Category Archives: A story to tell…

Committing to the Committee Model: How being Incorporated Sustains the Yarra Valley Singers

I’m totally supportive of the idea of committees of management, or whatever structures support the purpose of the singing group.”

These are the words of Belinda Gillam Derry, Musical Director of Yarra Valley Singers (YVS), a community choir established and singing together since 1988. When Belinda stepped into this role, back in 1996, Yarra Valley Singers was a unit of the Dandenong Ranges Music Council (DRMC) who at that time took care of what Belinda refers to as ‘all the official stuff’.

“The YVS committee looked after the things required by the group in its day to day running. They had a treasurer who collected fees but then passed them on to the treasurer of the DRMC, they had a president and a music librarian; members of the committee worked to ensure that the group were covered for everything they needed to do performances which back then were mainly small, local gigs.”

In the early 2000s, the committee decided to incorporate the group in its own right. 

Part of the reason for this was geographic; the DRMC is based in Upwey and the Yarra Valley Singers are in Lilydale but the members were increasingly not from the Dandenong Ranges, they were coming from the Yarra Valley and further and further out. “The Yarra Valley Singers started doing their own performances so there was increasingly cash from the office box and logistics like taking it down to deposit in Upwey or at the bank were beginning to become an issue”. 

At that point the committee had to become an official committee of management in an incorporated association and the group became Yarra Valley Singers Incorporated. They appointed a president and vice president, a secretary and treasurer as well as general committee members, basically adopting the DRMC model.  Belinda felt this support sustained her both musically and personally from the start, something she continued to benefit from even when she stepped away from the choir for a few years due to ill health.

“I think in these days when lots of people don’t attend church, that in a way these sorts of groups have taken over. ‘Community’ is definitely the word I would use to describe Yarra Valley Singers, which I know exists within so many other singing groups too. Sometimes it feels there’s a bit of a divide between formal choirs and less formal singing groups but the one thing that I think definitely unites groups is this sense of community that comes about through singing together. The Yarra Valley Singers sits very comfortably under the Australian National Choral Association model and I think we very much fit under the ethos of Community Music Victoria too with regards to how inclusive we are, and how much we look after each other between rehearsals.”

Belinda is highly tuned in to the roles filled by each committee member. “Just knowing that they are doing them means I don’t need to think about those things and can concentrate fully on being the Musical Director, although I will always jump in and help when it’s needed”. 

The Yarra Valley Singers’ committee actively seeks to promote sustainability by training up new people to take over different roles and comprises volunteers from within the choir which, with around 60 members currently (100+ pre-Covid) is still a big pool of people to draw from. “If we feel that people have some expertise which they feel a bit shy about sharing, or which they perhaps don’t even realise, we tap them on the shoulder and ask if they would like to come on the committee. We try to be as inclusive as possible, for example we now have two people who identify as living with disabilities on the committee of management. Having people with a broad range of perspectives and experiences is really important.” 

When Covid struck, the lights went out for many choirs and the return to singing proved an extremely fraught and frustrating period for many individual leaders who felt significant responsibility about exposing their singers to risk, coupled with further stress arising from a distinct lack of clear government directives about how best to proceed. 

For Belinda and the Yarra Valley Singers, this stress was immediately reduced because it was shared, and because of the collective decision-making capacity of the committee.

As Belinda says, “We actively seek out different viewpoints, so within the committee we have people who continue to feel risk averse, and we also have people with expertise in interpreting the advice provided by the DHHS. We have a COVIDSafe plan which includes social distancing, maximising ventilation and singing in 25-minute blocks, with air purifiers cranked up to maximum in between.  And now all rehearsals are offered on Zoom as well as in person so everyone can stay connected with the rehearsals however they feel comfortable. “

The committee has decided to maintain a hybrid model of delivery indefinitely. “Being an older group we have always had people who are sick or who have been unable to travel due to bad weather in the Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs. Doing it this way, every person can attend live, either in person or on Zoom and we also record the rehearsals which are available for two weeks afterwards for people to catch up.”

Belinda acknowledges the significant amount of extra work this incurs, both for herself and for everyone else, and how this agility wouldn’t have been as feasible without support from a huge group of people. 

“Setting up choir has changed radically since Covid. It’s no longer a case of just putting out the chairs, there’s all the tech to set up, we’ve got people opening windows and doors, we’ve got people checking everyone in and it takes half an hour.” 

Up until Covid struck, the Yarra Valley Singers committee conducted annual member surveys to determine the reasons why people came to choir, what they wanted to gain from the experience, and basic demographic information such as age and any barriers to participation people may have been experiencing. Belinda and the committee then worked to address as many barriers as they could, so they knew as they went into the first lockdown, that people came to choir for social reasons as much as musical reasons. 

“Even though we are a choir, the social aspect scores equally as highly as the artistic aspect and that has been the case over a number of years, so we knew it was really important to keep people socially connected in lockdown because for many of them, choir was the only thing they did socially. That’s why we worked so hard to get online rehearsals  up so quickly.”

The committee also committed to keeping everyone employed by the choir on the payroll throughout lockdown, something Belinda acknowledges was ‘just so amazing’. 

