Once again on June 21st, Make Music Day Australia will bring together friends, colleagues, strangers and neighbours to share joy and connection in a free celebration of music making for musicians of all levels using a glorious smorgasbord of styles, both online and -restrictions permitting – face to face. This year’s world wide event is about optimistically embracing uncertainty and will feature a global live stream of events that include an International Leaf Blowing Symposium, Window Serenades, Drum Battles, Folk Challenges, Song Swaps and more, all taking place on the day itself and over the preceding weekend.
As a proud foundation partner in this annual celebration of music, CMVic has been busy encouraging community music leaders from across Victoria to register their June events or upload a new or recent video to showcase their group on the Make Music Day Portal.
Craig Barrie, Digital and Strategic Communications Coordinator for Community Music Victoria says, “A number of CMVic members will be sharing the musical joy locally, despite the challenges being thrown at us all by lockdown and wild storms. With the power still out in some parts of Victoria, I hope everyone is doing okay!”
To keep everyone nourished and connected during this time of uncertainty, CMVic has focussed on running several online community events to promote and celebrate Make Music Day. June began with a Pizza Party Video Showcase, hosted by Craig with CMVic’s Program Coordinator, Nicki Johnson. The duo conducted a series of live, online interviews with community music leaders talking about their virtual choir and band projects which emerged as poignant, defiant and cathartic responses to last year’s long lockdown.
“It was inspiring and humbling to talk with leaders about what these projects meant for their groups, and for them personally. I am in awe of the effort and work leaders put in to maintain social connections between their participants over the last 18 months.”
At 5pm this Sunday, June 20, CMVic will be running a special Make Music Day ‘Ukeoke with Bruce Watson and Friends’ – a virtual version of Bruce’s popular sessions at CMVic’s Grantville music camp.
This free event will offer uke enthusiasts everywhere the opportunity to join Bruce and friends to sing and strum old favourites and learn some hot new tunes to bring warmth and light into the shortest day.
Events like these are CMVic’s strength – encouraging participation at all levels – and Bruce personifies the joy of making music together. Nicki and Craig will also be sharing a couple of songs, as will Margaret Crichton; John Howard and Michelle Fox. This team is now highly experienced at leading online sessions, and Craig has been practicing his delivery format all week to ensure everyone will be able to see all of the vital bits – words, chords and leader – onscreen at the same time:
“As Digital Coordinator, my job on the day is to ensure both lovely sound and clear video, so people can luxuriate in the music. Ideally I hope participants completely forget they are online and will be transported to the Grantville Homestead!“
Having taken on the role of Digital Coordinator at the height of the 2020 lockdown, Craig knows only too well that it takes a bit of “technical jiggery-pokery” to ensure people can both see the “chirds” (i.e. chords and words) and the presenter, and has had plenty of practice at getting this right. This weekend’s Ukeoke will see Craig back on the buttons and flexing his tech skills to deliver some online magic once more.
“Below is a photo of the software I use for live streaming. It is called Open Broadcast Software (OBS) and it is used for all sorts of online events, from hugely popular “gamers” with millions of international viewers to church services and ceremonies.”
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 Hearthby 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 email@example.com to join the event’s emailing list. Walking boots optional.
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.”
“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!”
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.
In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Societyapplied 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.”
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.”
During December in Australia, the summer nights are anything but silent. When we stop as the holidays start and feel able to enjoy moments of stillness and the time to listen as the sun sets, nature is audible in abundance all around us. The pobblebonks bonk, insects hum and buzz, and birds croon, squawk and call.
The wish to celebrate our gloriously noisy, midsummer nights motivated community singing leader, Rose Wilson, to write a version of Silent Night that is relevant to the festive season in Australia. Rose’s adaptation, Holy Night, is ethereal and beautiful. It sings of connection to the land and the spirituality of the season. It is a spinning, shimmering blank canvas onto which the listener can project memories of what has been and hopes for what is yet to come.
Rose, a community singing leader based in Newcastle, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, wrote and recorded the song as part of a bigger community project in her local area called The Christmas Bell.
“I remember thinking ‘well this is my opportunity to write and sing a Christmas carol, what is it going to say?’ I knew I wanted to do something around Silent Night and we have a dam and so many MANY frogs and I was sitting outside listening to them all, just thinking.”
