselves a spot at the Queenscliff music festival. Their debut turned into an annual place on the bill, and offers incentive and focus to the singers, and a shape to the year.

A strong set of values underpin the group. As an inclusive community choir, there are no auditions and everyone’s welcome. Tides of Welcome have had a range of experiences over the years including recording five CDs and the production process has been so tight that every voice counts. There are people within the choir who are happy to do solo spots while others can think of nothing worse than being out there by themselves. If a person joins the group who is less confident in their ability to hit the notes, they’ll be put alongside stronger, more confident singers until they find their groove.

So what’s the secret in the success and longevity of the choir? Carolyn believes that comes down to a combination of factors such as the willingness of individual choir members to support the group. For example, they’re fortunate to have a guy who makes time to record all the songs and put them on Soundcloud so that everyone can rehearse in between choir practise, and who has also prepared the website, a fantastic resource richly populated with photos of the group in action, songs and lyrics.

Another huge bonus is the auspicing received by Tides of Welcome from Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House. Not only does this assure them a rehearsal space, it means the administrative and financial needs of the group are all taken care of by the House; the emails which need sending around; the printing of the lyrics, any photocopying; the list of admin and back house tasks which are necessary to underpin all community music groups, are entirely taken care of. And the cherry on the cake is that Carolyn is not only a founding member of the choir, she is the Coordinator for the neighbourhood house, too.

“We have always had the wider community as our heart and the Queenscliffe Neighbourhood House as our heart beat.”

A small Tides of Welcome executive committee meets regularly to take stock, review guidelines and ensure things are on track for everyone, while the final choice about material sung by the group, is made by the leader. During their incarnation as a soul and gospel choir. Sarah Carroll sourced some amazing and rare gospel songs for the group to sing, “what she’d call white gospel from the southern states of America.” Tiffany Eckhardt who went on to direct the choir later on, wrote songs specifically for the choir which was also wonderful, and choir members are always welcome to contribute ideas for material, at any point in time.

Tides of Welcome have benefited from three sessions of professional development over the course of the past 13 years, including a ‘tune up’ from Jonathan Welch, which Carolyn feels was extremely valuable. They continue to be led by experienced leaders, rich in musical background and experienced in teaching a variety of age groups and abilities. Local musician and educator Andrea Robertson is the current director.

“Andrea is a singer songwriter based in Ocean Grove… whilst new to directing a choir like Tides of Welcome, she is an experienced singing and piano teacher and has worked with children’s choirs and church groups. We were very fortunate to have Andrea join us. She’s embraced the role of Director and continues to teach and inspire us to create our soulful sound layered with rich harmonies. She’s also expanded our repertoire to include many songs that she has written specifically for us.”

Thirteen years constitutes many, many weeks of singing together and a handful of the original singers involved since the start are still coming back for more.

While people come and go, for Carolyn, it’s the camaraderie of being in a group and just the fun of singing together that keeps her engaged.

“There is something undeniably powerful about the experience of singing together where the feelings of warmth, joy and harmony are enjoyed and shared…people will often say “I’ve had a really hard day and I didn’t want to come tonight but I forced myself and I feel so much better.”

Tides 13th Birthday
The 3 founding members still involved with the choir: Janelle Jenkins cutting the birthday cake, next to Jacinta Farrugia and Carolyn Williams, standing.

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Carolyn Williams.

Join Tides of Welcome in concert to celebrate their 13 year anniversary on Wednesday September 14th,from 7.30pm at the Uniting Church in Queenscliff or join them at 6pm for a community meal (by donation). For tickets and further information, click here.

Sharing more than song: Singing life back into an old, old concept with a brand new barter choir.

‘If I can reduce my living expenses significantly that’s as good as making money.’ says Werribee singing leader, Steph Payne, who recently established ReciproVocal, a Barter Choir where instead of paying a termly fee to join, participants are invited to share and exchange skills and trades and even sing for their supper. (Steph dreams of dentists, desperate to sing, and who wouldn’t?)

At ReciproVocal, your money won’t get you anywhere! Steph’s vision is for the group to experience not only the bond of solidarity and support for each other common between members in community singing and music groups, but to educate themselves in ways of bartering and skills exchange that will extend out to enrich and sustain the wider community in unforeseen ways.

