It is only a short song. In fact it was just the chorus that started it all.
Perhaps I should start from where it all began. Polly, my wife, has always loved listening to ‘a capella’ so for several years we would go to the Selby Folk Club’s annual a capella concert in Upwey. Then about 5 years ago, after the concert, I made the irrational decision to join Sweet Sassafras, one of our local choirs. Irrational because I’d not sung since my youth, and never in a concert. A few weeks after that our choir director announced that we would be learning Light by Light by Liz Frencham and singing it along with VoKallista, another local choir, at the Belgrave Lantern Festival and if we wanted to get started on the song, go to VoKallista on Wednesday evening.
I went along to VoKallista, got an amazingly warm welcome from Libby Price and met Barb McFarlane whose name was vaguely familiar. I knew by the end of the session that I needed to join VoKallista as well as being in Sweet Sassafras. It took a while to get Polly along, for the usual reasons. “I’m not musical, I can’t sing.” etc. Within three months they were among her best friends, almost like family, and she had done a short solo recitative on stage at Daylesford during the Choirs Concert.
Then one day Barb Mcfarlane told me that she was on the Victoria Sings Steering Group at Community Music Victoria. I’d never heard of CMVic let alone the Steering Group. She said that the group consisted only of women and needed a male to give it a bit of balance and I was that male. That’s how I got involved. I decided to go to Treetops to find out what a CMVic camp was all about. Polly said I was on a high for weeks afterwards.
So, we’ve just got home from our third CMVic Singing Camp, met up once again with the loveliest bunch of people on the planet, are both inspired from the workshops, from the interactions, the singing, talking and the warmth. Our lives have changed into totally new directions over the last four years with new confidences, new friends and new adventures.
And it all started from that one little song.
Thank you Liz Frencham for Light by Light. And thank you Barb Mcfarlane, for getting me into CMVic, and thanks to all of you wonderful CMVic people.
-Stuart ‘Fuzzy’ Ashburner
Postscript: It is as relevant to me now in 2019 as it was when I wrote this in January of 2014. Wild horses wouldn’t keep Polly and me away from the CMVic Singing Camp!**
**The 2019 CMVic Singing Camp at Amberley runs from October 18-20. It is a weekend of peer exchange for Singing Leaders of all experience levels, new, aspiring or experienced, and anyone who loves to sing! For information and bookings, click here.
Not so quietly getting on with singing together in a little corner of its community is the Castlemaine Peace Choir. A beloved group, not particularly well known outside of the town, its spirit is forged by the values of inclusion and compassion which underpin it and are its reason for being. Peace Choir is a free, no-obligation community choir funded by philanthropy.
The Peace Choir was born after a couple who manage a small philanthropic fund within the town made it their mission to embrace the people who look on from the sidelines of society, marginalised from the offerings of the mainstream because of mental illness or intellectual disability, and bring them into the frame. Motivated by the effects of a profound personal loss, they approached the district’s community house, mental health support groups and disability services about establishing a choir.
They approached community singing leaders, James Rigby and Jane Thompson, who were aware that they were running groups for people of a certain age and demographic from within their town: “We always said they were open access, anyone-can-join choirs but we just knew we were missing a whole lot of people who would have benefitted from the experience that these choir members were having.”
James and Jane were initially worried about the concept of mixing together people with intellectual disabilities with people with mental illness. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to both of those groups and we were worried that people with mental illness may not want to be classified as being the same as people with intellectual disabilities and vice versa. We ran separate workshops and then brought the two groups together and it was just a magical event.”
A minister in the town who was helping to coordinate the whole process gave the Castlemaine Peace Choir its name, something James says has been ‘an absolute gift’: “Many people with mental illness are just looking for some internal sort of peace, some stillness. It’s ended up being absolutely a choir for people who feel on the edge and there are also people in the choir who are there because they want to interact with these people who are on the fringes. We’re creating a space that actually and selectively recruits in the corners.”
People who work in the disability services in Castlemaine are aware of the choir. If you live in the district and you suffer from a mental illness, you’re quite likely to be referred to ‘Maine Connection’ and the fellow who runs that group is also on the organising group for the Peace Choir. This means it’s only a matter of time before he’ll say to somebody, ‘well look, why don’t you come along and have a sing?’ There are no processes or paperwork involved and its recruiting methods are pretty organic: Sooner or later you’re going to run across somebody in the town who has heard of the Peace Choir who will invite you along for a sing. “It’s a self-perpetuating thing.”
“We run from 5:30 with a late afternoon tea; then sing from 6-7. That afternoon tea is the best fruit you can get in the district; really beautiful, quality food from the local suppliers, delicious cheeses and good bread, it’s not flashy or extravagant but it’s wholesome and nourishing. A lot of people in this cohort are used to cordial and a plate of mixed bickies when they go to things, so to be able to off them decent, quality food is a way of saying ‘we’re going to look after you here’, and it’s extremely levelling. We eat for half an hour and that’s when all the catching up goes on. “Every time I walk into that gathering my heart just warms, you see this quite extraordinary mix of people carrying on like old friends. Nobody new is ever left on the outskirts. It’s all very low key but I don’t think there’s any chance anyone in this room would ever feel not attended to, or not cared about.”
The choir has borne witness to some pretty extreme behaviour from some of its members over the years too. “It’s not just a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – they are a warm fuzzy group of lovely people – but these are people who are prepared to really actively challenge themselves to look after other people who they might not normally be with.”
