Category Archives: community music

Zooming in from the Lounge Room: Online and Onward in Term Two

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.

Over the past few weeks, Jeannie has been migrating her choirs online, continuing to lead ZING! Sing in Dutch; Climate Choir Melbourne and Elwood Community Choir, using Zoom from her lounge room.

“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?’ ”

gpefolefhfdlbbif
Members of ZING! Sing in Dutch, with Jeannie Marsh (centre), pre-Corona
Elwood Community Choir
…and members of Elwood Community Choir singing to celebrate Make Music Day 2019

Jeannie Marsh was speaking to Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria 
Big thanks, Jeannie!

 

Music as the Food of Love and Life

Singing and music have added value and richness to every aspect of Peter Gatto’s life from listening to the radio on 3AR with his parents and playing with Wonthaggi Brass Band as a child, through to courting his wife Glenys as a young man in the 1960s.

From their very first date, singing remained an integral part of this couple’s love story, featuring consistently in the tapestry of their life together until Glenys’ death from ovarian cancer in 2012. At that point, as a quiet companion to his heavy loss, music acquired a new relevance for Peter, and played a significant part in dealing with the grief that persisted and still persists. Music offered him an opportunity for solace and therapy, it became the bond between his present and his past and a window to the memories of Glenys which light up Peter’s face as he speaks of her. Community singing became a reason for Peter to get out and connect with people, an opportunity to talk and reminisce about the happy times he’s been blessed with. He agrees with Nietzsche, that without music, life would be a mistake.

Peter is a born story-teller with a string of entertainingly moving warm memories to share about the importance and place of music in his life.

“Music and Community Music Victoria have been significant in dealing with my grief and loss. Glenys was a very capable and competent person, she had wonderful attributes. I mean she wasn’t perfect, Peter smiles, she had a fiery little temper!” Peter’s ambition now, is to write down his life story to pass on to his children and grandchildren as a tribute to Glenys. “I can’t write about my life story without mentioning music and Community Music Victoria which has played a significant part so far.

For the past nine months Peter has sung each week with Flinders Lane Community Voices. “I can’t wait to get there; it’s a source of enjoyment, I’m meeting new people, there’s encouragement and camaraderie and you feel secure in this group. My only criticism is that it’s only once a week and then for just an hour.”

Peter encountered the work of Community Music Victoria whilst doing ‘a bit of surfing’ and looking for ways to extend his music therapy. Having taught recorder to kids at school during his many years in education, Peter decided to return to the instrument and extend his playing ability after Glenys died. “I’ve taught myself how to play some of the masters… Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, on the recorder.” Making music by himself was one thing, but Peter felt the need to be part of a group.

“It’s been a lovely journey really. The other thing with music now I’m able – and it’s taken this long – is to use music to bring back the beautiful memories, and I have some superb memories of Glenys. It’s comforting, and it’s grieving because it’s gone. Although does music go? What happens to music?” Peter laughs. ”It can’t be destroyed. Music is a vehicle for facing, accepting and dealing with great loss. I think I’m done with my crying, the tears I cry now are of happiness for the wonderful life we shared.”

It wasn’t long ago that Peter couldn’t speak about it. One of his first memories of Glenys is taking her out in Melbourne. “I must have been 19, she would have been 17. All of a sudden, walking past the Arts Centre I heard this beautiful voice singing I’ll take you home, Kathleen, and it was Glenys and I can still remember it, and it was lovely.  Music became an integral part of my courting with her. Glenys would ask me to sing to her. I wasn’t listening to much radio then, I’d be playing football or busy teaching and so the songs I would sing to her were school songs.”

Glenys said and believed that she couldn’t sing, however two people in her life told her that she had a lovely voice. One was Peter, and the other was Dr Clare O’Callahan from Melbourne University who ran a musical therapy program for people in palliative care.

“Clare came out to Kew where Glenys was in the hospice and started playing one of our songs, I don’t know how that happened, but Clare started playing and then Glenys joined in – I can’t remember what the song was – and then Clare stopped playing and said, ‘Glenys, you have a beautiful voice!’ and I was forever grateful that happened, because I know Glenys was very pleased. She was one of the many people out there who was told by somebody else that she shouldn’t sing. That belief is so stifling. I have vowed and declared to never do anything to dissuade anyone from singing and I would never ever deny anyone the chance to sing!”

One of Peter’s earliest introductions to music was sitting around the radio as a twelve-year old, listening to the world-famous Italian tenors with his mum and dad, something he later discovered Glenys had been doing at the same time.