The idea for ReciproVocal germinated from a seed sewn at an inspirational workshop run by community facilitator, Debby Maziarz, at the Wyndam Arts Incubator, in Werribee. The workshop focussed on bartering and the establishment of mutually beneficial connections between artists and businesses, an idea that resonated heavily with Steph, inspiring a steep and positive learning curve. While she is in no doubt about the sense in trying this ‘revolutionary-retro’ approach, Steph acknowledges that she, herself, had to learn a lot of lessons in the lead up to the launch of the singing group, and that other people may also need time to come around to the concept:

 “There needs to be a huge amount of education around bartering and trading. People can’t see how bartering fits into their world because they’re used to a money based currency.”

Steph has also noticed that even amongst her existing  network of singers and ukulele players all keen to continue working with her, there is often the initial response of ‘but I don’t have anything to trade.’

“But they do! We are all so used to being valued monetarily and comparing ourselves based on what we have. People just don’t realise they have loads of things to trade and that you’ve got to look at it more creatively.”

To encourage new participants to dip a toe in the ReciproVocal waters, Steph is willing to accept money from her singers to begin with, gradually introducing the barter model as the group grows and develops its collective understanding of a non-monetary based currency.

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Steph leading Williamstown based singing group, Willin Wimmin

“We’re all fixated by the concept of money. On the one hand it’s a leveller because everything has a monetary value, it’s very open and clear and you can see what you’re buying into. But on a whole lot of other levels it’s incredibly unfair and messed up. Money’s convenient, but it’s a real trap and it only gives things one value, when certain things hold much more.”

A significant piece of the sociological scaffolding required to support the bartering model, is trust. Trust in the validity of the concept by the participants is crucial, and belief by Steph that the services and goods offered will be forthcoming in the way they are promised is important too. A clear, shared understanding of the need for mutual boundaries between the definitions of professional and personal space between members of the group is equally important. This line in the sand is necessary for the sake of all participants because the variety of tendered tasks require varying degrees of access to areas of each other’s lives.

And while response to the idea of ReciproVocal has been hugely positive Steph believes it will be a slow burn to reach a sustainable level of interest, and is prepared for this to take time.  She’s excited by an awareness that the more people she can engage and educate about bartering, the more likely it is that there really can be a functioning level of trading going on, with the possibility of a real alternative economy starting in Werribee.

To help people get their head around the type of things they can bring to the table, there’s an area on the ReciproVocal website which offers examples of what 8 weeks in a choir is worth. Steph has supplied this as a guide to allow people to work out for themselves the equivalent ‘value’ of what they might like to offer.

Again, a sliding scale of value applies because the value is not just monetary. It’s not as simple as being a term’s worth of singing valued at $150. Singers might offer a service which will save Steph time, or produce something she needs or simply just wants, or be able to arrange a lead into further work for her. The option of third party trade also exists. For example, you may not be willing to mow Steph’s lawn but you might know somebody who is for whom you can babysit, who will then mow the lawn and the chain of exchange grows longer and more embedded.

Steph is always looking to enrich and develop communities through the groups that she runs. It’s a strong part of what drives her. In the past she’s run a singing group in a pub because of the immediate social set up, and she’s hopeful that Reciprivocal will grow to enrich the community in a myriad of ways. Her hope is that once people are engaged in the trading and bartering concept, they will extend those terms and values of collaborative, sustainable living to each other, and eventually to people and life situations beyond the singing group:

“There’s a great level of satisfaction in getting your needs met in a way that’s not financial. As a person with something to offer, as a product as a service, any of us have a choice in how we exchange that. We have our needs, we have our resources, it’s about how to match those two things up. “

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in collaboration with Steph Payne.

RECIPROVOCAL SEEKS SINGERS!! Open to adults of any age and experience. Rehearsals are Thursdays 7-8.30pm 8 weeks per term. Starting July 28, 2016-08-04  Venue: Wyndham Arts Incubator, Old Shire Offices, Room 4, Cnr Watton St & Duncans Rd, Werribee.VIC 3030 www.reciprovocal.com.au  www.facebook.com/reciprovocal  Email: unstrungmusic@gmail.com

 

 

Singing to be Strong: Overcoming anxieties through song

Last Thursday, singing leader Richard Lawton woke up planning to head to the Royal Melbourne Hospital as he has done for the past eight weeks where he runs a singing group for outpatients living with an eating disorder. Except last Thursday Richard felt “a bit crappy with bit of a headache and feeling sludgy.” He could feel his resistance before he’d even emerged from under the covers.

