“It’s such a necessary thing to be creative, to have the joy of making music, giving that gift to others and receiving in return the joy and the happiness that you can see and feel in them. While we still have that up to a point, because of everything that has happened this year there are so many of us who haven’t been able to do that, whether we’re professional, amateur, or community based musicians. And that is very disturbing for me.”
Bettina Spivakovsky is reflecting on the sense of responsibility she has felt during recent months for the health and wellbeing of singers in her group, Stonnington based The People’s Choir, as well as the artists and musicians with whom she has worked throughout her career in event planning.
“My thoughts go straight to all of them. When I first heard of the COVID business early on, I looked into Zoom and thought ‘how on earth are we going to do this? How are we going to get everyone to cope with all of the changes and technology?’ Much to my joy, everyone began to adapt. During the little bit of respite between lockdowns, a couple of people from the choir went into people’s homes and helped set them up and the choir just started to grow, it was wonderful – and they are wonderful people. One week we had up to 70 singers.”
The People’s Choir has had an interesting journey. It was started in 2015 by Annabel Taylor who ran the choir with two friends as a weekly singalong group for around 18-25 people. At the end of 2018, one of these friends moved interstate and Annabel invited Bettina to be involved. The choir entered an innovative phase and began expanding to involve and include greater numbers of singers. Bettina registered the choir as a not for profit group ‘with all the boxes ticked’ and rehearsals moved to a larger space – the Uniting Church in Burke Road.
“When I joined there weren’t any harmonies or parts, everyone sang in unison for the enjoyment of singing and getting together for a coffee. Basically, it changed from being a group of friends to a fully-fledged entity that could move forward as a mass choir called The People’s Choir based on values of compassion, accountability and integrity, and where everybody is welcome.”
The choir is un-auditioned and open to singers of all ages and abilities. The focus is on getting together for a laugh and some fun and when meeting in real life, the singers stay on and have supper together.
Bettina’s family history reads like a who’s who of classically trained Russian musical proteges. Her father was violinist and cellist, Issy Spivakovsky, and her uncles were the pianist, Jascha Spivakovsky, violinist Tossy Spivakovksy and Adolf Spivakovsky who taught singing at the Melbourne Conservatorium, where Bettina herself trained. “Because of my background – which is really unfortunate for some I suppose, she laughs – I came to this singalong group and thought, hmm, well that’s not really going to work for me for too long.”
Bettina began introducing gentle musical concepts such as easy dynamics and occasional harmonies as well as other approaches like reading through the lyrics to understand a story and foster some emotional investment in the telling of it through the music, and things started to develop. The repertoire draws on rock, pop, gospel, folk and musicals – no classics.
“”I’ll never forget, we’d been singing The Water is Wide and I’d divided the group into three part harmony. The sopranos were singing the melody line, the altos were singing the middle harmony and the tenors and basses were singing the foundation, it was all a cappella. The singers were sitting in different parts of the church and facing into each other. Normally they would have resisted repetition but this time they were requesting to repeat bits and to sing it again, and I could feel the culture was slowly changing. They wanted to get it right and to sound better and better. Then they sang at each other and at the end they stopped and just looked and there was silence. They couldn’t believe how they sounded and I knew this was a breakthrough moment. It was stunning and surprising to them but it wasn’t to me – they’d put in the yards.”
Like some other singing groups, The People’s Choir has found unexpected advantages to singing online and over the course of this year the number of singers has grown with members joining in from interstate as well as regionally and from suburbs across Melbourne. Once normality resumes, Bettina plans to hold Zoom Choir on Monday evenings and face to face on Tuesdays so that this can continue.
Members of the choir have also unexpectedly found their groove during this experimental time. “I had this wonderful person, Helen, approach me after Helen Reddy had passed to ask if she could sing I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, she said ‘I would never have thought of doing something like this before’ but the choir had given her that sense of courage and all these little things they just fill my heart and my chest gets bigger and bigger and I just love everybody, it’s just wonderful.”
Bettina’s shift to concentrate more heavily on grass roots, community-based work has been ‘immeasurably satisfying.’ “Having worked in the corporate sector of the arts which I still do with tenures out in certain venues and areas, this is so valuable, it’s immeasurable the value it has.”
“People who have been unwell, watching how music changes them, people who are in need of it in some way, there is so much more that I am seeing in people as a result of this work. When you can affect the change that’s been happening and I’ve been observing, and help validate, help strengthen – even simple things like doing exercises before we start singing – all of the health benefits that it gives people, I would have been too immature to think about all this any earlier in my life but now I feel blessed.”
Bettina says she owes all this gratitude to Annabel Taylor for asking her to work with The Peoples’ Choir in the first place: “It was a timely call and an extraordinary opportunity and I thank her every day.”
It’s taught me so much about myself: patience, thoughtfulness, the importance in being non-judgemental, just so much more about who I am as a person. The list is endless in terms of what it has contributed into my life so I’m actually blessed by every member that attends.”
In December, The Peoples’ Choir is holding a Pitch Perfect Picnic in the Park to catch up in real life to see the year out. “At Central Park there are little mapped-out circles for picnickers and I thought, we can all grab a little circle and be together but separate and every now and again we can meet each other and walk around, bring our families, bring our dogs and catch up.”
For further information about The Peoples’ Choir, visit http://www.thepeopleschoir.com.au