Rose knew what she didn’t want to say. “I didn’t want to sing songs about presents or god, I could see all the things I didn’t want to say! Fortunately it emerged to me really clearly in the end.” Rose was keen to make her carol particular to Australia “but not shit.” Rose laughs.
“A lot of Australian Christmas carols don’t fill me with awe or pride or connection and while I’m not religious I think the idea of a time to value something that is holy, whatever that means, or something which is bigger than us and something that is beautiful and allowing something to be awe-inspiring was what I was working towards. Doing something that felt powerful and big but that was in itself quite small. Then I realised that the nights in summer in Australia are absolutely not silent.”
Sitting in the dark and listening to the frogs, Rose was inspired to counteract the idea of Silent Night by playing all the noises filling the night sky. She went on to record all of the frogs and all of the insects and began playing these loops against the song, making up tunes and words and then ‘it happened’. “It emerged and clarified itself into two really clear partner songs.”
Rose continued to experiment, trying a version of Holy Night accompanied with harp and a version accompanied with piano but she found it was significantly more magic just using her voice and the backdrop of nature.
“I feel as though here in Australia we try to put the big energy of Christmas on top of a seasonal energy which is already really big because it’s the summer solstice – it’s huge, everything’s exploding! Couple that with the end of the year and our Christmases just feel so frantic because we’re not responding to the season.”
“All of our big holidays are seasonally wrong and so finding a way to acknowledge the bounty and the bigness of the life that is going on and being able to sit with a still energy, not a cold frozen energy, but an energy of awe and beauty and acknowledging its ‘holiness’ and its wonder was what I was thinking. All those kinds of thoughts.”
Rose felt ‘so grateful’ that her version of Silent Night – ‘Holy Night’ – emerged the way it did. “It ticked all the boxes I had. It acknowledges the traditional aspect of Christmas and something that’s particular to Australia without being crass or making me cringe.” Rose laughs again.
“It also references summer with a nod to the solstice and a time of reflection and holiness and beauty and the fact that we’re not the only things here. I like that the voice is so still and so calm and so flowing but the insects and the frogs are going crazy.”
The line that brings everything into focus for Rose is “with life singing that this is holy.”
“It’s saying that this too is holy, we are nothing without acknowledging that we are part of something bigger and that aspect has a physicality and a life as well.”
The song was written and recorded during November and released as part of The Christmas Bell project in December.
The music, the frogs and the cicadas from Holy Nightare now offered by Rose as tracks for sharing with the world, and she would like nothing more than for them to be picked up, used and shared in the spirit of the season.
“I don’t know whether anyone else will sing it, a few bits are really high but I’ve just put it all out there in the hope that maybe somebody would like to sing it one day!”
It is something of an understatement to say that recent months have transformed our modes of assembly. COVID-19 has forced us to rethink and regroup how we gather, and the extraordinary proliferation of musical and other creative activity that we have seen on our screens and been part of since March is testament to how important the experience of assembly is to our spirit, our sense of community, and our intellectual nourishment. The pivot to online gatherings has seen many artistic plans and projects fall by the wayside in 2020 and perhaps beyond, and many of us are grieving these “untold losses” of art and artists and creative experiences that might have been. https://parliamentofdreams.com/2020/06/21/untold-losses/
But some forms of gathering were surely due a shake-up. If there are silver linings to the pandemic, one is that it has forced many customary ways of gathering to be questioned and re-conceived. Conferences are surely among these. They are important spaces for disseminating research and connecting with colleagues, but they are expensive to attend (especially if you don’t have the financial support of an institutional employer behind you) and environmentally damaging when you think of all those delegates flying from their home countries to gather on the other side of the world.
So for me and my colleagues on the Community Music Activity Commission of the International Society of Music Education (ISME), the ‘new normal’ of social distancing and staying close to home represented an opportunity to try an alternative platform for sharing community music workshops, ideas, and the latest research. Our biennial international seminar was originally scheduled for July 2020 in Helsinki, but that got cancelled back in April. We decided to offer our delegates an online alternative.
A challenge was when the gathering should take place. With our team of commissioners spread across New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK, Ireland, and Australia, we already knew there was no ideal timeslot for meeting. Therefore, we steered away from running the conference over the usual ‘3-consecutive-days’ timeframe (which timezone would we privilege?). Instead, we are presenting five weekly Assemblies, each scheduled to accommodate two of the three main timezones (Europe, Americas, and Asia-Pacific). Of course, anyone can attend an Assembly, but the two that are timed to suit Asia-Pacific participants will be during the day or early evening, rather than the middle of the night. Assembly 3 (Wednesday 8 July, 10am) and Assembly Five (Tuesday 21 July, 6pm) are the ones for Asia-Pacific people to mark in our diaries for synchronous participation!