“Admittedly, being a group that’s been going for some time there were some financial reserves in the bank but they said ‘okay, we can’t do performances, we can’t do rehearsals at the moment but we would like to keep paying you what you would get if you were coming to rehearsals. Which then gave me the confidence to say,”Well, you know what? I have never done a rehearsal online before in my life, but I’m willing to give it a crack.”

Belinda believes that for committees to operate at maximum efficiency, it is important for members not to feel tethered to their role, but to remain fluid. “They all have job descriptions but these are reviewed annually and they adapt and change.  For example, we didn’t need an IT manager prior to Covid!” 

This versatility extends to the way the singers, well, sing!  “Last year we did a wedding between lockdowns. It was outdoors and for the first time ever we sang along to a backing track. It was a surprise for the bride set up by her father. We couldn’t set up the keyboard, we couldn’t do a rehearsal at the venue or anything. It was all really unusual for us as we used to always have live accompaniment, but because we did it and it was so successful, we realised, ‘Well hey, this might work for us as we come out of lockdown’! ”

The committee was so convinced by this approach that the choir cancelled all indoor performances for the rest of the year (given they were pretty sure they wouldn’t happen anyway), applied for a grant and purchased backing tracks and battery-operated outdoor speakers. They learnt all of the parts via Zoom, and when lockdown finally lifted in November last year, Yarra Valley Singers had only two in person rehearsals and then seven performances in just four weeks because they were, as Belinda describes, ‘all ready to do it!’. 

“That again was the committee who were prepared to pivot completely, apply for grants and just go for it.  Incidentally, that’s another benefit of being an incorporated association; ie being able to apply for grants without needing to be auspiced by another body.  Having a formal structure can give funding bodies more confidence that you will be responsible with their grant money.  In our case, Yarra Ranges Council was extremely supportive with regards to grants to keep us going during lockdowns.”

For anyone wondering whether the move to become an incorporated group and elect a committee is worthwhile for their own group, Belinda believes that an important consideration is the question of ownership:

“It depends on who feels they have ownership of the group and who, ultimately, will step up to make sure it continues. Is ownership centred around the leader or is it centred around the people in the group? I don’t think it is a bad way to be one way or the other, because you don’t necessarily set something up thinking that it’s going to go on forever, and some groups are meant to have their time and then not continue, which is part of their charm.  When I was sick, the choir continued for four years with a different musical director.  This wouldn’t have happened if they were relying on me to do everything, but it was possible because of the structure at the time.”

Belinda’s final piece of advice is that the structure of the organising support should always fit the goals of the group.

“Having an incorporated group and a committee of management and things like that won’t be appropriate for smaller singing groups whose goal is to get together and sing for Christmas, for example. They might be better served by just having someone to collect fees, put out the chairs for rehearsal and check everyone’s vaccination certificates.  But for groups which want to continue operating and develop artistically, it’s great if the organisational load can be spread amongst others so the Musical Director can concentrate more on the musical aspects.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for CMVic in collaboration with Belinda Gillam Derry

For information on how to join Yarra Valley Singers, click here

Featured image: Yarra Valley Singers singing at Montrose Market in November 2021, supplied by Belinda Gillam Derry

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

Jeannie Marsh takes Outdoor Singing in her Stride

“You have to do whatever you need to do these days, when it comes to singing, and that extends to Virtual Tour Guiding!” says the ingenious and unstoppable community choir leader Jeannie Marsh.

In conversation with Jeannie it is often hard to pre-empt what brilliant idea is going to pop out of her in-jeannie-ous brain next. Her latest iron in the fire is the Elwood Singing Walking Trail, cooked up in lockdown and coming to fruition a little more each day.

Jeannie Marsh and the Elwood Community Choir came up with the idea of the Elwood Singing Walking trail following last year’s lockdown when they were thinking up safe, physical activities for singers in their local community. The plan was to identify 12 locations along a route in Elwood taking walkers along the beach and the canal and around the streets while sharing stories and songs that reflect the history of this leafy hood, with its Art Deco flats; unfurling its rich Indigenous and settler history along the way.

The whole route covers around 6.5km in its entirety. It was conceived with the idea  that people approach doing the walk in whatever way suits them, taking in however many locations they choose on any given day and – because it will be permanent – is something to be returned to and enjoyed multiple times. 

Half way through next year, Jeannie and the team are planning to hold a big launch of the infrastructure. The research and development stage has been quietly ongoing throughout the turbulence of 2021 and was launched in April, funded by City of Port Phillip. Some surprising revelations about this quiet residential corner of the bay have come to light, in the process.

There used to be a dance hall called ‘Maison Deluxe’ located on the corner of Broadway and Glenhuntly Road where everyone used to go for dances with a live, very busy dance band who would travel all across Melbourne doing two or three dances a night.

As a local, Jeannie has lived near Elwood for over 20 years and had grown increasingly curious about the history of the area she was walking around.

“I would think ‘what’s the history of that little corner’ and ‘what’s that all about’ so it’s been really interesting to understand!”

Elwood Community Choir Leader, Jeannie Marsh

The original focus of the project was to provide an activity for the Elwood Community Choir which Jeannie runs, with a weekly cohort of around 40 singers, as the research phase could be done throughout lockdown and a lot of the stories have come from the choir.