“I lived in Wonthaggi, she lived in the hills on a dairy farm in the hills about 12, 13ks away, so we’re listening to the same song and loving the same song at the exact same time which then came to mind about 40 years after the event driving through the Outback in Queensland. Glenys said ‘I know that song, I used to listen to that song with my parents on a Sunday afternoon’, I said, ‘so did I!’.  The song was Mattinata and I used some of the lyrics when I delivered Glenys’s eulogy. ‘Ove non sei la luce manca; Ove tu sei nasce l’amor.’: ‘Where you are not, the light is missing;  where you are, love is born.’ And Glenys exuded love. She was a wonderful teacher with a great reputation and she didn’t discriminate with the way she gave out the love: if a kid needed affection and attention, she’d give it out. Of course, she was able to dish out the discipline too!”

“We were very, very close, we did a lot of things together. One of the things Glenys asked me do was help her put on a production of Oliver at North Melbourne Primary School. Now she had no musical knowledge, she believed she couldn’t sing so when she asked me to help I said of course I would. So I taught all of the difficult songs and left what I considered to be the easiest song til last. But of course when things go wrong they go wrong, and at the particular time when I was ready to teach that song I was committed elsewhere and couldn’t go, I said to Glenys, ‘you’ll just have to do it’. Well, she was very unsure about doing this, having never taught anyone to sing before.”

Some days later Peter recalls dropping into Errol St Primary School and hearing ‘some beautiful singing’ of Oom Pah-Pah coming from Glenys’s room. “I thought, who’s doing this? I sneaked around to take a look through the window and there was the greatest sight that anyone could see because the kids were all up on their feet singing in full voice with huge smiles on their faces and I turned around to Glenys’s table and there she was in full flight and I mean full flight! She was up on the table, she was singing in full voice, the kids were singing with her, it was the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard so I went in there and I said to Glenys, ‘now who could top that? No one!” The kids never, ever sang that song as well as then and to see that gave me great joy.”

Throughout  the course of his own career, Peter taught at schools all over the state, including at a one-teacher school in Strzelecki. “When I got there, there were 30 children in seven grades and one teacher. Discipline was a major problem. What I used to bring a little bit of order, was singing.” Peter would sing with the children every hour on the hour for around three or four minutes at a time. “They were beautiful singers and it had that wonderful calming effect of music. They loved it and I loved it.”

“During mid-winter in the Strzelecki Ranges it gets really miserable sometimes and it also gets absolutely beautiful. You can go from not being able to see metres in front of you and then the weather clears up and you get the clearest blue skies and the sun streaming down and it’s magnificent. On one of those days in mid-winter the kids had been inside all day and then at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the weather broke so I said to them ‘go outside and play.’ It was at the time when you had district inspectors overseeing everything. Sending the kids outside to play outside of regulated playtime hours was a risky thing for me to do. Anyway, the kids were out there playing in this beautiful sunshine and I look up the drive and there are two cars coming up to the school… and everyone recognised the inspectors car. Well I thought my career was in tatters, but the inspector, Mr Bull, stopped me and then he said, ‘look, I’ve got both my family and my wife’s family with me, do you mind if you bring them in as I’d like them to hear your kids sing.’ I bought them in and explained to the children that there had been a request for them to sing from Mr Bull. And the kids sang in full voice and it was a glorious, triumphant moment, and thank god for the kids of Strzelecki – that’s the power of music.”

Peter’s final story about the influence and importance of music in his life, is of a song his mother used to sing.

“My mother was illiterate. She’d never been out of her Southern Italian village, had never listened to radio or anything like that; never been to a concert, nothing. She then travelled from this little village right across the world carrying a beautiful tune with her. I’m sitting in the pea patch with her in South Gippsland as a ten or eleven year old and I hear her singing with the other Southern Italian pea pickers and I love it. I loved hearing her sing in the pea patch with all the other ladies. Then later, as a teacher I introduced one of my favourite composers to the kids, who was Tchaikovsky. And I played some of Tchaikovsky’s music and it was the same tune that my mother had sung in the pea patch. She carried it within herself, she couldn’t read or write, had never been to school, never read a newspaper, didn’t listen to a radio until the 1950s, and yet she knew this. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky spent two years in Italy, during which time he travelled around and collected the Italian folk tunes. The piece of music is called La Caprician Italienne, which, by the way, I can play on the recorder!”

As our time for talking drew to a close, Peter had one last thing to say in reflection: “Music gives you so much to discuss, and to think about. What is it that we’re doing, in our schools, that is more important than teaching our children music? Why aren’t we making music an integral part of the curriculum? It just doesn’t make sense.”