Each Assembly will have a number of parallel sessions (short spoken presentations in some rooms, workshops in others), as well as roundtable discussions and opening and closing plenaries. Posters will also be presented in two of the Assemblies. The content will be pre-recorded but the discussions with presenters will be live. And every Assembly will be recorded and available for viewing later on the CMA Youtube channel.
ISME has waved the usual membership requirement to participate, so the Assemblies are free and open access. All you need to do is register (go here: https://www.isme-commissions.org/cma.html) and you will receive a link to a zoom meeting on the ISME platform. The schedules and other details can be found at the same website.
The conference theme is #theyareus: Conversations of Inclusion, Disruption, and Connection. We warmly welcome CMVic members and all community music leaders and enthusiasts to join us for these conversations. Given that the next ISME conference and Community Music Commission seminar will be held in Australia in 2022, pandemic permitting, this is a chance for Australia’s community musicians to see what the CMA has to offer you and your practice without having to get on an airplane.
Assembly 1 – 23 June (24th June at 4am for Australians)
Assembly 2 – 30 June (1st July at 4am for Australians)
Assembly 3 – 7 July (8 July at 10am for Australians)
Assembly 4 – 14 July (15 July at 4am for Australians)
Assembly 5 – 21 July, 6pm
By Dr Gillian Howell – University of Melbourne, and Commissioner for Community Music Activity Commission in the International Society for Music Education
“As singing leaders, we have a responsibility to make a decision that’s going to be best for the safety of the whole group. All our groups desperately want to get back together but unfortunately, it’s not safe yet and that’s a really clear directive from the medical health professionals that it’s not on the cards right now. Rather than grieving that, I think I’d done that earlier, I’ve kind of moved on. I mean the priority is keeping community together and staying connected; we can work on our harmonies when this is over!”
-Jane York, Just Holler
I remember the evening, clearly. It was a Friday back in March and just days earlier, Daniel Andrews had announced a state of emergency. It had been a fraught week as shops and offices began to close and the shelves began to empty. Lockdown was imminent and panic was tinging everything. But one person had it together and, as the rest of the world worried about loo roll and how long they could live on half a bag of pasta, Jane York donned a spangly jacket, picked up her beer and started to sing around the piano in her lounge room. Jane’s personal motto is ‘if in doubt, sing’. And she was, and she did. Online, using Facebook Live and she’s been doing it daily ever since.
“So many things were unknown and out of our control both personally and as a leader of groups, but one thing I could do was sing.” Jane laughs as she thinks back to that first Friday night singalong.
“It was completely disorganised, it was literally just me pressing live on my phone with an iPad to look up chords and getting drunk. It went for 2.5 hours and by the end of it I was so emotional. It was so interactive, I’d thought it would be me doing a one-way thing and it wasn’t that at all, it was all these people that I love and sing with regularly, and also people I hadn’t seen in ages from all over the country which was something I hadn’t thought about – accessibility by geography and how online we can extend our community – and people were literally tuning in from South East Asia and from Germany. So, at the time when I was thinking ‘we’re going to be isolated’, it was the opposite and it was really emotional that first one.”
Jane finds having structure a really important thing and got to thinking about all the other people at home who were no longer working, who were all in a state of flux and in need of anchoring and she came up with the idea of doing a daily lunchtime sing at 1pm, no matter what else was going on. “It was about a little bit of calm in the middle of the day.”
Jane got started and people were tuning in everyday to say ‘hi’.
“My mum tunes in everyday from Queensland which is very lovely cos we don’t actually get to sing together very much, and we get to sing five days a week now!”
The songs Jane chooses are well-known, easy to sing classics, from Lauper-esque hairbrush anthems of the 80s to Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Cash. If there’s anything anyone desperately wants on the bill, they are free to make recommendations in the chat.
Early on in lockdown, The Guardian mentioned Jane and Just Holler in an article by Anna Sublet about online singing, “that was kind of freaky, of all the things to be in The Guardian about, me in my robes singing into my phone! Our choir had sung the year before at Hamer Hall to no press and then there I was in the Guardian for not showering and going online”.