The next phase, currently underway in the planning, is to get all of the infrastructure in place. Elwood Neighbourhood Community Centre (where the Elwood Community Choir  rehearses) will be assisting the choir in setting up the processes and infrastructure. The choir  will be recording these songs early in 2022 and, if lockdowns continue to prohibit them doing this work in person, they will create the recordings remotely using their phones.

The intention is to get the whole community singing and aware of the history of the area. Some of the songs are traditional songs that people will know; some reflect and honour the local Jewish and Russian communities and there are also songs created by Jeannie, Tracy Harvey, and songs that members of the choir have created.

To celebrate Seniors Week this Friday 15 October from 1:30 – 2:30pm and again on Saturday 16 October, there will be a one hour ‘Musical Zoom’ session where Jeannie together with ‘local legend’ comedian, writer and radio/TV presenter, Tracy Harvey, will be joined by members of Elwood Community Choir to conduct a lively virtual stroll along the Elwood Singing Trail, singing along to a selection of simple songs on the way that capture the spirit and essence of Elwood. It’s also an opportunity for walkers to explore and support some of the local businesses along the trail, such as  Elwood Sourdough which is owned and run by Tracy and her partner. Jeannie highly recommends stopping off there for a ‘Spotty’.

‘Local Legend’, Tracy Harvy

“A spotty is one of the most sensational fruit buns you will have in your life. They marinade all of the fruit and it’s like eating a full meal, it is spicy and fruity and unique!”

Jeannie and Tracy have filmed each of the locations and on Friday and Saturday will be using these clips and singing each of the songs, together with the Elwood Community Choir for everyone to join in with. Folks who register will be sent a word sheet to singalong to.

“It’s a teaser to get people ready for when we launch next year when we’ll have everyone out there walking along in real life, and singing!”

To join Jeannie, Tracy and the Elwood Community Choir for the FREE Musical Zoom along Elwood Singing Walking Trail, bookings are essential before 5pm on Thursday and can be made via esnlc@esnlc.com.au or leave a message on 9531 1954

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Jeannie Marsh; thank you Jeannie!

Going back to U-Bass-ics, with Oli Hinton

Nine years ago or thereabouts, Oli Hinton retired from UK academia and made the move to Australia for what began as a sabbatical holiday. Oli and his partner, Jess, had known Jane Coker for many years through playing community music back in the UK.

“We got in touch with Jane when we arrived in Australia and Jane said, ‘fantastic, can you come and volunteer for CMVic?’” Oli laughs.  

By the time the CMVic coordinator role came up some months later, the winning combo of life down under and volunteering at CMVic-bug had well and truly bitten and Oli decided retirement could wait and that here was an opportunity for him to get his teeth into something new and exciting.

“I wanted to do something even more interesting than I had been doing and working for something I feel passionate about which is playing music.”

Yet to deploy full-holiday mode, Oli embraced his new life and kept busy putting down roots and playing baritone sax in Havana Palava, a local street band. In what seems like no time at all he got to know more about the different music-making opportunities in and around Melbourne and started playing his accordion again with The Footscray Gypsy Orchestra. “I got to know more and more of the wonderful community that’s involved in community music in Victoria and I just feel that I have been incredibly fortunate.”

Baritone Saxophones and accordions aren’t known for being quiet instruments so how did a small, stringed instrument like the ukulele find its way to Oli’s heart? “We found ourselves often in the company of other people who were playing ukuleles and none of the other instruments we played were really suitable for playing alongside them so we thought, if we can’t beat ‘em we’ll join ‘em!”

Oli and Jess got themselves soprano ukuleles and started playing along, but Oli quickly found he missed playing the bass rhythm lines, and the strings of the little ukulele hurt his fingers.

“I kept talking about the U-bass and then Jess bought me one for Christmas and it arrived and I’ve never looked back, it is faaaabulous!”

Having never played a string instrument of that sort before, Oli found it took him a while to get to grips with all the different technical challenges and fundamental things like knowing the strings and where the notes were. “In my usual way of learning I did it by learning one tune and then another tune, and another tune and then I thought, ‘ah, I’m getting the general idea here!’ “

Oli confesses this is the way he’s learnt to play every instrument. “The great thing about learning by playing a tune and then another tune is that you get instant results!”.  He’s also quick to point out that a few lessons from someone who’s been playing for many years is also incredibly valuable.

As well as playing music, Oli has had a lot of fun arranging tunes for different street bands which has given his knowledge of music theory a good workout. “I’ve had to really get to grips with the keys of different instruments and chords and harmonies and actually as a bass player, you’re much more aware of what the notes are and the progression of the chords.” This experience has even led Oli to compose a small ditty for the BUF lunchtime concert on Saturday – something he never dreamed of doing in the past!

In considering the fundamental, scaffolding role of the bass, Oli sounds amused as he admits that played really wrong it can actually destroy a tune but has realised if you carry on with aplomb, things will generally be okay.