“I was wondering ‘do I have to?… I’d rather stay in bed …’ and it’s a familiar voice in my head because as a card carrying introvert, every night before choir (I have four now) I have to walk myself through this, and it’s the same voice that says ‘I really don’t want to expose my self and be seen by a room full of people’ which is of course what a singing leader does.”

So last Thursday morning, Richard persevered and as he reached the entrance of the hospital it dawned on him how he probably wasn’t alone in his thoughts and how difficult it might well be for the outpatients heading along to his group. Anxiety and eating disorders are good friends, and eight weeks is a relatively short period of time in which to feel completely at ease in a new and unfamiliar situation. Richard senses an element of uncertainty lingering among his singing group at the Royal Melbourne and works to create a welcoming environment in which the outpatients can let down their guard and relax in a safe and fearless space.

“The chairs all have cushions on, and for the first couple of weeks people would come in, sit down and put a cushion on their lap. So they were putting up a defence immediately… There’s a lot of shame involved among patients with eating disorders and it’s important to be mindful of this as somebody encouraging them to open up and let go.”

Supported by a psychologist from within the department, Richard takes guidance from the singing group about ways to put the singers at ease and overcome challenges particular to them, often having to modify approaches and practice he would use readily with his other groups.

Care also has to be taken around use of words. No allusions to image or physicality or exercise. These boundaries are set by the singers who make it clear that to do so will provoke unnecessary anxiety among them. The group Richard works with does not comprise solely of the stereotype teenage girl. Participants range in age from Year 12 to their 40s and while there are guys in the inpatients at the hospital, Richard’s current singing group is all female.

Not knowing the background or the trigger of the illness among the individuals with whom he is working, it is also important that Richard allows them the freedom to choose which songs they sing to avoid material with unsuitable content or unwelcome connotations which may, again, instigate anxiety and prevent people from taking part. “The Cups song from Pitch Perfect is a favourite, and ‘Titanium’ is another one they like.”

Early on, in the inpatient program, only a handful of patients chose to take part in the singing group and it was a challenge to get those who did come along to sing at all during the hour long session. They looked so glum, Richard was wondering if he’d ever be able to break through. It was feedback from the psychologist which encouraged him to keep going in those initial weeks. Even if few of the patients were singing for the entire session and giving no outward signs of engagement or pleasure, their feedback was that they found it relaxing. In the outpatients program, more of them are singing and the numbers have increased.

“Anxiety levels are high. You want control. The thing about purging and eating is that you feel like you don’t have control over your life or your environment and this is one thing you can control. So when they talked about finding singing a relaxing thing, I thought, “oh right, so it’s doing something.”

One exercise Richard uses to combine movement with sound encourages everyone to stand up and shout as if hailing a taxi: Hey! Heeeey! HEEEEEEY!.. with each exhalation and sound growing louder and more sustained. The group cooperate well with this one, becoming less self conscious and more engaged as time goes on. It’s an activity that produces good vibration and masses of endorphins, too.

“When you enter the building everything is so quiet but when the group leaves, they are vocal and enlivened. They have found their voices. They also appreciate the act of singing together, of doing something with other people.”

Anyone who has sung regularly with a singing group will identify with the sense of connection which develops between members of the group. The act of singing facilitates this bond and even aligns the heartbeats of people singing together. Experiencing this sense of connectedness is an important contributor to mental health recovery and a sense of individual peace and wellbeing.

Richard works to empathise with the group, sharing his own doubts and insecurities. The more they feel at ease, the more they will open up and sing. The more they sing the better they will feel and hopefully, the stronger they will grow. And it really seems to be working.

“Last week, when I started the session I could tell that a few of them were having a rough day and I told them a story about how the night before I’d gone to a Contact Dance class for the first time in months. Contact Dance is something I used to be very good at, but it’s mostly a young person’s form, and my mind was coming up with all the familiar excuses as to why I should stay home. Then, when I was almost there I couldn’t find the venue, and almost turned back. Eventually I got through the door and it was wild – I had a ball.