“We had a guy in the choir for a while who was floridly psychotic, he was very heavily tattooed and he had a very intense flat aspect to his face and he was lean and dangerous looking; he used to just stand up and sort of prowl during the sessions and start pulling off martial arts stances. He looked like he was about to kick someone’s head in but people in the group would settle him down and he kept coming back for a couple of years. For a time we were able to give this fellow a connection to his town and an introduction to some people who would continue to care for him. He could be an intimidating presence around our town and yet the choir was a place he kept coming back to, somewhere to be present with a group of people who were all happy to have him in the room. We were all a little bit uncomfortable but a little bit of being uncomfortable is a good thing for you, I think.”
James used to be an Emergency Department Nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and has plenty of experience of people disrupting a situation: “I’m not actually scared by scenarios where people come in demanding attention. I guess I’ve worked in places that have been full of very scary people on many occasions and I’m not frightened of people with mental illness or who demonstrate extreme behaviour. The number of people who are actually dangerous is vanishingly small. And there’s a massive amount of compassion and care among the Peace Choir singers. If I have to take somebody outside to calm them down there’s a whole lot of people who have got my back, I’m not going out on a limb or doing this on my own.”
James thinks the choir’s repertoire is absolutely the guts, the heart of the whole thing. “We sing a lot of songs about taking care of each other, caring about other people, and we’ve got some old folk songs from back in the era when peace songs weren’t unfashionable.”
But it’s digging into songs written by Indigenous musicians such as Archie Roach where the group finds relevance. “The group can really see and identify with the marginalisation which comes with being Aboriginal and living on the fringe and songs written about coming from an underprivileged demographic. We sing songs like ‘We won’t cry’ from Archie Roach and they’re songs about resilience and strength and the choir just totally gets it.”
These people who have lived with these scenarios for ‘years and years and years’ tell James that ‘these songs absolutely tell my story and they tell the story of the people who have helped me to survive.’
Another important aspect of the choir there since the beginning is that people come along with their carer, whether that’s their mum, their sister, or whoever: “Every song we sing has an affirmation of the experience and the aspirations of the people in the choir”.
One of the singers in the Peace Choir is David, a man in his mid-30s, who comes along with his mother. David has autism and is nearly non-verbal although he has been known to burst into song in the supermarket. “David is a gentle, beautiful looking man, but vocalises with squeaks, grunts and whistles and makes all these crazy noises through the singing of these sensitive songs about peace, and nobody in the room turns a hair. David’s part of the group and if he’s making noises, good on him, we don’t care.”
At the end of David’s first year with the choir, his mother wrote a letter to James and Jane. In the time since her husband had died, this woman had never been able to do anything without wondering first what she was going to do with David. The Peace Choir was the first time in their life that they had been able to go and do something together and be involved in a community activity together.
James spends a lot of the time teaching people to listen. “As the years have gone by, we’ve sung more and more quietly, we have a massive dynamic in the choir now, and here’s this bunch of people with every problem under the sun and it’s absolutely the most beautiful sounding choir I’ve ever worked with. I find myself in the middle of a tender song about peace or the Melanie Shanahan song, Walk with me, written about mental illness and about crying out for people to just please help, it’s very passionate, a really raw song and we just sing it soooooo beautifully and it’s so achingly tender. And I think ‘how on earth do you teach this lot to sing that song with such commitment or insight?’
I believe it’s because they really care about the people on the other side of the room and they’re really listening to what the other people are singing and nobody in the room wants to be the person singing louder than everyone else… They’ve just become the most incredibly beautifully tuneful choir; we keep shocking ourselves.”
The Castlemaine Peace Choir is run by James Rigby and has around 60 regular singers. It runs for 30 weeks each year on Wednesdays from 5.30pm and everyone is welcome.
For the close-knit community in the hills above Melbourne, comfort and support in the form of song will soon be available to those on the threshold of life, offered by a fledgling new group of singers, Threshold Choir, Tecoma, led by experienced singing leader, Barb Mcfarlane.
“I went to the Sacred Edge Festival about four years ago and there was a singing session which, of course, I went to. The woman leading it was from the Threshold Choir in Melbourne. Speaking with her afterwards I was fascinated by the idea of singing for the sick and the dying and immediately wanted to be part of it, but Melbourne Threshold Choir meets on a Wednesday night which is when my choir Vokallista rehearses.”
Barb let the idea ride for a while until the subject came up again in conversation with her friend, Christina Reeves, who is a trained death doula. A death doula supports the person who is dying and their loved ones in whatever way is required to come to terms and be able to deal with what is happening. Christina shared and encouraged Barb’s excitement about the idea of a Threshold Choir and the possibility of forming one based in the hills. And so, this particular story begins.
‘The Mother Ship’ as Barb calls it, is the Threshold Choir established in California in 2000, by a woman called Kate Munger. The Threshold Choir is a secular organisation run by volunteers which supports people all over the world to establish their own chapter of the choir with the shared goal ‘to bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying’.
Permission to sing Threshold Choir songs is granted only to members of the organisation. There is no set rate to join; singers pay what they are able or would like to, from one dollar upwards. This membership facilitates access to tips, mentorship and a cappella singing resources to support them in their journey.