“From playing bass the most important thing I’ve learned is to keep plucking something in time and the great thing about bass is the ear isn’t very good at determining the bass notes…if you ever try to tune a bass instrument using your ears it’s really hard! Nearly all bass tuning is done with a gadget, by me anyway, and if you hit a bum note it’s fairly easy to get away with it!”

On Saturday, Oli will be running a workshop for absolute beginners and has promised that by the end of it, everyone will be able to play a tune. “Because I’ve said this is a workshop for absolute beginners, I’m going to start by which end you hold it! I can still remember how surprisingly hard I found certain things when I started, so I’m going to try and pull those out.” For example, string damping; when you start out you think ‘oh no, I’ve got to stop that horrible noise happening!’ The strings play off each other and you can get intermediate harmonics happening between them.”

Another thing Oli noticed when he started playing U-bass in a uke group was that rarely are you presented with the tabs for the bass chords of a tune. “So what happens is the leader of the group will say ‘let’s play so and so’ and you flick to the page and of course, you’ve got the normal presentation of lyrics and chords, and you then have to work from that to something which makes sense. It’s not like reading the exact bass line. You may be really lucky and it’ll be a tune you’re familiar with and you’re familiar with the bass line that goes with it, and so you can at least get the feel for what it should be.. or you might not!”

Oli is keen to acknowledge the joys and the challenges of online music workshops for everyone. “We know it can’t be as good as being together live cos you miss the interaction where you’re playing off each other and can see what each person is doing and developing things alongside them at the right pace, and that’s hard on zoom. But we’ve found that people get loads of fun from them. Things may go a bit slow or too fast from time to time but there’s always the opportunity to follow up!”

What Oli hopes more than anything is that anyone who comes to his workshop this Saturday leaves thinking ‘yep I’m going to get a U-bass and I’m going to take it along to my group’… cos they’ll have so much fun with it!

By Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic, with Oli Hinton, CMVic Coordinator

**BUF took place online on Saturday 25 September. Take a look at what happened here: https://cmvic.org.au/whats-on/boroondara-uke-festival-past-eventl

Musicians and the Climate Crisis

Musician Climate Crisis Network (MCCN) was founded by musician and climate activist, Simon Kerr, emerging out of a longstanding involvement in music and concern about the climate future we face.

Simon sees climate change as a crisis of culture, not just a scientific or political crisis. We are in this mess, he says, because of the ways we think about ourselves, our expectations of the future, and in the types of stories we tell ourselves.

For Simon, the story begins in the late 1990s when he was teaching at a New Zealand University while completing his PhD in Political Ecology:

“I was becoming very aware of global warming, as it was called then, but it all felt a bit theoretical, something that was still far in the future. Since then, I think what all of us who follow the science have been stunned by is how rapidly the planet has been heating and the speed and severity of the impacts of this heating on our world. Things are changing so much  faster than anyone anticipated.”

Even though he has worked in universities in the last 25 years, having moved from New Zealand to Australia in 2008, Simon was frustrated by the lack of overall urgency and understanding of what sort of dangerous future we are creating. In 2015, fuelled by the ongoing denial in Australia, he wrote and produced a multi-media, live music show about climate change called ‘Music For a Warming World’. It had a narrative in four parts: The Coming Storm (the science); Loss; Change; Hope. The show was a response to what Simon saw as the lack of emotional engagement with the implications of the science. This frustration came in part from the experience of attending seminars on climate change that ended with the speaker concluding, ‘It looks like it’s quite possibly the end of the world. Thank you for listening. (Then, after some polite applause) … Let’s all go and have a beer.’

“I wanted to engage in a more immersive and emotionally honest way and so decided to use multi-media visuals and live music to tell a story of the climate challenge”

The show became Simon’s primary musical focus and has now been performed around 80 times up and down Australia at music festivals, such as Woodford and Illawarra, universities, house concerts, community centres, small art galleries and large public theatres. Simon confesses to having no formal training in music. His journey began as a teenage drummer playing in a number of bands until he went to live overseas and realised that guitars make far easier travelling companions. Simon was in his late thirties before he discovered he could actually write songs that people seemed to like listening to. He has since then produced four studio albums and an EP.

During last year’s lockdown, Simon found himself thinking a lot about eco-grief and the notion of solastalgia, the experience of bearing witness to the loss of the places where one still lives. Simon says the extraordinary bush fires of 2019/2020 are not an accident but the outcome of decades of planetary warming.

“The sort of optimism we hear for the future, I wouldn’t say it was misplaced but I think that while we will see lots of really positive developments towards zero emissions, we are yet to recognise the scale and irreversibility of the climate and ecological challenges we face. We can no longer ‘solve’ climate change. We have moved into a new epoch where serious climate disruption will define our future. Not just our grandchildren or our children, but us, living here right now. It will do so faster and with increasing impact that most of us realise.  This raises really important questions about the type of life we live. I keep wondering if this enormously consumptive lifestyle and the way we produce things is still fit for purpose?”

Simon’s thinking and songwriting has recently shifted from trying to explain and prove climate change towards asking more fundamental questions. We now must learn to live with dangerous climate change so what types of people does this future need us to be? What sort of new stories or narratives will we need to help us live with this changing future?