When I told the singing group that story, a couple of them said ‘yes, I had so many excuses for not leaving home today,’ and ‘I got as far as Central station and very nearly turned back.’ So we talked about the importance of ‘getting through the door,’ and how so many times in life we allow our fears to hold us back, and how important it is to get ourselves through the door…

The door metaphor is about how we sometimes shy away from the very thing that is good for us. We know that singing makes us feel better and yet sometimes it still feels too hard.”

For Richard who leads the singing group on a voluntary basis, reward comes from feeling his work is having a positive impact on the lives and the recovery process of the singers.

“I think what touches me about working there is about those days when my skin feels too thin to be out in the world, to be seen, to have to show up, (and as a white male I have it stacked in my favour). When I’m with these women who are wrestling with the human condition there’s a part of me that’s very humbled. And there’s another part of me that wants to wave a magic wand so they can see how most of the negative thoughts they have about themselves are a cruel illusion. “

While magic wands are scarce, Richard’s work in the outpatients’ department might be the next best thing. The group reports feeling calm, more free and relaxed after singing together.  “A lot of them are perfectionists, seeking something they can never have. Eating disorders are one of the few mental illnesses which can kill you or from which you can make a full recovery. It is very hard to measure the success rate of patients who are discharged as they go off and live a full life.”

As each weekly session ends, the group leaves and the hospital corridor echoes with voices raised in more chatter with less silence. The soothing balm of singing works its wonder, the endorphins flow, and the world feels a better place for it. Just last week, Richard heard from the supervisor how after the group had finished, the singers went out to a café where they were much more upbeat and talked about how much they’d enjoyed getting up on their feet and singing and moving that day. That’s pretty magical.

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Richard at work, leading one of his regular weekly singing groups in Elsternwick
Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Richard Lawton. 

 

 

Jamming beats books: How music making with toddlers can enhance their development

The next time you sit down to read to a toddler, consider popping that ole book back to its place on the shelf for a while*, and playing some homemade music together instead. Over time, the long term effect of your action might just make the world a better place to be. Research from the University of Queensland conducted over two years on more than 3000 young children showed that making music with toddlers could have even more of a positive impact on their development, than sharing a story. And lets face it, banging on pots and pans is loud and fun for everyone (especially the neighbours, who will love you).

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Findings from the study, ‘Being and becoming musical: towards a cultural ecological model of early musical development’ (2013–2015) indicate that early involvement in music participation has the capacity to improve numeracy, increase attention and assist with the development of prosocial behaviour and skills which, being the opposite of anti-social skills, are therefore beneficial to the good of society as a whole.

Professor Margaret Barrett, head of University of Queensland’s School of Music and a key leader in the study funded by the Australian Research Council, claims that “Children who experienced more frequent parent-child music activity at two to three years showed stronger vocabulary and numeracy skills, more prosocial skills and stronger abilities to regulate their own attention and emotion at four to five years old….The study highlights that informal music education in early childhood is a vital tool for supporting the cognitive and social development of children.”

Read the full article ‘Jamming with Toddlers trumps Hitting the books’ published on the Medical Xpress website here

*But be sure to come back to the book later on. Balance in all things, and all that…

Article by Deb Carveth based on information found in ‘Jamming with Toddlers trumps Hitting the books.’ Published by Medical Xpress. September 2015

Sharing Jewish Songs at the Community Music Victoria Music Camp

I recently attended the 2016 CMVic Music Camp at Grantville Lodge. I had never attended a CMVic event before and was somewhat trepidatious. I do not play a musical instrument myself, but I do sing in a choir, and I love singing, so was keen to take part in the singing workshops during the weekend in particular.

On the Sunday morning I took part in the Sharing Jewish Songs Workshop. From the minute our facilitator Sarah started talking to us about Jewish and Yiddish Music, about how (according to the strict Jewish faith) women are not really supposed to sing the songs we were about to learn, and about how we were about to make a song together consisting of only “ay di-di dies” I think we were all hooked. Sarah herself had the most beautiful singing voice, and encouraged us to “put the cry in our voice” in the way that she had been. It worked, we sounded good!

Within what seemed only a few minutes we had all engaged in a very emotional moment together, singing what sounded like a heart-breaking song that lifted all of our souls.