It was important to Barb to feel completely at ease with the rules set by the Threshold Choir before introducing any of her singers to the organisation. “I thought about going maverick and doing it my way, then I thought some more. The Threshold Choir Mother Ship has many beautiful songs which are tested, tried and trusted. They also offer mentoring support meaning if something happens I can contact my ‘coach’ or anyone else I meet through that network, and say, ‘hey look, this happened…what would you have done?’ It’s a way to de-brief and check in. On balance it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”
Barb’s coach, Cathy, is based in the US and mentoring is possible via Skype and email. Cathy has been available to Barb since the inception of her initial idea through to the launch of Threshold Choir, Tecoma. It’s an ongoing relationship and she offers Barb mentoring and advice on some of the more common questions which come up, and advises how to prepare the singers for the emotional aspect of what they’re preparing to do.
Barb knows that it’s difficult for anyone to know what to expect in the emotional sense: “There’s a huge range of possibilities to prepare for in a room where someone’s dying.” Threshold Choir, Tecoma rehearsals runs for three hours and at the end Barb finds people are keen to stay and keep talking and singing. “It’s common for people to feel that we’ve lost the art of talking about death and dying and the experience of belonging to the Threshold Choir allows a way for the singers to reconnect with memories and share their own experiences of bereavement and loss should they wish to do so, or if they find grief and emotion is triggered by what they are doing. It’s a safe, empathic space where people are free to open up. If you bring it out by way of tears and having other people listen it’s always a healthy process.”
Having spent a year familiarising herself with the material, Barb now has 15 Threshold Choir songs which she’s taught to her group. “We sing them for a long time, each of them might be the length of a Short Stuffstyle song, and we’ll sing that for around 15 minutes.”
As somebody highly experienced in leading community choirs and singing groups, having guidelines to follow has required some adjustment for Barb. “I’m still getting my head around how to behave within the rules, cos that’s a bit of a challenge for me, I’m used to doing my own thing, but I also feel protected by it as well because they’ve all been doing it for a very long time.”
In preparing for a session, Barb sets up a circle with a reclining chair covered with a blanket and cushions in the middle. The singers are then invited into the centre to experience the sensation of being sung to for themselves. “We’ve taken a lot of time to do that. We’ll sing for a good 20 minutes to give the person in the chair the feeling of what they might be giving to someone else when they go out and start singing. We then allow for some space and listen to whatever they might want to share about sensations or how they felt.”
Threshold Choir guidelines suggest that singers go out in groups of 2-4 to avoid crowding out a space. Most hospital rooms and private bedrooms aren’t able to accommodate more singers than that without their presence becoming overwhelming. This means that the singers who attend not only have to be confident in singing their parts but need to be able to hold it on their own, which is what takes the time for most people.
Barb now has around 30 singers who’ve been to gauge whether singing in a Threshold Choir is something they think they could do, with a good core of 12 coming along to most sessions. She’s happy to allow for a slow build of interest, the work may not be for everyone. Barb’s also working to factor in obsolescence for herself in order to ensure longevity for the group. As an ongoing part of rehearsals, Barb models and shares solid CMVic Singing Leadership skills, offering others in the core group the opportunity to teach and lead songs, encouraging them to develop their own skills in leading rehearsals and eventually, to deliver the actual work with people in the community.
The services of the Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be available for people in Palliative Care at home, or in a hospice. The songs may also be used as a way for soothing the room down after somebody has passed. Effects of the singing are reported as calming, peace inducing and pain relieving for the person who is ill, for their relatives, for the staff if the person is in a facility and, of course, for the singers themselves.
Living in such a connected community, Barb foresees a high demand for the services of the Threshold Choir Tecoma in time and is hopeful to have enough singers available to manage a roster service available to voluntarily sing for the sick, the dying and their families.
This weekend, Christina Reeves, Death Doula, is heading up a ‘Dying to Know’ expo being held in the Hills (August 8-11). The focus of the weekend is to explore ways to ‘create a world where we all know what to do when someone is sick, dying or grieving’. Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be singing at this event and Barb will host immersion sessions on Sunday 11th August for anyone keen to experience the songs or who would like to try singing with the group and find out further for themselves, what this incredible service is all about.
The whale migration season off Phillip
Island has begun again and the texts have started to arrive …
Wednesday 29th May 9.45am
First Island whales this season. Two whales off San Remo jetty, heading to Cape Woolamai.
4th June 3.31pm
One humpback sighted 1.4 kms of the Nobbies, heading towards Pyramid Rock.
7th June 10.48am
One humpback whale, close to shore at Cape Woolamai.
We live at Cape Woolamai and although
I was deep in work at the time that this third message came through, I answered
what I felt was a call to action. When I arrived at Anzacs Beach at Cape
Woolamai, the car park was full. A crowd of people was standing looking out to
sea. There were families with children and people who had never met before were
talking and laughing with each other. Just as I had, everyone there had dropped
what they were doing when that text came through. Excitement was in the air and
it felt like a shared experience of connection with the whales, as well as with
I’ve noticed this sense of connection
on whale cruise boats too. We board the boats as individuals and when the first
whales are sighted, any separateness between passengers seems to dissolve. We
sing and clap and whistle to the whales, reaching out to them together. Sometimes,
they’ll swim along with us, even diving under the boat. If they’re feeling
playful, they seem to dance in the water, breaching and splashing with their
bodies and tails. It’s a profound experience to be part of that joyful play.
