Good Vibrations: How the infectious energy of John Lane makes life feel better

All my training has been on the job and I have learnt it by doing it… I always loved singing and I loved acting and I liked being the centre of attention, I guess, whether it was in music or theatre.” This love of the limelight may have been a starting point, but John Lane has spent his entire working life bringing others into the frame to experience the joy of participation that has perpetuated his own effervescent, irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for community arts practice.

“Being in musical vibration together with others is the closest I get to being really spiritual, that’s my spiritual observance, it’s why I like going to the footy; if your team wins you get to sing with 20,000 people! This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

Having learned piano as a child, John branched out into trumpet and the French horn at secondary school before teaching himself to play the guitar, inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “I took every opportunity I could to be a part of productions, both at school and university where I was very much into musical theatre.” 

After three years of medical school, John decided to take a gap year to try and get theatre out of his system. This was a plan destined never to work. He was offered a job in Brisbane and spent three immersive years touring political musical comedy shows with the Popular Theatre Troupe, also organising and running drama workshops and improvisations based on what he had been doing in student theatre workshops, back in Melbourne. John found he couldn’t stop soaking up skills and knowledge in whatever ways he could from whomever he could.  “I worked my chops up by just ‘doing it’ and learning on the job from watching other people.”

“This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

While living in Queensland, John bumped into a fella named Linsey Pollak and the two of them went busking together; John played tenor saxophone and Linsey played a broom, the end of which he’d turned into a flute (of course). “We played songs that he had written, and some that we both knew, and it was Linsey who first said to me ‘you could write your own songs!’” Having been given his first lessons in the ukulele by Joe Geia from the band ‘No Fixed Address‘, John would carry his banjolele with him everywhere he went – wearing it slung around his back, ready to whip out at any point and pair it with a quick bit of kazoo to entertain people at festivals or in the streets, in the piazzas of Rome, Bologna and Perugia perhaps, and even on a 24 hour bus trip from Dharamsala to Kashmir.

“The only real formal performance training I did was later on, with the Nanjing Acrobats of China, spending six days a week with them for three months in Wodonga, practising alongside members of the Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. I was open to anything and everything and by that stage was feeling ‘this is so much fun, everyone should have this opportunity’. ”

John’s primary focus became finding ways for other people to experience the joy that he’d had of participating and being ‘in it’. For the first ten years of his working life, John acknowledges that he was very lucky to have been employed full time doing theatre with the type of community-based theatre companies where you weren’t just an actor, you were involved in writing the material, creating sets and props and anything and everything else.

“With West Theatre we went into housing commissions, we did projects with the Vietnamese Community at a time when they had newly arrived in Australia, we worked with the Nurses Union, we put on these very professional big community shows. There was a collective of between 7 and 12 professional theatre makers and together we would run events that involved dozens to hundreds of people in the community, putting on shows that were sometimes political, often based around personal and local issues; and community music was always a big part of that work.”

By this point it was the mid-80s and John became heavily involved in festivals around Melbourne and across Victoria. “Festivals were the most obvious opportunity for lots and lots of people to participate in a cultural event. These could be run as projects with artists in schools and artists in the community that culminated in a festival.”

Towards the end of a long period of freelancing, one of the jobs John started doing in 2000 was working for the Royal Children’s Hospital. “They had acquired funding from VicHealth to engage professional arts facilitators to work in schools and they were looking for a coordinator. I got that gig which was 2 days a week for 6 months and this kept going as an annual contract job among the many other jobs I was doing like the Darebin Music Feast, the Kites Festival and the Kew Festival, and stuff for the Royal Melbourne Show and City of Melbourne.”

Unsurprisingly, John had also learned to juggle by this point which came in handy and helped him to keep all these professional balls in the air at the same time, as well as beanbags, skittles, fruit, kitchen knives and whatever else came to hand.

Striving to support the voice of people who had been oppressed or suppressed drove John’s passion for agitprop theatre.

“It was therapeutic for me to be involved with music and with drama and I was always really interested in the application of creative arts techniques to psychological medicine, which I had only just begun to research as part of my medical training. This stuck with me and became a personal political goal of doing this type of work because of its benefit to people’s mental health… including mine!”

The Royal Children’s Hospital’s “Festival for Healthy Living” (FHL) program was an embodiment of this philosophy, and upon taking up a newly created salaried role of FHL Artistic Coordinator, by 2004 John found he had gone full circle from leaving medical school in 1976 back to working within a hospital where he remained until his retirement from that post in October 2021. 

So how did John keep up his energy? “Keeping a role for myself as a hands-on participant, even when I was coordinating projects, was vital for me. I’d end up being an MC or I’d pop up in the band playing the trumpet or tenor horn, keyboards or uke. I think my work as an overall coordinator suffered sometimes because I was so obsessed with being in things, but I gradually realised I didn’t need to be front and centre and that my role in life as I got older was in being a facilitator and capacity builder.”

John firmly believes that some of the best capacity building happens by learning on the job, side by side with someone who is really experienced. “I would be there alongside emerging artists, doing the stilt walking or juggling workshops, or building a gigantic puppet or encouraging kids in a songwriting session. At other times the job was all about writing funding submissions or facilitating steering committees, but doing only that would never last very long with me and I had to find at least some time to keep working on the ground. It was a crazy life rushing hither and thither!”

Finding ways to help people feel better, and experience wellness from connecting with other people in their communities, schools or families, working for the Royal Children’s Hospital proved to be a great way in for John to build countless productive partnerships in over 30 different communities across Victoria. More recently, working closely with local agencies, under the RCH/FHL banner the annual Dream Big Festival was established in Melton. This was run for the first time in 2015, with John at the helm as Artistic Director.

A year later, John decided he needed more brass back in his life and joined Melbourne-based street band, Havana Palava (cos he obviously had so much spare time on his hands). There he met Lyndal Chambers who at that time was coordinating CMVic’s StreetSounds project. As part of a collaboration between StreetSounds and the Dream Big Festival, together they established The Fabulous Meltones Street Band.

Facilitating the band was an opportunity for John to embrace participatory music-making and perform on a regular basis while bringing together community players of brass, strings, percussion and more, in a riot of colour and sound. The band has played at the Dream Big Festival each year, and at dozens of other community events including the local Djerriwarrh Festival, and also featured in spectacular appearances at Geelong After Dark for three consecutive years.

Since his ‘rewirement’ last month, John has been reflecting back on all of this history and allowing himself to dream of what might come next.

“In the future I do see myself as always wanting to get community music to happen with people of all ages.”

If history is anything to go by, John won’t be sitting still in one place for very long before his energy fizzes over and propels him towards his next adventure. There may be kazoos… Watch this space!

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with John Lane

Photos supplied

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