I know that may sound extreme, but that is how it felt at the time. We must have done something right, as Sarah herself had to wipe away a tear and told us we sounded beautiful when we had finished.

Sarah then went on to teach us two other Jewish songs, this time with lyrics, which she explained to us from a Jewish perspective, with an enjoyable sprinkling of humour thrown in. Again, the group very quickly seemed to be able to pick up the nuances and tunes of the songs, and before we knew it we were all singing in a circle, with our eyes shut, and “putting the cry in our voice” in a way we never knew we had in us. This was aided by Sarah’s youngest daughter who had joined us (who I’d had fun learning to play the marimba with the day before), adding the little harmony lines to accompany the songs. We then learned those too.

I enjoyed my whole weekend at Grantville, but this workshop was the one I didn’t want to end. I don’t think I was alone. I had a sneaky suspicion beforehand that I was going to love this workshop, but I had no idea how much.

I have just returned to England where I live and am now thinking about looking into if there is a local Jewish singing group in my area. I never saw that coming. I think Community Music Victoria’s weekend hit the mark in ways I never expected.

By Sarah Jackson

Listen to a recording of the beautiful song Adio Querida from Sarah’s session, here.

 

 

 

The Changing Tune of Choral Singing in Germany

This article was first published in Sing Out: the Journal of the Australian National Choral Association (Vol.32, No.2, 2015). It is reproduced here with kind permission of ANCA(1)

Picture1Figure 1: The Nogat Singers, Berlin (Neukölln). Photo (c) The Nogat Singers, 2014.

I arrived at Rathaus Tiergarten, a local town hall of Berlin on a sunny spring afternoon in May, just in time for a celebration. Assorted stalls, abuzz with colour and activity, promoted organisations that support people with disabilities and their carers. On the town hall steps a rock band called Handiclapped was setting up shop as a carload of nervous and excited singers arrived. They were members of the Nogat-Singers (Figure 1), a neighbourhood choir from the Neukölln suburb of Berlin who were star performers for an event to promote, celebrate and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Their performance was a vibrant and colourful mix of popular German folk songs and Schlager (there is no equivalent to the Schlager phenomenon in the English speaking world, but think Eurovision or Germany’s answer to American country and western music!). Having joined their dress rehearsal earlier in the week, I was impressed by the choir’s energy and its commitment to fostering a sense of community.

Founded by disability support organisation Lebenshilfe Berlin, the Nogat-Singers rehearses weekly in a local supported accommodation service, and most members live with intellectual disabilities. The choir receives funding from a social inclusion project grant of the European Union for its close neighbourhood ties. This made sense to me – a choir that sings with neighbours in its little patch of Berlin while at the same time fostering social inclusion for people with disabilities. Here was a great example of community music-making in action (or musicking as Christopher Small (1998) describes) and an ideal starting point for my study of choral singing in Germany.

The Nogat Singers is just one of a vast number of choirs singing regularly across Germany. They range from church choirs, to community choirs (defined loosely as amateur or non-professional choirs that perform publically) who perform in local pubs or municipal halls, through to professional choirs employing full-time salaried singers (there are eight at last count, from smaller chamber choirs to large radio choirs). My time in Germany in 2014 as a fellow of the Australian German Association and the Goethe-Institut allowed me to visit many and to explore the rich practice of choral singing in Germany today. Inspired, I returned with ideas for our choral movement in Australia. In this article I set out just a few impressions from my trip.

Support for the Arts and amateur music making in Germany has a long history. I once heard a passing comment about the three historic features of German village life: a shooting club (Schützenverein) for community defence; a fire brigade (Feuerwehr) for community safety; and a choir (Gesangverein or Liedertafel) or brass band (Kapelle) for community wellbeing! In 1871, 38 territories and free cities united under a common German federation. Most brought with them their own opera houses, concert halls and musical ensembles that had serviced the historic royal courts. Churches too played a crucial role in preserving musical traditions; in smaller communities church musicians were often school music teachers and community choir leaders too. One contemporary example of this long-held tradition is the St Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor Leipzig) – perhaps the most famous boys’ choir worldwide – that celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2012 (Wydra, 2015).

