The joy of song swaps: singing leader Barb McFarlane sings out

Vokallista Community ChoirThe Dandenong hills are alive with the sound of music but there’s no sign of the Von Trapps in any of the tea shops, anyone running is probably just late for Puffing Billy not making a dash for the Swiss border, and for lonely goatherds there are open mic nights and online forums. How times have changed… Much of the music ringing around these green hills is community music, championed and facilitated by, among others, Barb McFarlane, a long time community music activist and valued supporter of Community Music Victoria.

Barb recently dropped us a line in response to a blog post about Song Swaps: “Song Swaps are my favouritest CMVic short activity! I love that you never know what will be presented and I always come away with some new gems, some new ideas and the warm glow of connecting with others who love gathering people to sing.”

Ooh, now who doesn’t love a bit of positive feedback? It spreads happiness and comfort like butter on hot toast. So, getting a little greedy, we pursued Barb shamelessly with questions about her style and approach to singing leadership that she was good enough to answer with further reflection on why she loves Song Swaps so much, as well as offering some insight into her own musical journey, which began at a young age.

“I remember sitting at the piano, striking notes one at a time and putting my ear close to the keys and waiting ’til I couldn’t hear the note ringing before playing the next one. Also making melodies with no end. When I was a bit older, I’d pretend I was Julie Andrews and sing songs from the Sound of Music. I was sure I sounded just like her! Many school holidays visiting with cousins where we’d all sing songs we’d learned at Guides, Sunday school or School remind me of SongSwaps!”

So what was it that made Barb decide to become a Singing Leader? I realised that I didn’t get much pleasure out of performing and was embarrassed by praise. I felt there was something I was missing, a realisation about the thoughts and feelings that audience members had, that seemed to make them think they couldn’t do what I was doing. It bothered me that over the years, people said things that seemed to put performers above themselves. It was like finding gold when I realised that I could help empower people to sing without judgment and with no audience but the circle of other singers.

Barb leads two weekly Sing for Fun groups that are inclusive of people of all abilities, a Strum and Sing Ukulele group and a Community Choir called VoKallista, which she started in 2009 and runs with assistance from Libby Price. Vokallista is an open, performing choir who sing a variety of material that Barb describes as dealing with themes such as social justice “and the fascinating challenges of being human.” She leads sings at many community events and festivals such as The Hills and finds that people really love to celebrate!

VoKallista has been going for a while now; how do you keep it evolving and what do you think is the secret of its success? VoKallista evolved from a caroling group I was leading. We’d all troup around nursing homes and the like in the busy lead-up to Christmas, instead of being swallowed up by the craziness. I think the kind of people we are has led the style and subjects of music and then we’ve attracted more people who like our songs and are similarly community minded, like to live more simply, are very caring of the environment and keen on social justice, peace and equality among human beings. So maybe the ‘secret’ has been that ‘like attracts like’! Having an Assistant Director in Libby Price has been invaluable. I’ve had someone to talk through difficult stuff with, as well as lots of the practical things running a choir calls for.

I credit the circle formation that I’ve learned to work in, with much of the success of the model of Sing for Fun, otherwise known as Vocal Nosh. (I don’t do food!) Without words each participant is saying “you are welcome, you are one of us, you have value as a person, we are all equal, we are on the same team, however you are today is fine, I can see you, I can hear you and let’s create something beautiful together.” CMVic have given this amazing gift to the community by teaching this model to all Singing Leaders who have come to them and taken this back into their communities. Working in a circle is, for me, the most important element to the success of any singing group but so many of the basic singing leadership skills have become my second language as I see how easy they make the learning of a song for people.

CMVic has been Mothership to me and I have developed further skills and confidence to lead a group in song. I receive such wonderful support and encouragement from CMVic to continue to skill share and song share with other leaders and this keeps my practice very fresh and keeps me inspired and energised! CMVic members are like my musical family.