That week, Just Holler got 300 new likes on its Facebook page as part of what Jane calls ‘this isolation moment.’ This ‘moment’ has meant that our singing communities have become broader and when Jane saw the Guardian write-up she realised this element of connection could actually be the silver lining of sharing our music online.
“I realised that I could go and attend other people’s workshops and I could attend things not in Melbourne but also that I could invite people from anywhere to Term 2 of our choir. Just Holler online now has people from New South Wales, regional Victoria joining in, which is great. Being in the business of building community and connection, we take a lot of time discussing how to we get more people to come to choir and all of a sudden we’ve gone to them and boom.”
This has shifted Jane’s thinking about the future of community music and she is considering maintaining an online element to rehearsals once lockdown lifts, to ensure that the people who have joined from afar and become a part of the Just Holler community, can remain so.
Singing daily at 1pm means that Jane has to fit the rest of her life around that time. That’s easy to do when she’s at home but last week she was driving and had to pull over at the side of the road to deliver the goods. “It’s been a great exercise in not being precious about having things perfect at a performance level, some days I have literally never played the song through before! I always feel weird doing something by myself, it’s just not my style so it’s been really good for me in that way because it is up to me to sing the whole song through but it’s not centring myself in that experience, it’s still a facilitation thing because I want people to sing along from home.”
Regulars know that Jane likes to shake up the backdrop. She’s sung to the world from the bathtub, behind the clothesline, out on the deck, inside the garage, and out the front of her house with her neighbour. Her son and her partner pop up and accompany her. There have been pyjamas and slippers and keeping it real is part of the charm. On Tuesday she sang from Violet Town with a backdrop of beautiful gum trees and unexpected accompaniment from a garbage truck as it rumbled slowly past.
The chat is where the connection with the outside world takes place as people greet Jane and each other and comment on how well the houseplants are looking or whether Jane got a haircut. “It’s cute, it’s lovely, it allows people to be active participants.”
A couple of months ago, Jane decided she wanted Friday lunchtimes off to sing with Sue Johnson’s online choir and had the genius idea of inviting guests to take over the Friday slot.
All good things must come to an end and, as lockdown lifts and the world shakes its feathers and returns tentatively to the old routines of 9-5, Jane’s thinking about wrapping up the 1’o’clock singalongs possibly in a couple of weeks at the end of this term. But this isn’t set in stone,
“I don’t want it to become a chore I want it to stay a thing I’m still engaged with.” So set your alarm for 12:55, hop onto Facebook and sing along with Jane while you still can.
Feature photo supplied by Jane York featuring, l-r: Jane and her neighbour Shannon; Jane, Lewis and Solly on family band day; Jane alone in her bedroom.
It was participating in an online music session for pre-schoolers which turned around Brian ‘Strat’ Strating and Lyndal Chambers’ thinking about playing and delivering instrumental music online.
“We were invited, us and our grandchildren, to participate in a family session for Drummond Street by Amanda Testro, and it was really interesting. We learned a lot being participants in that group. The fun thing was seeing all the little screens of people doing the same thing or people doing the actions to a song in their own remote locations. We all started off together and then slowly the kids began rambling around the lounge room, you know it’s kind of really interesting and fun to see everyone doing the same thing in different places and we learnt from that experience that things with actions work much better than trying to play music.”
There’s no getting away from it, the communal aspect of instrumental music making online can be dissatisfying for a number of reasons: you don’t have your external speakers cranked up; you don’t own external speakers, your own instrument sounds way louder than what’s coming into your room so there’s no hope of playing along with the facilitator because you’re struggling to actually hear the music itself. And then there’s the unavoidable reality that in real life sessions, everybody’s bits go together to create a tune and while one person on their own might fumble and stumble over their part or lose the beat, it is everybody playing together in real time that makes everything work and is beautiful.
So how can we make the most of collective instrumental music-making opportunities during these times of physical distancing? After all, they’re a great vehicle for checking in and hearing how everyone’s doing.
As highly experienced community music facilitators and musicians, this quandary is something Lyndal and Strat have spent many hours contemplating and experimenting with since COVID put an end to most of their other commitments – and income – overnight.