Simon Kerr

In 2019, just prior to the bushfires, Simon set up the ‘Musicians Climate Crisis Network’, a community for musicians, composers, choir leaders, choir members, singers, songwriters and other artists to meet and share their concerns about the climate crisis and how it affects their music, and to find meaningful, positive ways to respond.

 “I felt I was watching our world, the world I loved, vanish. I realised I needed a community to help me deal with all the grief and frustration I was experiencing. I believe the arts can offer different ways, or different languages to help us process all these changes. I wanted a community I could talk through these things with, and with whom I could share music and artistic practice.”

MCCN seeks to offer a safe space where people can say, ‘do you know what, all this is really freaking me out’ and embodies Simon’s belief that art and music have something powerful to offer by creating new stories for a new future.

MCCN meet monthly, face to face in metropolitan Melbourne, or online. “We meet for a couple of hours, start with an informal chat, then usually have a topic to discuss, sometimes from an external speaker Zooming in”. Past speakers include the ‘Climate Music Project’, based in San Francisco; Prof Suzie Crane, a US-based anthropologist/musician and expert on permafrost melting in Siberia, as well local speakers such as ‘Psychology for a Safer Climate’. There are also often meditations and reflections, and the meeting generally ends with some music making.

For Simon, it’s about building a supportive community where conversations can flow and ideas can percolate in a safe and inclusive environment. Much of the focus is in considering what climate disruption means for our communities and for us as individuals. How do we re-think how to be ‘okay’ in the face of a deeply unpredictable future? What does a ‘future worth living’ look like in a epoch where things are constantly and more frequently disrupted by storms, bushfires, sea level rise and economic shocks?

“We seek to learn more about the science, the psychology and cultural issues of the climate crisis, supporting each other’s musical and emotional journeys and exploring collectively what it means for our music and our art in order to be relevant and to have a voice of compassion and truthfulness.”

For more information on how to join the Musician’s Climate Crisis Network contact Simon Kerr at  musiciansclimatenetwork@gmail.com 

Written by Simon Kerr with Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, for Community Music Victoria

Feature photo: Music For a Warming World band members: Daniel Hook, Scott Lewis, Mal Webb, Simon Kerr, Kylie Morrigan and Christine Parker

Photos supplied

Making Music, Chocolate for the Soul

By Scarlet Lee

A common mindset when approaching musical participation, especially working collaboratively, is that you need to reach a certain skill set before you can perform. However performance can have many advantages beyond other people enjoying your music.

Community Music Victoria is driven by the belief that every person should have access to the benefits of making music regardless of skill set. Making music can help improve our state of mind and stimulates the brain. Performing in a group provides opportunities to socialise and build friendships, and can also build up our team-based skills.

From personal experience as someone who plays the ukulele, performance is exponentially more enjoyable if it’s in a group. It gives the feeling that you are part of something more and that you’re contributing to something meaningful. It’s as though you are helping create a masterpiece in an auditory art form.

From a medicinal standpoint music can provide clear benefits. In treating depressive illnesses, four out of five trials involving music therapy were shown to be effective, this can be correlated to the brain’s reward centre. When a person is singing or playing music it triggers the reward system in the same way it does for things such as eating chocolate. This indicates that participation in musical activities can improve your mood. Additionally, researchers theorise that music making can stimulate the cerebral cortex which manages higher functions such as memory, correlation and processing of information. By stimulating the cerebral cortex it is essentially providing a warm-up for that area of the brain which allows it to process information more effectively.

Medically speaking, it is evident that there are advantages to playing music, especially in terms of mental health and cognitive function.

Although solo music playing can be constructive, singing and playing music in a group provides all the same health benefits whilst also introducing a social aspect. Making music in a group allows for social interaction and collective catharsis. We can express emotion through music as a group and certain song choices can provoke certain emotions. It also provides a sense of belonging for those included as they are part of a collective, and share experiences with their musical comrades. Friendships can also be built and strengthened through communal music, as everyone is participating in the same thing and building skills and confidence together.

Expanding on this, collective music making can build teamwork and communication skills through working collaboratively with others and learning how to have discussions with fellow group members.

Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.

As someone learning the ukulele I can personally verify that playing music definitely has its benefits, but when participating in a music group it is far more rewarding. The atmosphere itself is much more lighthearted and warm. There is opportunity for conversation or constructive feedback and you get to appreciate others abilities as well as the group’s as a whole. When you compare this to solo practise or performance you miss all the laughter and joy that comes from collaboration.

There is a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a great sense of belonging and feeling that you are contributing to something greater than yourself…

Music is often a key component that relates to many cultures and allows people to be immersed in their culture. The engagement in our own culture is important, as we gain a sense of inclusion within our cultural community. Through music people can gain a stronger understanding of their identity and culture, and the identities and cultures of others. For example in Indigenous Australian culture the stories of creation are told through songs and music, and sacred music performed in ceremonies are a crucial aspect of indigenous culture. In terms of my own culture my father is British, and always enjoys when I play popular British songs on the ukulele. This illustrates how we can connect with our culture and share parts of our culture through music.

Scarlet with her ukulele

Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when singing and playing music with others. Friendships and skills develop, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.