Germany’s historical experiences with music – both negative and positive – have shaped its contemporary community singing culture. The atrocities committed by Germans during the period of National-Socialist (Nazi) government from 1933 to 1945 overshadow German attitudes toward music, singing and cultural practices. The Nazi government’s approach to music education, known as Musische Erziehung, manipulated music to suit its own agenda (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013). This period defines to this day the parameters of “acceptable” music making. As Germans distanced themselves from the Nazi period after 1945, therapeutic uses of music were restricted to clinical settings rather than practiced out in the community. This was particularly the case in former West Germany and came at the expense of practices and initiatives that supported community wellbeing. Key scholars at the time supported this position. Theodor Adorno, in a series of speeches and public discussions between 1959-69, argued that after the manipulation of the Nazi period, music could not and should never be used to pursue goals of healing or social transformation (Kertz-Welzel, 2005). Adorno argued instead for the pursuit of musical excellence and individuality and against collective, community-minded music by amateur music-makers with transformative goals. Rather than teaching and enjoying singing with explicit goals such as community wellbeing in mind, music in West Germany was increasingly seen as an activity for its elite musicians, professionals, and with learning focussed on musical excellence. In the former East Germany, community singing was more widespread with its community wellbeing benefits recognised, but it frequently also served a propaganda purpose for that government. Opinions across reunified Germany in recent decades have shifted. Music education scholars are once again discussing the place of community music and the potential extra-musical benefits of music in schools, including for community wellbeing (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013).

Yet the emphasis on the aesthetics of music across post-war Germany (East and West) preserved and nurtured a vital and historic cultural asset. Culture and the creative arts remain highly valued and comparatively well funded within German society and by all levels of government (McCaughey, 2005). A 2007 federal government report reinforces this view, arguing: “Culture is not simply ornamental; it is the foundation of our society and the platform upon which it grows. The role of politics is to safeguard and strengthen culture[i]” (Deutscher Bundestag). A total of EUR11.2 billion was spent in 2011 to support Germany’s cultural activities, including EUR8 billion from its federal, state and municipal governments, with the remainder from its Christian churches[ii] and private funding. Germany’s 16 States (Länder) together contributed more than one third of this total (EUR3.4 billion). The Länder retain powers in educational and cultural matters and a large say in preserving Germany’s many cultural identities.

Musical life in Germany today is “noted for its diversity, high quality and geographic density – keywords that continue as ever to define Germany‘s special reputation as a land of music” (German Music Information Centre, 2011, p. ix).

There were at last count 133 publicly funded symphony and chamber orchestras, 83 music theatres, nearly 500 regular music festivals, and thousands of amateur, semi-professional choruses, orchestras and ensembles (GMIC, 2011, ix). It is not surprising then that community music making is the largest civic movement within Germany (Reimers, 2012, p.1).

Choral singing today is an opportunity for many to partake in some of the musical delights and masterpieces of Germany’s rich choral music history. A leading scholar of German choral singing (Brusniak, 2003, p.69) suggests choral music and a vast and diverse tapestry of choirs are essential and integrated parts of its public and private musical life. There are nearly 59,100 associated choirs and choral organisations in Germany, including about 29,900 secular and 37,200 religious organisations. These choirs engage nearly 2.3 million singers regularly (Reimers, 2012, p.2). There is a large audience base for choral concerts too. A 2004 study estimated about 60 million people attend some 300,000 choral concerts annually in Germany (reported in Reimers, 2012, p.1). These formal choral activities do not include the multitude of established and ad hoc choral groups and public singing that is an increasing feature at large gatherings – the 2014 World Cup football tournament comes to mind!

I was interested to find out who spoke for choral music in Germany. At first sight, the coordination and advocacy of choral music across Germany evoked images of Franz Kafka’s writings: a confusing landscape of overlapping organisations, funding bodies and responsibilities all claiming to represent and advocate for the interests of choral music. Yet when viewed through Germany’s unique historical lens this overlap, it seems to me, provides safety in plurality (Vielfältigkeit). It avoids a single, central point of control for a mass movement and all the negative consequences this represents in many German minds.