The whale at Cape Woolamai a few days
ago was surfacing from time to time. I found it moving to see a whale in this
early stage of the season and to know that the age-old cycle of the whale
migration was underway again. With all the human interference of the natural
world and the damage done, the rhythm of the migration endures. It is larger
than all of us and that is a wonderful thing.
Humpback Whale Research
Over the last few weeks, I
have been in touch with members of a team of international scientists who have
been undertaking research on whale songs for many years. Led by Dr Ellen
Garland (St Andrews University, Scotland) and Dr Jenny Allen (Griffith
University, Queensland), the research has been tracking how the songs of
humpback whales are transmitted over time and distance in the Pacific Ocean. The
two lead researchers, Dr Ellen Garland and Dr Jenny Allen, have both expressed
interest in the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival.
Their research has shown that whale songs are
communicated across the South Pacific, moving from populations from eastern
Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east. The whale songs appear
to come originally from the Indian Ocean, west of Australia representing a
transmission of almost 10,000 kilometres. The research team has found that
thousands of male humpbacks can synchronously change their song to a new
version introduced from a neighbouring population in as little as two months. Their
research in song learning has revealed that humpback whales employ some of
the same learning strategies as songbirds and humans when acquiring a new song.
Below is a short film about this research:
With the support of local First Nation
community members, Bass Coast Shire Council, Destination Phillip Island,
Community Music Victoria, Cowes Uniting Church, we are currently organising the
Intercultural Arts Program ‘Balert Yirramboi’ of the Island Whale Festival
happening in Cowes on Phillip Island on the 5th – 7th
A talented group of musicians, artists and cultural advisors is coming together to help celebrate the whales through song, story, dance and collaborative art-making. Activities will include Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace which weaves together music, art and science.
Jazz pianist, Steve Sedergreen, is
composing music in response to the scientific whale song research. During the
Festival, he will be performing his new composition with his long-time
collaborators, Wamba Wamba didgeridoo player, Ron Murray and jazz drummer, Mike
Jordan. Camille Monet, who is coordinating the Collaborative Artspace at the
Festival, will be facilitating arts activities in response to the whale song research.
Participants will be invited to create visual responses to the whale songs, making
patterns on long sheets of paper which will be carried in the Whale Parade at
the end of the Festival. Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir has generously gifted local
Boon Wurrung language to a Whale Song Cycle that I have composed and that
Trawlwoolway artist Lisa Kennedy has illustrated.
We would like to extend a creative invitation to you. If you are someone who loves whales and is interested in creative collaborations, song-writing, poetry or story-telling, there is an opportunity for you to share your ideas and make a contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Whale Festival.
If you are seeking
inspiration, one way of getting focussed is to reflect on some core questions,
such as …
Why do you love whales?
What do whale songs stir in you?
What does the sense of connection with whales feel like for you?
If you had a message to send to the whales, what would you say or sing to them?
If you would like to make a creative contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program, please send an email to Laura Brearley firstname.lastname@example.org COB Friday 28th June, 2019 with your contact details and a brief description of what you would be interested in sharing at the Festival, eg song, poetry, story. The program has been designed with activities in which creative exchanges and collaborations can occur. The copyright of all material will remain with the contributing artists.
are free and bookings for ticketed activities can be made on-line.
And … next time you hear that there
are whales off the coast, and you are nearby, just stop what you are doing and take
some time to be near the whales and feel the gift of their presence. I suspect
they will feel you too.
I love the radio. I love the way it makes me feel, like it’s just me and whoever is on the waves, having our own private moment. ‘Course that’s probably because I mostly listen to the radio in my car, or through headphones while I’m walking. I laugh, I cry, I groan and shake my head in disbelief, and no one else knows why I’m doing that. It’s a moment of private, concentrated listening.
Radio National is my main source of news and commentary on the world, and I’m ok with that. But community radio.. well that’s really special. To me, community radio is inherently political, because it is people taking back control of what is transmitted over the waves.
People meeting people, talking to people, organising for change, interpreting the world around them. All within a fairly strict legislative framework mind you, but still…it’s people power, and I love it!
Since moving to Geelong I feel much more inclined to get involved in community events and activities. It’s smaller and more like a country town than a big city, and I like that. So last year I enrolled in an introduction to radio broadcasting course through 94.7 The Pulse FM. For eight Monday nights I dragged myself along after work, battling exhaustion and hunger, and learnt about how to ‘do’ radio. It was fun, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. One thing I did learn was how much work it takes to have your own show, and that dampened my enthusiasm a little at the time.
But life became a little freer for me, and I approached The Pulse earlier this year, asking if I could volunteer on a show. And so I was led to Kickarts, Chris Bryan’s show about all things arty in Geelong and surrounds. My intention from the start was to bring a focus on Community Arts, as Chris has more of a focus on the professional arts, and to look at making radio documentaries. So for the first month or so I came onto the show every week and did the Arts News segment, as well as providing a couple of interviews for the show. I loved getting to meet artists and gallery owners, as well as interviewing people involved in community arts.