“As a practitioner delivering music online, you need to think about ‘how do I make it work, what’s the reason for doing community music online, and then if you decide to do it, how do I make it successful? Because, you know, if somebody really wants to learn a tune, they can sit in front of a video on YouTube, they can learn the tune slowly and repeat it as many times as they like.” But this isn’t fun, nor is it what brings it to life. We get together in groups because we want to be with other people.”
Playing with the pre-schoolers led Lyndal to realise how dancing and responding to action songs works well online because it doesn’t matter if you’re hearing the tunes with lag, you can still do the actions. “At one point, Amanda said ‘go on kids go into the kitchen find your pots and pans’ and they all ran off eagerly to go and get their pots and wooden spoons, and so I ran off and got this big pan and wooden spoon! And when I went to play along, my pans were soooo loud, I couldn’t hear a thing from the computer! We learnt that not only can you not play in real time, you can’t even hear what’s going on unless you have some decent external speakers set up on your computer.”
What both Lyndal and Strat enjoyed most was the social aspect of participating in something in this way. “Our grandkids, all three of them – and one is only 18 months old – are in Blackwood and we are in Inverloch, and we are all watching Amanda’s show and we can all see each other!”
So the main purpose of all being online together is to maintain that social connection which we all need and seek out, and music is still that common thread.
“In our physical groups, music-making is a vehicle for us getting together and we can all play together which is just not possible with the technology that we have. At least not without phenomenal expertise and state of the art equipment. The reality we’re stuck with is we’re not going to be able to play real time music together in virtually any online context anytime soon because there’s such huge variability in everyone’s situation. There are barriers such as internet speeds, internet cabling. And some people don’t have a good, functioning computer with a good camera and good audio, some people don’t have internet at all, and some people are too old to wrestle with technology.”
The takeaway from their experience of online participatory music making has shown Lyndal and Strat the importance of identifying a clear purpose at the start of the online session, articulating this as a group and agreeing on an expectation of what everyone is trying to achieve together. “It’s the same as those values we use when we are face to face.”
Lyndal and Strat were recently invited by Aaron Silver to do a Virtual Bush Dance for the Turramurra community. “When we started trying to work out how to do it, we figured that we needed to actually get up and moving ourselves to get other people off their bums, so we did a practise, and videoed ourselves calling the dance and playing the music simultaneously, and it was hilarious.
“The bush dance worked really well but it took a lot of preparation. We had a dry run with around ten people before the session and discussed which settings were needed on Zoom, what settings people should change, and all the technical stuff. Even this was an opportunity for fun and reconnection, we were all laughing and talking to each other, so the social thing was happening even then. This small group of testers were able to say whether or not they could hear if Lyndal danced away from the computer, or when they stood away from their own computer.”
“When it came down to the actual event we were dancing and moving around at the same time as everyone else, we could still see the concert view on our computer and there was everybody dancing in their living rooms. Mark Jackson took a video of himself and Jane with us in the background on the telly and it was so hilarious, so funny!”
As part of Grantville Online (CMVic Music Camp 2020), Strat and Lyndal will be re-visiting this approach and facilitating a Virtual Street Band Parade! The tune is available and can be downloaded ahead of camp so that anyone preparing to play in the virtual street band will be familiar with it. Lyndal and Strat would like more than anything for this workshop to be about letting go, healing and having fun.
“We want it to be a lively thing, a joyful experience! We want it to be ridiculous, a coming-together and dressing up; a fooling around opportunity, a joyful, love-filled safe place!”
“We’ve recorded a multi-track tune ourselves so that there are lots of parts. On the day, we’ll press ‘play’ and everyone will be able to hear the pre-recorded piece of street band music which they’ve also been learning and it will have the counting, and everybody can play along on mute, or sing, or dance or even just mime! And they won’t just be playing on their own, they will actually be playing and singing along to a full band sound in their lounge room, bedroom or study or wherever they might be, or even outside on the veranda! Our aim is to light up the screen with participation.”
In considering the transitioning of their leadership skills into the virtual space, Lyndal is reflective about the challenges of maintaining diversity and inclusion.