Scarlet Lee is a year 10 student and a keen ukulele player who joined the CMVic team for work experience in April and May

Photo supplied

Singing In Step With Leanne Murphy

Over the past ten years, Leanne Murphy, a community musician from North East Victoria, has experimented with ‘a lot of things’ to keep herself and other people energised; running long-term projects, singing groups and ukulele groups.

Since the pandemic began, Leanne has been finding it ‘hard to know what’s what’, with the restrictions around group music-making changing so often in recent months. Not one to let this get her down, Leanne has returned once again to experimenting and having fun in finding new ways of getting back to community singing.

“I’d optimistically do ‘pay in advance for four sessions and invariably, one of them would have to be cancelled and it’s a nightmare having to do refunds and stuff so I’ve just decided I’m going to keep things casual, see how it goes and keep it all nice and fresh!”

Back at the end of March, the first project off the blocks was a Beechworth Easter Sunday Walk and Sing which was run, (well, walked!) by Leanne through Albury Wodonga Bushwalking Club as a freebie for club members.

“Combining bushwalking with singing, I wasn’t certain if anyone would be interested but 16 set off from the Beechworth Powder Magazine at 9am, after entertaining a number of tourists in the carpark with a rendition of Bele Mama (from Cameroon), and one more joined us halfway along the track.” 

The group’s first stop was One Tree Hill where they sang Hamba Nathi, with the English translating as “Come with me for the journey is long” in 3-part harmony.  Then it was on to The Precipice and morning tea, accompanied by Swing Low Sweet Chariot to celebrate the spirit of Easter Sunday. Various other stops along the way included Fiddes Quarry where the group had an audience of one for the haunting round, Be Still And Know by Jokhim Meikle.

 “A delightfully curious lady from Palestine stopped to listen and insisted she definitely did not want to join in.  We did manage to coax her into taking a video though.   By the time the group returned to the Powder Magazine, discussions were already underway about the potentials for a ‘next time’. I realised I’d never done a singing walk before and nobody else on the walk had ever done that before either. It was quite eye opening for me.”

Leanne has been walking with the Border Bushwalkers for around three years now. “They’ve really developed my confidence in how far I can walk and also what kind of challenges I can achieve, so I’ve gone from being somebody who’s never camped or hiked overnight to doing the Great Ocean Walk which is nine days of carrying everything on my back by myself! For me to be able to give something back to the club that I’m qualified to do and lead a walk with people who are very good at bushwalking but may not be as strong with singing, it was a real joy!”

Singing outdoors felt particularly good as Leanne has noticed people feel nervous about singing inside, in spite of the North East having had no recorded cases of COVID.

“There’s an underlying sense of wondering whether we’re allowed, or are we going to get a visit from the authorities looking over our shoulders saying ‘you can’t do singing’ and so I thought let’s just get something going and see who’s still interested in having a sing, and I think that people were just really grateful to have the opportunity to sing together again.”

From May 2, Leanne is running a series of informal, drop-in Sunday singing sessions to help see out the winter months. This project is called ‘Hearth Songs’ a name inspired by the album Hearth by Michael Kennedy. “I really want to do one of the songs off that beautiful album. It’s called ‘Indigo’ and is all about looking after this indigo planet we live on. Because I live in the shire of Indigo I thought it would be a good match up, too!”

Leanne is interested to see how Hearth Songs will go in a venue with casual numbers. “I’m just putting out an intention to the universe, as you do, to say ‘please let the numbers be perfect for this venue! So we’ll see how that goes.”

Prior to COVID, Leanne developed and delivered a program called Spring Sing which was run two consecutive years during October and November, and was enjoying thinking up other, short-term programs. “I used to run a longer-term singing group but couldn’t sustain once a week sessions throughout the whole year, and so I’ve been focussing on programs I know I can manage.”  

Following the success of the Easter Sunday Walk and Sing, Leanne’s hoping to continue with the bushwalking and singing theme to celebrate the springing of Spring, sometime in November. Her vision is to combine a weekly mid-week walk with more, joyous outdoor singing and hopes this will build up the health and stamina of everyone involved:

“We might possibly work up to a weekend hike where people can camp overnight and sing, doesn’t that sound good?”

Until then, drop in and join Leanne for some heart-warming community singing sessions to banish the cold and keep the glow going as we head towards winter. Hearth Songs will be stoking up each Sunday afternoon throughout May and June with chants, rounds and songs to warm your cockles through the cooler seasons.

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic, in conversation with Leanne Murphy

Hearth Songs is held from 4-6pm each Sunday at Wooragee Hall. Email leannemurphy@bigpond.com to join the event’s emailing list. Walking boots optional.

Online or On Stage: A look at What’s On with Bruce Watson

As both a song writer and performer, Bruce Watson is always thinking about how to relate to people through his music. “I’m very involved with Community Music Victoria although I’m mostly a solo performer who tries to bring about that musical connection through audience participation rather than teaching or leading groups.”

Over the course of the past year, Bruce has been exploring new ways to do this. The hiatus to live music and performing fed a pre-existing interest in ways to incorporate technology into his music-making practice which was forced to evolve as everything locked down in order to continue.