Suddenly I found myself handed two shows to do on my own. Exciting! Scary! I decided the first show would focus on singing, and interviewed Kym Dillon, a supremely talented musician who leads a few With One Voice choirs including With Once Voice Geelong, through Creativity Australia, and who has been involved with Community Music Victoria a great deal in the past. We had a great chat, and I went to a rehearsal to record some vox pops with choir members. What a joyous atmosphere Kym creates as a singing leader! I edited it all down and spent hours in the studio trying to put together the show. After a few mishaps that saw me losing hours of work in a botched attempt to save my edits I decided I was going to have to wing it on the day. And wing it I did, with two musicians coming in at short notice to do a live interview about their forthcoming concert on the music of Hildegard de Bingen. Yes there was dead air…a few short periods of it as I struggled to coordinate faders and buttons and the quirks of iTunes…but overall I was pretty proud that I had got through a show alive and not humiliated.
My second show was focused on the sea, with
an interview with Lighthouse Arts Collective in Point Lonsdale and a phone
interview with Bryce Ives, the director of a play reading happening at
Queenscliff Literary Festival. The first
half of the show went well, and I silently congratulated myself on remembering
all the transitions. But after pride…..well,
you know the rest. While setting up the
phone interview with Bryce I forgot to turn off the microphone, so everybody
listening heard a very strange version of Ina Wroldsen’s song ‘Sea’, complete
with me talking and laughing the whole way through. Mortified. But still, I
mostly did a good job, and I’m inspired to keep working to improve my skills.
My hope is that through radio I can promote the stories of people living and working and making music and other art in the community.
I want to delve into what inspires people to create, and to support the voices of people who are not usually represented in the arts.
Who knows..maybe there will be radio documentaries in my future…probably there will be the occasional dead air…but I hope I will never leave my microphone on at the wrong time again!
Kylie is an ESL teacher, community worker and musician, and was once involved on the Board of CMVic. She is passionate about the power of music to connect, communicate and empower people, and hopes to start some singing groups in Geelong.
You’re going to bend it, you’re going to make it, you’re going to recreate it and it’s going to turn into your style and your method and your system in your community; it’s about making community music in your community in the way that suits it best. – Jane Coker, Community Music Victoria
The information-gathering phase of an exciting new CMVic driven Leadership Program is gathering pace, steered by the Gippsland-based, community music dream-team, Jane Coker and Lyndal Chambers. With funding from Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, the duo will design a proposal for a new state-wide community music leadership program based on what people who are passionate about the power of group music making tell them is needed, to stimulate the growth of inclusive singing and instrumental music making across Victoria.
Jane says, “one thing that excites me about the project is that many of the leaders who started learning their craft with us in the early 00’s have now had upwards of 15 years experience of leading inclusive music making. If they weren’t already, they have become experts in their fields, and this project will enable them to collaborate with others who have new perspectives and energy to shape and inspire the future of Victoria’s community music-making.”
Putting a key question to established leaders and to people who have never participated in CMVic skills development before- but who know they want community music to be happening in their organisation, community, agency, or wherever they are – is the first step: “What do you need to be able to do this, in order to make this happen?”
Subject to funding approval, the findings from the research and information gathered will then be used to enable a series of state-wide community music leadership programs to be rolled out in whatever way the people say they want them to be implemented.
stage of the project we don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. It will
depend on what the people want. It’ll be driven by our ethos of collective
empowerment, ie, we share our leadership, we share our skills and resources
because that’s what makes us stronger.”
the skills and leadership training which people feel they need to go out and
make music in their community is only the start. The vision for the Leadership Program
is to ensure individuals feel equipped to go out and find a way of creating and
leading music, and making music happen in their communities, that is all their
“We’re not going to give people a model to follow, there’s not going to be any ‘you have to be like this and you have to do it this way’ We’re going to find out what you need, we’re going to source it from our collective resources, and then you’re going to use that! You’re going to bend it, you’re going to make it, you’re going to recreate it and it’s going to turn into your style and your method and your system in your community; it’s about making community music in your community in the way that suits it best.”
“What do you need to be able to do this, in order to make this happen?”
whether the resources needed to do this are right out there under their noses
or on the other side of the world, Jane and Lyndal are keeping the focus of the
collecting information from people in Melbourne, from Victoria; Australia, and
from around the western world to ask what they’re doing and explore how they’re
promoting this development of leadership capacity. CMVic has never collected
this sort of research together and so we don’t really know where we sit in a
global sense, we don’t know where we sit in terms of whether other people are
using this collective empowerment model, and if so, what can we learn from them
and if they’re not, how can we share what we do with them. If we find ourselves
in a position to be able to enable other people around the world to make their
programs a little bit more to do with collective empowerment, that would be
Lyndal are keen to hear from people who have no idea of CMVic’s history, to
hear about what they feel they need and want in order to be able to get
community music happening in their communities. Similarly, the Leadership
Program is not a review of the training CMVic has offered in the past.
“When we get together with people to talk with them and find out what they want, a lot of them will say ‘we want more of what you offer.’ We know they love what we offer and that it works, so in a sense that does review what we’ve done in the past because it tells us what people want of what we’ve done in the past, and what they don’t want of what we’ve done in the past!”
shape will this year take and how will the research be done?
Lyndal have been working to identify nine regional areas across the state. The
key objective will be to connect people in these communities, who are working
in areas where they could use singing and they could use music but they don’t
know how, with the program. This will be done through a series of consultative
conversations and workshops.
“One of the
main questions we’ll be asking is ‘how can we fertilise the soil around here?’
What needs to be done for the ecology to be healthy in order that people can
empower each other and support each other in this work?”