“Thinking about the values, this idea of ‘from one to many’ is not my ideal for community music making, I think that’s a real stumbling block for me. In a real-life situation, there may be a nominal leader or a leadership team, and you’re allowing everybody’s voice to contribute ideas to the circle and they feel invested. When you have an online platform there’s one person is sitting in front of the computer directing the actions and everyone’s speakers are on mute, its completely the antithesis of the kind of ideal for me of a democratic community music group…”
Strat agrees, “I think it’s impossible in the online setting, so yeah that’s a great challenge, and the other thing is the thinking that if your normal session goes for an hour, have an hour online. You absolutely cannot! With the bush dance, we would usually go through something like that twelve times, whereas online we went through it just three. The elements that are most important are dancing and movement and linking up and having a great time.”
“Enabling people to do their own dressing up and their own dancing allows them to participate as much or as little as they can, or want to or feel able to, while still contributing. And if we can record it, which I know is possible, there will be this amazing collage of everyone doing their own thing in their own way and interpreting it somehow in a way that’s personal to them.”
“And, because you’ll be muted if you have always wanted to play the trumpet in a street band but don’t actually play the trumpet – now’s the time! If you’ve got a trumpet, pick it up and be able to play without any bum notes, straight off the bat! This one of the advantages of the virtual street band; anything goes. There are no limits!”
“Oh my gosh” says Lyndal, “The No Limits Street Band…
Waiting for a room to fill up with people feels so last year. These days, community choir leader Jeannie Marsh waits for the little squares on her screen to blink into life to signal her group’s singers have turned up and tuned in ready to join in an evening of singing from their lounge room, bedroom or wherever the acoustics work best and there’s the option of a closing door.
Over the past month in response to physical distancing and self isolation, a new online world of community music has sprung up, close and personal in a whole new way as pets, partners and kids wander in and out of focus, and we find singing and playing in our pj’s easy and oh so cosy. For the time being, Zoom‘s the room and anything goes in this virtual space as we each adjust to living in this brave new world.
While this approach won’t work for everyone, the option to take things online offers a way for community music groups to continue to connect socially whilst remaining apart. It addresses our basic human need for something to look forward to, is an opportunity to share hope and reassurance with each other and navigate a way through the strange times we find ourselves in. It’s a great excuse for a quick tidy up, too.
“Right now, I’m seeing my role as just trying to help people stay positive, that’s all I can do! Keep people singing and helping anyone feeling overwhelmed to get through this.”
For Jeannie, engaging with online platforms has been something best done on her own terms, in her own time; she’s the first to admit that she dislikes Facebook.
“When social media came out, I just thought ‘no, no, that’s not how I’m going to stay sane’. I feel pretty equipped technically, but I mean you know…”, she laughs, “I don’t have technical skills but I’m not afraid of asking for help and we all have to learn, we are all learning together. With ZING! we had to make the transition very early on and held our first session via Skype which was kind of weird, but it was a way to keep in contact and I was able to teach some songs and then for our most recent rehearsal last week, we switched to Zoom, which was much better.”
Jeannie invested in a headset and has found having better quality sound makes things far easier in her new-found role as an online leader. She’s made other discoveries too. For example, it wasn’t really working for Jeannie to use a call and response approach in her early online work with ZING!:
“I was leaving a gap to go, you know, ‘your turn’, so they would all sing the part at home, but people said that they didn’t really like that because they could just hear themselves singing and found this confronting. People don’t join a choir to hear themselves sing on their own. As a singer in a choir in the room together, you are surrounded by everyone else and they are pulling you along, and the leader is singing, and there might be accompaniment, all those things, and then suddenly it’s just you in your spare bedroom singing on your own, completely on your own without even the leader helping you.”
Taking on feedback from her singers, Jeannie’s abandoned this approach, “I’m not going to be trying that method anymore, I’m just going to demonstrate and repeat, then people can sing along with me, whether it’s a phrase of a song or a warm-up activity. This means that people will always have the security of singing with somebody else.” But Jeannie notes that all this might change as the process evolves over the coming weeks, and as people become more familiar and at ease with singing on their own.
The other disconcerting issue as an online leader is the problem of delay which it seems we’re all stuck with for the time being. “I can see who’s in the room and call them by name, I can say ‘Sue, unmute yourself and tell me what favourite song you have been listening to this week’. And then I can hear them, everybody else can hear them, it’s good for maintaining connection and I make sure we have a lot of laughs, which I think is important. We have warm-ups with music too. I’ll put on some lively latin dance music at the start of a session and we do a little warm-up dance sitting down or standing up… these sorts of things are a bit of fun.”