“I had quite a few gigs lined up which just disappeared and all the CD sales disappeared too. I found myself in a vacuum and I wanted to fill it with something in a way which would benefit my ongoing music career.”

Unwilling to surrender fully to Netflix and bread making, Bruce embarked upon ‘30 songs in 30 days’a daily song-writing challenge conceived as a way to keep himself distracted and busy. As a frequent facilitator of song-writing workshops, Bruce has been a long standing advocate of the ‘just give it a go’ approach. His self-appointed mission was to write a song a day throughout April, last year.

“If you write a song a month, then after a year you’ll probably have 3 or 4 songs that are really good, which you might not have had if you’d sat waiting for the inspiration to come. I’ve always said that, but I haven’t always done it.”

Bruce admits that staying inspired to write a song a day for a month was actually quite hard but having a good level of insight, he promoted it in ways that left himself no wriggle room.

“If you want to do something that you see is a challenge I always think the best way to make it succeed is to tell other people that you’re doing it. If I’d just kept it to myself I might’ve stopped after a week or two, so I posted it all over Facebook and I made a commitment to do a YouTube video every day. Sometimes making the video was even harder than writing the song.”

Bruce started getting good feedback which he describes as ‘a lovely encouraging thing’, but still found there were times when the inspiration wasn’t immediately forthcoming. He had a fallback folder of song ideas and ‘scraps of things’ but found much of April was spent wondering what he would do tomorrow and what he would write about that day. He came to realise that, in the end, something always percolated to the surface.

“To me it was a great illustration of how there’s an awful lot of stuff sitting in all of us in terms of creativity and if we do something to bring it out, if we consciously tap into that, inspiration will actually strike and it’s an amazing thing to realise!”

At the end of the month Bruce felt exhausted but satisfied. “It was something I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do and I did it! I anticipated writing a lot of little bits of songs that weren’t really proper songs, but they ended up being all whole songs. And more of them were of a higher standard than I had expected, in fact I was surprised by the quality I produced under those circumstances” laughs Bruce.

Since the latter part of 2020, Bruce has been part of the CMVic team instrumental in bringing Music Software Workshops to the world. While the pandemic made the need for this knowledge sharing particularly important and brought it to the fore, the MSW team were visionaries who had perceived a need for the implementation and delivery of such a program for some time.

This wasn’t just about COVID it was about the ways software can help to share music for both leaders and music group members.

For some time, Bruce has been using MuseScore, a music notation software, to share music with his panpipe band in a way which allows players to practice at home on their own. “Because of the traditional panpipe playing that we do, any given player only plays half a tune because the scale is split between the notes. It’s like you’re playing a button accordion or a harmonica and only playing the blow notes or the suck notes, so you can’t play a tune by yourself. This means you can’t practice on your own and that makes it harder to learn the material. It’s the same for a choir or any band if you’re singing or playing a harmony against the melody you can use this software to easily create all the parts yourself to practice with, and that’s how I’ve used it.”

Last year, Bruce also got to grips with virtual choir technology, which he tackled in a highly successful experiment using his song, Déjà Vu. This project brought together a number of singers from several different countries who each recorded themselves singing to a backing track provided by Bruce which they uploaded to Dropbox. “I updated my video editing software to DaVinci Resolve and used some of the processes talked about in the music software workshops to plan the project, put all the tracks together and work out how to share files. In some ways file sharing can be the biggest hurdle – which can be very easily overcome.”

Bruce’s ‘Deja Vu’ virtual choir project in the making. Photo: Facebook

“I think what’s happened is that COVID came in and everyone searched for something new, in terms of both technology and how to relate to each other and how the musical experience can be shared and there are some really good things about that that didn’t exist before, and those are things that I don’t think we want to give up, such as sharing music across geography. People can join from remote locations and even from other countries. I’ve been involved with Zoom folk clubs where people have participated from five different continents and it’s been absolutely wonderful. Understanding how to make Zoom work well is something I think people might continue to explore.”

That said, upon his return to live performing a couple of weeks ago, Bruce realised more than ever how the sharing of live music is a tremendous and absolute gift.

“I don’t know whether I ever really took live music for granted because it was always just a part of my life, whereas now I am conscious of what life is like without it and yes, you can share music through Zoom and so on, but it’s not the same.”

Something Bruce loved was seeing people react spontaneously to his new material. “At my first festival since lockdown recently I decided only to perform the 30 songs in 30 days. So every song was a live premiere, which was incredibly nerve wracking and I was very nervous, but it was so good to have these songs exposed to the real world and to be able to judge how people were reacting to them.”

On 2 April, Bruce will be playing live to a small live audience Under the Oaks where he will be encouraging lots of audience participation.  Bruce laughs, “It’s really great with these COVID restrictions because you can have a small, intimate audience AND a sell out!”

“I think for a long time we’ll value that gift of live music and that’s what I’m loving now, to hear people singing back to me. Music was a great connector during COVID but the magic wasn’t quite there. That’s something that only really happens when people gather together and share a physical space, but I’m so grateful that I’ve been going to Zoom folk clubs in the UK and have made new friends along the way too, it’s been really, really great. And there are a couple of people over there singing my new songs now, too!”