The first two of these consultation style workshops will be held at the 2019 CMVic Music Camp at Grantville. These will act as prototypes for the rest of the meetings, conversations and workshops, that Lyndal and Jane will be running throughout the rest of the year.
“We’ll be talking about the geographical locations of where the project will be focussing and it means anyone there from any of these regions will then be able to start connecting us into their community and taking it to their region. “People can see what we’re doing, start passing the info on and getting enthusiastic about it.”
Jane and Lyndal can’t wait to share their passion for this project with everyone out on the road. Lyndal explains:
” A number of years ago we went on a CMVic team gathering weekend and allowed ourselves to dream about the state of Victoria as a ‘Community Music Utopia’ and we shared our dreams – through music making together, in all manner of forms and styles, our community is connected and strengthened; we are happier, we live longer more fulfilled lives; we are empowered socially and politically, we share loving empathetic relationships, we have a voice and more… true, it all sounds incredibly idealistic! But what excites me about this project is that as an organisation we are taking a step to turn our dreams into reality. We hope to have more people across Victoria engaging with music in ways that are most relevant to themselves and their communities. And I’m looking forward to being surprised by the outcomes!”
By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Jane Coker and Lyndal Chambers.
In recent days the media has been full of news of the sad loss of Richard Gill – conductor, teacher, composer, and powerful advocate for school and community music. Many will remember him as the somewhat eccentric man with a shock of white hair representing classical music on “Spicks and Specks”.
He passionately believed that every child deserves music, and that SINGING should be the basis of all music experience from an early age.
I have been personally fortunate to be a student, then a teaching colleague, and a friend of Richard Gill since the age of 15, when as a country girl I went to a NSW state music camp and played the violin under his baton in a full symphony orchestra.
At that stage I had never even seen a French horn, or an oboe, and the experience of sitting in the heart of 60 musicians playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, in a tent, in the rain, with flutes behind and violas to the side, was an early inspiration. “Cellos, can you SOB a little more?” said Richard Gill. I melted with adolescent musical emotion!
So many people have an anecdote about Richard Gill.
“He remembered my name when I ran into him, 35 years after I left school.”
“He got me to sing an improvised melody in Solfege over a ground bass in a workshop – and surprisingly, I could do it.”
“At music camp in 1967 he played the piano for an evening Barn Dance in the style of Chopin, then Buddy Holly, then Souza.”
“At a teacher workshop we did one round of saying our names, and he remembered all of the 40!”
“At a choral rehearsal, we sang a 4 part, 20 page Kyrie, and at the end he said ‘Tenors, your E at Bar 68 was a little flat.’ ”
At workshops and conferences for teachers, he made each of us feel that what we were doing was important. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said.
Kim Williams, a close friend of Richard Gill’s for over 5 decades, says: “Richard was a remarkable person – a true citizen of music, warm, generous, passionate, talented, kind, thoughtful and loyal. His legacy is rich and deep – I intend to ensure the essence of it is embraced on a continuing basis.”
Richard Kefford AM, the Chair of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra – which Gill co-founded in 2013, and which has been his deeply-felt passion in recent years – says: “Richard Gill will be remembered as a giant in Australian music, an iconic conductor, teacher and passionate campaigner for music education. His death is a massive loss to Australian music and to the countless colleagues, students, friends and audience members who loved him so much. . . We are truly moved by Richard’s request that the Richard Gill Memorial Fund be established. . .so that we may keep the flame of his remarkable legacy alight.”
Richard Gill was an outspoken promoter of music for every Australian, through music in schools and in the community, as well as in concert halls and opera houses.
He was a passionate supporter of music at every level, equally at home sitting on the floor with 3 year olds, leading a Flash Mob of 500 singers with “When I’m 64”, rehearsing a Mozart opera, or conducting a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.
His inspiration lives on in many of us as we work in music and spread the enthusiasm that he encouraged in many thousands of people of all ages.
Heather was a Community Music Victoria Board member for 9 years, at the end of a career of teaching music – in primary schools, to young children, and to people of all ages in community sessions. Her special passion has been home made marimbas (Jon Madin style) and in retirement on the NSW mid north coast she can’t resist volunteering in primary schools and introducing older adults (aged 65-85) to music-making through U3A sessions.
Richard Gill’s TedEx talk on the importance of a child’s music education can be seen here.
John Williams has been singing for 80 of his 90 years on the planet. Growing up on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, there was little opportunity to express himself musically and John really had no idea he could sing. “The headmaster of the school would bring in a local girl to sing with us all once a week, My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Rule Britannia, that kind of stuff. When we moved to Mitcham, my mother and I joined the local Methodist Church choir and I started singing alto alongside my mother at the age of 10.”
John has been singing ever since and was a key player in the founding of the Mitcham based Maroondah Singers, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary as a mixed voice community choir.1 It has encouraged young singers starting out and provided end of life care, too. It is a living, breathing singing entity as vital now as it was half a century ago, and it owes its origins, in part, to John.
“I was there before Maroondah Singers even existed”, he laughs.
The idea for a choir came about through a conversation between John and his good friend, George Irvine. At the time, George wrote a weekly column in the Nunawading Gazette, called ‘As it appears to me’ where he would comment on various social issues relevant to the City of Nunawading. George also worked in the same place as John in South Melbourne and the two men would often travel home together, putting the world to rights as they went:
“I found that usually, whatever we talked about on the way home would appear in the newspaper the week after next where he’d say ‘my friend John says’… I got used to it!”
