The leafy canopy of two giant old oaks in the Dandenong Ranges has shielded party goers from summer heat, witnessed weekend gatherings and even a wedding. Now, in a bid to keep her community choir singing in a way that is private and safe, singing leader Libby Price has won funding from Yarra Ranges Shire Council for a vital piece of hardware to transform this beautiful spot on her Silvan property into an outdoor singing venue for use by VoKallista, and others. Users of the space will find the welcome addition of a wheelchair-accessible new portaloo to help ensure that the singing – and the singers – can keep going as the unpredictable situation around restrictions continues to ebb and flow.
The idea for the outdoor venue was seeded once lockdown ended, when Libby hosted a couple of recording sessions with singers from VoKallista outside under the oaks. Seeing people so happy to be back together again, Libby began thinking that singing and rehearsing under the oaks on a more formal basis could be the way to go, and started the ball rolling.
“I thought, okay we don’t know what we’re going to be able to do next year, we don’t know if rehearsal venues are going to be open, a few people had mentioned that the cost of room hire had increased because of the cost of deep cleaning, and I thought how fabulous it would be to be able to offer sessions here.”
At the same time, Libby didn’t like the idea or the impracticality of having 30 people coming through her house to use the bathroom. Compounding this was the issue of accessibility and the fact that the nearest public toilets are two kilometres away at the local footie club.
“A few members of our choir have mobility issues and I have a good friend who is an artist who is really keen to come and do some filming up here. She uses a wheelchair and I thought it’s just not accessible for people to get up to the house and use the facilities. Then there’s the issue of rain shading and sun shading, so I started to look into the costs involved with it all. To hire a toilet which is accessible jumps in cost from around $300 for ten weeks to $1000. I was toying with ideas about how we could make this happen and the idea kind of sat there.”
Libby saw a reference to the COVID recovery grant being offered by Yarra Ranges Shire Council and decided to go for it. “I thought I should go for that and see if they’ll give me a dunny” she laughs. “Then I thought, no hang on, why shouldn’t they? Our group is deserving of it and if we can’t go back to singing at the church, maybe I can offer ‘Under the Oaks’ as an alternative.”
In January, Libby heard that the outcome of her application had been successful with an allocation of $1900 and recalls feeling fleetingly concerned that it was all perhaps a little bit too late. “We were back up to gatherings of 30 people but the situation since then has shown how quickly everything can change.”
Council’s allocation of funding for the installation of facilities while very welcome was less than half of what Libby had originally scoped. This has meant plans for construction of all-weather shades, for the time being, remain a work in progress, and it’s up to the trees to keep the sun off and the raindrops at bay.
With further thought, it became clear to Libby and her partner, James, that it was more cost efficient in the longer term to go ahead and actually buy an accessible loo to install on site permanently. “As James said, every time we have another event we have to pay hire costs again, so it doesn’t take long to run up the cost. We will put the grant towards the outlay to offset some of the cost, and ask people for a donation when they attend the events. This way we can all continue to use this resource into the future.”
While Under The Oaks will be used primarily by VoKallista and its community network Libby, together with VoKallista Singing Leader, Barb McFarlane, is planning to hold a singing circle there on International Women’s Day and has other ideas in the pipeline too. Libby is also more than happy for anyone looking for a space to use, to get in touch.
For the first period of lockdown “how long was it?”, laughs Libby, “about five years?” before the distance limits applied, Barb and Libby would meet up together and sing, physically distanced, just the two of them with other VoKallista choir members zooming in and singing remotely. The year trundled on and they experimented with various ways to continue the singing. When the 5km rule came along, things got really tough. “When you’re on your own in a room trying to keep the feeling going and your energy up, do the tech and respond to everyone’s feedback, it takes its toll, it was really hard.”
At VoKallista’s first session back in 2021, 26 singers returned to sing together in person. Libby recalls, “I was amazed at people’s happiness and willingness to come back to singing, I thought people would be a lot more cautious. Even though I had the opportunity to do lots of Zoom singing last year, nothing compares to hearing our voices together in the same space. It gave me goose bumps, and I don’t mind confessing that I shed a few tears.”
With the temporary new space up and running Under the Oaks, the outlook for these singers is bright and when nature calls – thanks to Libby, the new loo and Yarra Ranges Shire Council – there can now be an immediate response.
To enquire about using the space Under the Oaks, contact Libby Price.
Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Libby Price.