Catch Bruce Under the Oaks on 2 April, or stay in touch with his gig guide at brucewatsonmusic.com

Recordings of previous CMVic Music Software Workshops are available on Community Music Victoria’s website, here.

Photographs: Jill Watson via Facebook

A New Space for Community Singers ‘Under The Oaks’

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 VoKallistaand othersUsers 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.”

The new wheelchair accessible loo gets the thumbs up. Photo supplied


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.

The welcome new addition arrives. Photo supplied


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.

Ballarat Choral Society Researches Safe Ways of Singing Together Again

In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Society applied for funding from Regional Arts Victoria to conduct some research of their own. “What we were anxious about was that there didn’t appear to be any specific information coming through for choirs” says Merle Hathaway, President of the Ballarat Choral Society (BCS), a non-auditioned community choir with over 100 singers on the books.

“To just not sing any more is not really a good idea when you look at all of the health benefits associated with it. Our idea was to form a small team of people with expertise in all sorts of different areas to work out whether it was at all safe for us all to sing together and also to explore whether there was any sort of technology we could use which would enable us to sing in the one space.”

The resulting Singing Together Again (STA) team comprises Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University; civil engineer Michael Knowles, sound recording expert Rex Hardware, and BCS choir members Brian Sala, an electronics engineer; Musical Director Helen Duggan, and Merle, who is the project manager. “We got the grant and then realised that we didn’t have an epidemiologist on the team”, Merle laughs.  “We didn’t have anyone from the world of health at all. Somebody had heard Professor Catherine Dennis speaking so we asked her and to our surprise she said yes.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Professor Catherine Bennett, Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), Rex Hardware (sound engineer), Mike Knowles (civil engineer) and Merle Hathaway (project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


In this world-first project, the plan was always to share the findings with other singing groups and choirs.

“I came across a bunch of people singing in a park recently, all side by side and sharing the same piece of music. They were having a lovely time and singing at the top of their voices, but the way they were doing it was too risky and so we started to think it was time to begin sharing the findings of our research with singers and singing groups everywhere.”   

Over the course of the past year, the STA team has followed what’s been going on around the world and staying on top of the data emerging from world research around aerosol dispersal and voice projection, translating all of the associated findings and risks into a COVID safe plan that takes a whole range of things into account.

The findings of their research to date recommends singing in a well-ventilated space, limiting indoor singing time to 20 minutes, and spacing singers 2 metres apart with 3 metres between rows. Air movement and effective ventilation is key. BCS are also planning to conduct temperature checks at the door as a way to avoid complacency and as a reminder to themselves that the risk of infection is real and ever present.

Merle adds, “other advice from Professor Bennett has included using fans to blow out the space when you’re not in it during breaks between singing, when all of the singers have moved out of the rehearsal area. The time that you sing for is really critical too. Keep ‘solid singing’ to 20 minute blocks and then move out of the room and use fans to blast air through it before returning back in.”

Ballarat Choral Society is hunting for a space which fits this criteria and has even considering singing in underground car parks because they’re usually draughty spaces.  “In Ballarat the winters are quite cold so ideally we want to find a big space or a space that allows us to move from one place to another like a church hall attached to a church, or like the football oval where there’s indoor and outdoor spaces adjoining for singers to move between.”  

They were all set to try out a new venue – two adjacent halls – when the latest Victorian regulations postponed all gatherings for at least a week. The choir is also making a set of specially designed singers’ masks, with stiffening away from the face.

Merle and the team are also exploring ways to overcome the challenge of everyone effectively holding their parts whilst physically distanced. “We have some very strong singers and we also have people like me – I rely very heavily on the presence of having a very good singer behind me!”

One idea being considered is for singers to wear a headset which feeds the sound into a mixer and relays it back to the singers’ ears. While this would call for more funding, Merle is excited about the possibilities this technology could open up: “I think we could really have fun with it, we could try our underground carpark idea, each coming from different directions, we could try singing in the Botanic Gardens at a huge distance from each other like a flashmob while all remaining connected.”

To overcome the natural gravitational pull of navigating towards each other whilst singing, the BCS have found a lovely, low-tech solution to the problem. “A member has donated a set of sports field markers – yellow plastic discs – which we can place on the ground to give us all a nice bright reminder of where we should be standing!”

One thing which preoccupies Merle in the small hours of the morning is the hope that “we’ve got it right and what if we’ve got it wrong?”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a live project, the findings being shared are what the team has discerned to date, and that precautions can be increased or reduced, for example the wearing of masks indoors, depending on the level of threat from COVID in the community at any point in time.

The STA team had expected to conclude their research in February but because of the fluidity of the whole situation, Merle believes that it is likely things will roll on beyond this point. As Merle says, when it comes to considering a world without any face-to-face community singing, “to do nothing is more risky; we’re better off to share what we know – to say it’s early days and to encourage other people to continue their own research as well… All we want to do is sing.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), and Merle Hathaway ((project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


Stay tuned to STA research findings, updates and outcomes by joining BCS mailing list: info@ballaratchoralsociety.com

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Merle Hathaway, President of Ballarat Choral Society