One of their conversations was about what had happened to all the good choirs. A subsequent column posing the same question elicited a strong response from within the community so the following week George suggested trying to set up something locally and called a public meeting to gauge the level of interest. He hired a space in the Old Orchard Shopping Centre in North Blackburn, set a date and promoted it through the newspaper.
Coincidentally, at that same time, the Mitcham Methodist Church had moved to join the Presbyterians in a joint building venture which had just achieved completion. The very night that George called for the choir meeting, the Mountview Church property committee was meeting to allocate space for community rent.
“I should have been at that committee meeting but I apologised and went over there (to join George) Well, when we looked around and saw the number of people who were enthusiastic about the idea of starting a group, we realised things were going to roll. The meeting continued with everyone agreeing that Monday night would suit, if only a space could be found.”2
Experiencing a light bulb moment, John told everyone to talk amongst themselves, then hopped in his car and gunned over to the Property Committee meeting. “I rushed in, said, ‘Have you finished the meeting? Do you have any space on a Monday night? With a piano?? Yes? Yes!’ ”
The first rehearsal of the Maroondah Singers was held in Mountview Church Hall the following Monday night in 1968, and has continued as a weekly event ever since. Numbers grew quickly under the leadership of Jim Watsford who, at that time, was conductor of the Mitcham Choral Society: “Jim came to that meeting in the hope of securing recruits for MCS. Instead, he got a whole new choir!”
Following Jim’s belief, “if you can follow the words you can sing” the Maroondah Singers was destined to be a success.
Within twelve months the choir had given its first performance with George publicising the event through the newspaper once again, and John continuing to use his powers of persuasion to recruit Lela Wright, his church organist as their first accompanist. (She stayed ten years.)
Fifty years on, and the Maroondah Singers has sung at venues all over Victoria including the MCG for a grand final, for nine years as part of Carols by Candlelight, the Myer Music Bowl, regional church halls, the Dallas Brookes Centre, and Melbourne Town Hall, among others. The Singers is an inclusive and welcoming bunch and Monday night rehearsals are open to anyone keen to drop by and listen. It isn’t essential to read music and there are no auditions, however there is a voice and ear test to determine a singers’ part.
“We’ve never said no – we’re full, to anyone who has wanted to join so we have a lot of sopranos and could do with more tenors. There are more women than men in the choir and a couple of them have moved from the alto line to sing tenor, which works well. And we’re always trying to find younger people, if we can.” Some members of the Maroondah Singers weren’t even born when George and John held that first public meeting, half a century ago!
Since 1991, young singers have been drawn to the choir each year through a scholarship program established to commemorate three of the choir’s founders, George Irvine, and May and Mervyn Vagg, the choir’s first President. This program has proved a sensational singing springboard with past scholarship singers now working with international and State operas, and the process and experience providing a huge amount of pleasure to the choir members in supporting and encouraging these young singers during the early stages of their musical journeys.
Maroondah Singers pride themselves on performing from memory, firing on all neurological cylinders and giving their brains a weekly work out with songs from a wide repertoire by composers from Handel and Verdi to Rodgers and Hammerstein; Elton John to Billy Joel and beyond.
Currently directed by Lyn Henshall and accompanied by Dr John Atwell (who returned in 2010 for a second stint with the choir having previously accompanied them between 1980 and1997) the choir also sings in Japanese, Italian and Latin, and holds an impressive back catalogue including ‘Big Sings’ such as Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. From time to time the singers team up for performances with other choirs and their comrades in the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.
There is no pressure on anyone to ‘perform’ until they feel confident and ready to take this step.
“Everyone is issued with a CD with their part line, explains John, in my case Bass 1, emphasised in a digital recording of the score. All the items for the forthcoming concert are on that CD. Alternatively, they can be downloaded as an MP3 file. Playing these through with the music reinforces the memory, then without the music which strengthens it further.”
Innovation is an important contributor to longevity and the Maroondah Singers is enterprisingly equipped to hit the road and share its songs, thanks to a pop-up tiered platform designed to hold up to 100 singers. Bringing his background in engineering to the fore, John drew up designs for the staging, held a working bee at a college woodworking centre one weekend, and the end result packs down into a trailer, perfect for regional touring.
John’s commitment to the Maroondah Singers and his love of singing and community is evident. For the past 50 years he’s helped out in various ways to keep things going with the choir when needed, including as President for thirteen years and stepping up on the rostrum as leader for a while, in spite of a physical disability in one arm:
“I got the message over, I couldn’t wave two hands about all over the place but I could wave one, nod my head and smile. I get a lot of satisfaction from singing, I get a lot of satisfaction from conducting…. it was deeply satisfying to have to step up at short notice to conduct 104 singers to an audience of 800.”
His warmth and dedication is clear. Every choir needs a John.
Strong endorphin fuelled bonds have been forged between the Maroondah Singers members over the years as they do in all community choirs. When former member, Bill Holmes, was forced to retire due to ill health, he struggled without any family to look after him. ‘Team Bill’ came together from within the choir and closed ranks around him:
“We took care of him in his home until his health deteriorated to a point he could no longer stay. We were fortunate to get him into respite care. We were then able to continue to support Bill until he died in January this year. We saw him through and the four of us were at his bedside singing to a Maroondah Singers CD to him as he died. We knew he could hear us even though he was in and out of consciousness. And we sang him out.”