Germany therefore sings with two voices when it comes to choral singing. Two peak bodies represent choral singing nationally: the Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Chorverbänder e.V. (BDC) and the Deutscher Chorverband e.V. (DCV). Together they include and advocate for the vast majority of German choirs. The DCV is the world’s largest choral association and represents the vast majority of Germany’s non-religious choral associations (including over 30 state-based and regional associations). DCV designs and oversees a host of innovative programs and schemes for its member choirs and leaders, supported by a paid, full-time staff. It also publishes Chorzeit, Germany’s monthly national choral music magazine with 35,000 subscribers and on sale in newsagents across the country (DCV, 2014).

The BDC counts among its members Germany’s peak catholic (katholische) and protestant (evangelische) choral organisations, those representing youth music, and its 500 concert choirs. The Federal President of Germany bestows the Zelter Plakatte to choirs that reach 100 years of age – an important initiative administered by the BDC (2014).

In 2014, Germany’s choral music culture is in transition. When I talked about my research project to non-choral music enthusiasts (or better said, yet-to-be converted choral music enthusiasts), many pictured the all-male Liedertafel choir, Germany’s dominant historical choir model. Yet this traditional picture of “choir” is rapidly changing. A 2012 New Zealand film/TV documentary about folk singing in Germany, Sound of Heimat – Deutschland Singt (http://www.soundofheimat.de/), helped to raise awareness about the diverse types of music out there. The sheer variety of musical styles and the ability of singers to seek out choirs according to their musical tastes and less limited by their location have fundamentally changed Germany’s choral community. Children’s, youth and women’s choirs are growing while the more traditional choral organisations (such as the Liedertafel) are in decline. Mixed choirs have grown in popularity and now outnumber male choirs (Arit, 2014) and there has been a boom in jazz and pop genre choirs (AlumniPortal Deutschland 2014; Tip Magazin, 2014). Singing-related talent competitions, television series and films, as popular in Germany as in Australia, have contributed to this popularity.

Picture2Figure 2: Die Rheintöchter, lesbian comedy choir, Cologne. Photo (c) Magdalena Hutter, 2013.

I took particular interest in community choirs with members who may have experienced social exclusion at some point in their lives. I observed many choirs of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) communities (Figure 2 for example), choirs for people with disabilities, church-based choirs supporting new migrants to Germany and choirs for people experiencing homelessness. I led a rehearsal of Hard Chor ELLA (Figure 3), an innovative school-based community choir based in Pankow, a suburb of the former East Berlin. I was also fortunate to observe Berlin’s two professional choirs in rehearsal (RIAS Kammerchor and Rundfunkchor Berlin) and the Rundfunkchor in performance. You can find a full list of choirs, interviews and more detailed case studies in my report.

Picture3Figure 3: Hard Chor ELLA, Berlin (Pankow). Spring Concert. Photo (c) Inés Weinmann, 2013.

Ideas for Australia’s Choral Movement
I believe Australia can enhance its choral music movement by strengthening its supporting institutions and drawing upon innovations and ideas from Germany. I offer ideas for policy-makers, committees, and musical and administrative leaders who work with community choirs particularly. My report aims to complement recent reviews of other aspects of music in Australia including state and national music education reviews. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Create a vocational pathway with appropriate professional development and recognition for community choral leaders
  • Establish a national community choir awards scheme, including a “long service” citation for choirs that reach a certain age (similar to Germany’s Zelter Plakatte)
  • Appoint a high profile patron to promote and advance choral music within communities
  • Lighten the reporting load for committees and choral music staff by negotiating an agreement with the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) for a single annual fee that covers all choir arrangement and performance rights across a pre-approved list of songs (similar to an agreement reached between DCV and Germany’s APRA equivalent: http://www.deutscher-chorverband.de/leistungen/gema/)
  • Create an accreditation program in early childhood education (similar to Germany’s Die Carusos: die-carusos.de/) where choir leaders “teach the teachers” to ensure young children receive high quality and pedagogically sound singing experiences from an early age
  • Establish a national professional choir that includes within its mandate significant outreach work to choirs and communities of all ages.

To achieve these things we would need to first properly resource our expert national organisations already doing such great work in the area – the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA) and Music Australia – along with state-based institutions such as Community Music Victoria. Let’s start this conversation and draw upon lessons and ideas from countries such as Germany to give us a head start.