Jeannie is in the process of exploring possible ways for online social activities to be included in the virtual space, given this is such an important aspect of community choirs. Her ideas include scheduling a break time during the rehearsal when participants can grab a cuppa, beer or whatever, come back and have freeform chat. “In real life, Zing will rehearse for a couple of hours and then we usually go across to the pub and have another hour or so of socialising. We are working out a way to build that in: You can chat, have your drink in your hand and show and tell, whatever people want to do!”
Other Zoom issues to navigate include the inability to see everyone on screen simultaneously.
“Yesterday I did a first online zoom rehearsal for Climate Choir Melbourne with about thirty people, and I couldn’t see them all onscreen at once, I had to scroll across and found that quite difficult… I’m going to have to get into the habit of looking at one panel and then shifting to another panel so that I can see who’s in the room. Their names are there and their faces are there, and I can talk to them individually, so yeah I think that’s going to be challenging but I can see ways to make it work.”
Ensuring singers have all the resources required for each session is also important in supporting their online participation. Jeannie believes this means a potential increase in workload for leaders during the initial planning stages.
“If I walk into a face-to-face choir rehearsal tomorrow and we are working on six songs and people have the music and the word sheets, I stand in front of them, and we practise the song, it’s so straight forward! And you can improvise around your structure, you know, abandon one song if people aren’t getting it, or go to another….but when you are doing this online you have to have the materials all lined up ready to go and you have to keep on delivering, you have to keep talking and singing basically, so you’re on all the time.”
To compensate for this, Jeannie and ZING! are considering reducing the running time of their online rehearsals by half an hour. Jeannie is also planning to delegate online tasks to volunteers from within the group. “If somebody wants to take something on, ask them for help with the technical side of things like setting up a group space for example. I don’t want to be the one setting up the socials but there are plenty of people who would love that! For people with time on their hands, this gives them a supporting role in the same way that volunteers used to set out the tables and chairs in the room before choir. Or maybe they can be the person who sets a musical quiz for everyone or something along those lines.”
Recording and sharing backing tracks to enable singers to rehearse their parts at home is another thing Jeannie plans to provide. “I usually only start producing rehearsal resources halfway through a term, I’ll make little recordings. It’s time-consuming, I mean it’s straight forward and fun to do but it takes hours! I think leaders are going to have to produce backing tracks for people to sing along and harmonise with for practise at home in between sessions, especially if we’re charging money.”
With financial hardship hitting so many leaders and participants alike in this Covid-affected world, Jeannie is re-considering the financial structure of how she runs her choirs to find a way which works fairly for everyone.
“The last two weeks of term just became this weird thing which some people had already paid for, so how do we manage that? Do we make other activities available by way of compensation? And then do we charge less for online choir for term two? The advantage of running online groups from a leader’s perspective is you can have a virtually unlimited number of people, which could effectively also generate more money. On the other hand, people aren’t getting the same amount of experience as they would in a face to face scenario. Also many of them have lost their jobs and I want to make things more accessible than they have ever been, with so many people in trauma.”
One of Jeannie’s ideas is to implement a triple tiered payment system to attend choir. People who are able pay the full amount as normal, a discount is then available to anyone facing financial hardship, and finally, there is a rock bottom rate which is free.
“I think that’s the only way to go really: waged, under-waged and then rock bottom. But as the choir leader also has to live, I think it’s fine asking the people who can afford to pay, to do so, and subsidise those who are struggling.”
An advantage of migrating to online delivery is that ZING! now has people based regionally and interstate who couldn’t physically come to Melbourne before, who are able to join in.
“I feel really happy that this is happening, and I think all we need to do now is set up some payment structure. When people join one of these online sessions, I think it’s important to know that the person, whether it’s me or somebody else, is still trying to run a business here. This is the time we need to step up and really find creative ways to support each other.”
Jeannie is staying focussed on music as a way to navigate these strange times. She’s also supporting the local economy of the community where she lives.
“It’s a way to stop feeling so overwhelmed by everything, I hope. To focus on the things that are within our locality, or within our own skill set, things that we know how to do well, and deal with every day. Now is the time to look at how we spend our money, now is the time to buy that digital download, now is the time to buy CDs, support artists we love, now is the time to buy a ticket to a live streaming concert. And if purchasing things isn’t an option, send those artists an email or get in touch and simply say ‘I really love your work and I want to support you the best I can, through this time, what can I do for you?’ ”