What greater testimony could a community choir have? At the end of the day, we sing together to connect. It’s the connections we forge whilst doing what we love that enrich our lives and extend out into the wider community, strengthening the quality of its fabric for everyone.
The story and spirit of the Maroondah Singers is certainly one to celebrate. Here’s to John; here’s to each and every one of the Maroondah Singers, past present and future and here’s to the next fifty years of singing and music making in Mitcham and in communities everywhere.
Written by Deb Carveth with thanks to John Williams and Nick Hansen
1: John was also the founding member of the Methodist Youth Singers
2: there were 45 people present at the public meeting called by George Vagg in 1968
*The Maroondah Singers will celebrate a special 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday June 17 at Melba College Theatre, 20 Brentnall, Road, Croydon starting at 2.30pm. The spectacular concert will feature the choir’s past four Vocal Scholars. Tickets are $30 Adult, $25 Concession, under 12 Free. Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/373628. Contact: Anne on 0422 050 323.
A truly unique radio show championing the work of Choirs and Community Singing Groups is filling the airwaves above Upwey and beyond with the sweet sound of a cappella and accompanied singing each week. The Aka-Pelican show is hosted by Rick Steen, a passionate choir singer and blues guitarist who’s excited to bring this opportunity to the world in what he believes is a first.
Rick’s Aka-Pelican show is broadcast by 3MDR, (Mountain District Radio) on 97.1fm. The community-run station was set up in response to the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 to provide effective and direct communication to locals in the event of emergency, and other than a station manager, it is staffed and run entirely by volunteers.
With a background in folk and blues music, Rick joined the station as a volunteer sound engineer before being trained as an announcer and invited to present a show of his own:
“I thought what would work really well is a show dedicated to supporting choirs and a cappella singing. There are around seven choirs in the Dandenongs between Upwey and Gembrook alone, making it a good niche, good for the station and its membership; people will be all over it!”
3MDR has enjoyed a variety of homes during its 25-year history including a bus, a water tower and a shop. In February, the station relocated to new premises at the Forest Park Homestead, where Rick now has the luxury of a large studio space suitable for live to air broadcasts during his program’s two-hour time slot, from 3 ‘til 5:00pm on Wednesdays.
Having run Aka-Pelican for just over 6 months now, Rick reckons it takes half an hour to settle into the hot seat. “I don’t have a production assistant, I’m handling everything and you have to be highly tuned right from the word go.”
By then he’s in the groove and ready to showcase live or recorded performances from choirs and singing groups from the local area, Melbourne and the surrounds. There’s been one change to the Aka-Pelican format since its inception, the decision taken by Rick to incorporate the material of accompanied choirs into the show. “Too many wonderful choirs felt that they didn’t qualify to participate as their songs were accompanied, so I implemented one ‘Golden Rule’, which is that vocals of the choir must be the dominant feature of the music.”
Broadcasting beyond the hills, the radio’s reach is limitless as people can listen to 3MDR online, and Rick is excited that this provides the opportunity for home grown, grass roots music-making to reach a universal radio audience.
“There’s good reception out in Gippsland and down to Philip Island though most people listen online. It’s a worldwide thing,” says Rick, who is happy to advocate for the joy and benefits of community singing and is also keen to interview community choir leaders as part of the program each week, either in person or over the phone.
If you’ve recorded material with your singing group or choir that you would like to hear on air, Rick’s your man. His vision to provide a voice to singing group and choirs combined with Aka-Pelican’s performance space, two-hour program slot and the option of going live to air will send the sounds of community singing soaring far and wide. Solo songbirds are welcome to contribute songs too, so long as they are unaccompanied.
To contact Rick and share material for Aka-Pelican or for further information, email 3MDR: email@example.com and mark your message for the attention of the Aka-Pelican Show.**
Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Rick Steen
** At the time of publishing this article, Rick is looking to recruit an assistant to help with the admin side of the show who would also be interested in becoming a co-host… full training will be provided!
It repeats on you only in positive ways and doesn’t get stuck in your teeth
It’s more effective than mistletoe in bringing people together
Music doesn’t kill your fingers all the way home from the shops in a bag about to break
It’s perfect shared with friends and there’s always enough to go around
It’s eco-friendly! Singing and music making requires neither gift wrap nor cellotape
Music won’t sit around gathering dust and is brilliant to re-gift
Your jeans may fit even better after a month of singing and musical indulgence
Instead of breaking after five minutes, it gets better and lasts a lifetime
No ransacking of the house is necessary for batteries or dice
Making music and singing is good for the heart, soul, health and well-being of yourself, your pals, your Aunty Sheila, and your community too
3 ways to give the gift of music and song with Community Music Victoria (we’ve got this covered):
Sign up your family, friends and neighbours to the CMVic monthly giving circle for a gift that gives all year
Renew your annual membership to Community Music Victoria for twelve months of music making benefits, including membership discounts on all events, camps and workshop bookings, and a range of wonderful resources
Make a one-off donation to Community Music Victoria. All donations over $2 are tax deductible so you’ll get another little gift in June.
Music is better made together:
Any donation you make can help ensure that more singing and instrumental music leaders get the skills they need to establish more groups, and that special projects like Voices of Peace, StreetSounds, Singing from Country, and That Girl can bring more music to more people who need it in their lives.
Deb Carveth, online editor Community Music Victoria.