Choral music in Germany, a celebrated and treasured cultural asset, is gradually changing its tune to include people of all abilities and backgrounds and in a way that improves community wellbeing and cohesion. My time there provided refreshing ideas, valuable lessons and ongoing inspiration for my practice as a choral leader and researcher in Australia. Above all, it was a reminder to celebrate both the act and the art of choral music making and the joy it brings to communities here and in Germany.

(1): My thanks to Dr Alex Crooke for his insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Article by Ben Leske

BenLeske2015

Ben Leske is a Melbourne-based choral conductor, community music facilitator, and PhD candidate in the National Music Therapy Research Unit in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (The University of Melbourne). Ben’s thesis explores choral singing and social inclusion for young people. From 2009-2014, Ben was Music Director of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Youth Chorus (now shOUT Youth Chorus).

Ben is passionate about all things German and was awarded the Australian German Association and Goethe-Institut Fellowship to explore choral singing in Germany in 2014.

You can read Ben’s full report at: http://www.aga.org.au/fellowship/past-winners/.

You can contact Ben by email: benleskemusic@gmail.com or benleskemusic.com

References cited in this article

Arit, Alexander. (2014, 1 July). Graphical statistical reference of number of choirs by type (historical) – 1951-2005. Unpublished data provided to author.

BDC (Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Chorverbände e.V.). Die Zelter-Plakette. Retrieved from http://www.chorverbaende.de/de/zelter-plakette.html

Brusniak, Friedhelm. (Ed.). (2003). Chor – Visionen in Musik. Essener Thesen zum Chorsingen im 21. Jahrhundert..Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Chorverbänder.

DCV (Deutscher Chorverband e.V.). (2014). Chorzeit: Mediadaten: Anzeigenspreizliste 3/14. Retrieved from http://www.deutscher-chorverband.de/fileadmin/media/downloads/neue_chorzeit/Chorzeit_Mediadaten.pdf

Deutscher Bundestag. (2007). Schlussbericht der Enquete-Kommission: „Kultur in Deutschland“. (16/7000), author’s translation.

German Music Information Centre (GMIC). (2011). Musical Life in Germany: Structure, Facts and Figures: German Music Council (Deutscher Musikrat).

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2005). The pied piper of Hamelin: Adorno on music education. Research studies in music education (25), 1-12.

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2008). A matter of comparative music education? Community music in Germany. International Journal of Community Music, 1(3), 401-409.

Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. (2013). Internationalizing and localizing: Shaping community music in Germany. International Journal of Community Music, 6(3), 263-272. doi: 10.1386/ijcm.6.3.263_1

Luehrs-Kaiser, Kai. (2013, 22 February). Chor@Berlin Festival im Radialsystem. Tip Berlin. Retrieved from http://www.tip-berlin.de/kultur-und-freizeit/chor-berlin-festival-im-radialsystem

Masso, Alex. (2013). Community Choirs in Australia. Music In Communities Network (Music Council of Australia).

McCaughey, Claire. (2005). Comparisons of Arts Funding in Selected Countries: Preliminary Findings: Canada Council for the Arts.

Reimers, Astrid. (2012). Laienmusizieren: Deutsches Musikinformationszentrum.

Small, Christopher. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Wydra, Kristina (2014). ‘Wherever people sing, you can happily settle…’ – Germans are flocking to join choirs. Alumniportal Deutschland. Retrieved from http://www.alumniportal-deutschland.org/en/germany/culture/article/choirs.html

 Other useful reading

English language

  • Higgins, Lee. (2012). Community Music: In Theory and In Practice: Oxford University Press.
  • German Music Information Centre. (2011). Musical Life in Germany: Structure, Facts and Figures: German Music Council (Deutscher Musikrat). Retrieved from http://www.miz.org/musicl-life-in-germany/
  • Bartleet, Bridie-Lee, Dunbar-Hall, P., Letts, R., & Schippers, H. (2009). Sound links: Community music in Australia. Brisbane: Griffith University.

German language

 [i] Original German text: Kultur ist kein Ornament. Sie ist das Fundament, auf dem unsere Gesellschaft steht und auf das sie baut. Es ist Aufgabe der Politik, dieses zu sichern und zu stärken

[ii] An important note that Germans pay an extra income tax to the church according to the denomination into which they were baptised. The Federal Government collects these taxes to fund church activities.

We can all make music

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