The songs I’ve collected from Song Swaps that I treasure most and use most are the little shorties, such as ‘After the Journey’ by Laura Brearley:

After the journey

“After the journey

there’s always the rest,

time to be quiet and blessed”

What is it about short songs that makes them so effective to teach a group? The thing about these songs is that they are easily passed on….to other Leaders to use and then to groups of people who may be singing for the first time in their adult life or who have not had many opportunities to sing. The song messages are often very nurturing, reassuring and inspiring and, because they are usually repeated many times and because some are rounds, we tend to go away with the songs stuck in our heads. This can sometimes override other less helpful stuff that may be going on in our heads! I love ear worms!

Do you think more people are turning to community music making in greater numbers as a way of reaching out and connecting with one another? Oh Yes!! I love to see the friendships and connections that are made through a regular sing for fun. I love to hear people’s stories and know that they have found a place to be where whatever they sound like is fine, where there is lots of non-verbal communication through laughter and grimaces, little teams clinging together to stay on their part, eye rolling as my ‘secretary’ is once again sacked for a funny typo. I choose songs that will encourage a positive thought or two, funny songs and songs that are beautiful with just two parts so that people may feel that they are the creators.

I reckon that all times have their difficulties but the time we live in now calls for strengthened, tightly woven communities who will be able to pull together when needed.

What do you like to do when you’re not singing and music making? I read a lot. I love a good chat and a walk in the forest. I also get involved in Community events.

Finally, if you were let loose in one of the many tasty cake shops nestled in those hills, which tasty treat would be in the most danger? Lemon Meringue pie!

Barb’s community choir have struck lucky in having her as their leader, something they’re probably highly aware of as they continue to try and determine the human condition and sing to bring awareness, change and enrichment to the lives of themselves and of others. Huge thanks to Barb for playing ball and giving her time and energy to this post. The song ‘After the journey’ is published here, courtesy of Laura Brearley and is taken from the CMVic publication ‘Short Stuff’.

For information about Vokallista, click here or visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/VoKallista

Interview with Barb McFarlane by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic

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5 thoughts on “The joy of song swaps: singing leader Barb McFarlane sings out”

  1. Wonderful reading ! Thanks Deb et al xx Jane T

    PS I have been meaning to contact you to let you know about some singing that happened spontaneously recently … I may as well write something right now!! Here goes…

    I attended the Bendigo Magistrates Court recently to support a group of people who were arrested and charged with trespass, for peacefully protesting about asylum seeker children in detention. After repeatedly requesting a meeting or conversation with their local Senator to talk about this issue, and their calls, letters and emails never being answered, they decided to sit peacefully in her office until she agreed to talk with them.

    The court was packed, every seat was filled and quite a few of us were standing at the back and we were waiting for about 3/4 hr for the magistrate to arrive and get started. It was quite noisy with everyone talking; those who had been charged were sitting quietly at the front, and standing in front of them was a group of about 9 police officers, all uniformed and armed; they made quite an imposing presence; the people facing charges looked tense and stressed. I suddenly thought it might be a good thing to start singing, and Polly Christie’s beautiful song ‘What is peace to you’ sprang to mind – so I started to sing quietly. People nearby turned to look, and gradually a few joined in, then the court went completely silent apart from the singing. We sang softly for about 5 or 10 mins, and then after we stopped (I didn’t want to disturb the court proceedings in any way through singing, so stopped before the magistrate came in to start the session) the atmosphere in the court was quite different – it stayed quiet, and seemed much more peaceful. There was quite a lot of media coverage of the event, and apparently every report mentioned the singing – that ‘people were singing about calling for compassion’.

    After considering the case, and hearing a statement from the group, the magistrate decided that all charges should be dropped. There was much relief all round. However, the group has still not been granted an opportunity to speak to the local Senator about the issue of children of asylum seekers, being held in detention. (The words for Polly’s song are ‘What is peace to you; we are calling compassion for all; ’cause everybody got a right to a safe home’ It’s in Short Stuff, that essential companion for singing leaders!)

    Jane Thompson, March 2015

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