IMG_1575 (1).JPG
Glenys and Peter. (Photo supplied)

As told by Peter Gatto to Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria

Flinders Lane Community Voices meets in Ross House on Thursday lunchtimes at 1pm during term time. Led by Sarah Mandie and John Howard. Open to everyone! 

Feature photo by Pradeep Ranjan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whittlesea Muster Delights Uke Enthusiasts

Naming the inaugural Whittlesea Uke Muster was ‘a great laugh’, a take on the iconic annual Deni Ute Muster which was started years ago featuring barbecues, burn outs and a whole lotta utes. “We found out that there actually is a Deniliquin Uke Muster so we had to name our event the Whittlesea Uke Muster and we put a lot of pictures of Ukuleles on the fliers so nobody would turn up thinking it was for cars.” 

Seeds of the idea for a Whittlesea Uke Muster were sown a couple of years ago following a Singing Festival held in the town, something Community Music Facilitator, Kerry Clarke, had been ‘busting to do for many years.’ 

“The Singing Festival was really successful, absolutely fantastic and we thought ‘ooh, let’s try and do something with ukuleles cos they’re so popular, so we applied for some money to run the Uke Muster last year and we didn’t get it. We thought ‘oh well, bugger that!’ So we applied again this year under the community grants scheme from our local council, City of Whittlesea, and we got it.”

‘We’ was a team effort by Kerry, Mary Lynn Griffith, Manager of the Whittlesea Community House; and local Community Musician, Cathy Edwards  who worked together to bring the event into being:  “It was Mary who applied for all the grants and managed all the payments and budget, the Uke Muster was actually her baby, she really wanted to do it.”

Uke Muster 3.jpg

Enough funds were awarded to run the Muster in a way which meant workshop leaders could be paid and there was no charge for anyone to attend the event. 

“I know the people we asked would have probably done it for petrol money or something, but we really appreciated being able to offer them payment and we paid each leader $300. For that they had to do all their own preparation and travel quite a distance, including one person who came all the way from Emerald. It was great to be able to pay them a proper professional rate and having a grant allowed us to do this. We were also able to pay for publicity and promotion. We got a banner made that we can use again next time, those sorts of small things you can get with a little bit of money behind you, and we ran the Uke Muster via the community house which, as an incorporated organisation was the reason we were able to get a grant in the first place.” 

Over 170 people came along and took part on the day, plus another ten or fifteen locals who came to clap and cheer for the concert at the end. “We set up the muster following the same model we’d used for the Singing Festival where we had a bit of an all-in session, a series of workshops and then we had feedback from the workshops and a little concert at the end. It worked really, really well. The workshops were extraordinarily successful, we had excellent workshop presenters and I think that’s why it was so very good. There were lots of opportunities for people to mill about and chat with one another and play together, it was a real hit.” There was also a strum-along run by Cathy and Bob Edwards, ‘two amazing community musicians’.

Whittlesea is a small town and while the primary and secondary schools offer music and are involved in singing and playing, community-wise there hasn’t been a whole heap of things on offer besides Kerry’s singing groups, but it seems this is all about to change: “We’ve started up a few ukulele groups and they’ve been extraordinarily popular…Cathy runs two local ukulele groups with a total of around 40 players across the two and there’s a group of six who are beginners, so it’s all become very popular and this has all come out of the Whittlesea Community House, a part of the Neighbourhood House network.”

The Uke Muster was the first event of its kind to be held out in the Whittlesea area and local people were excited that they didn’t have to drive a long way to go to it. “Usually we have to resign ourselves to a good hour’s drive to whatever we want to get to. We had a group from U3A in Lalor, people drove over from Euroa, and people from the local area were really appreciative that this was something happening on their own doorstep for once!” In the end, players came from far and wide for the day. As well as Lalor and Euroa, they came from Panton Hill, Hurstbridge, Mernda, the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne, and three people came from the Bella Bella group in Cranbourne which, as Kerry says, ‘was amazing’! 

Goals of the Uke Muster were to encourage participation from new players and to offer skills development for existing singers and players and the range of workshops available on the day reflected this. There was a beginners’ workshop for people just starting out on their ukulele playing journey while other workshops offered opportunities to explore and expand upon a range of different techniques and styles of playing to keep things interesting for everyone. 

As organisers, one of the first challenges was getting in touch with contacts. Kerry says they now have ‘all of the contacts they can cope with’ so that challenge has been successfully overcome. “Basically, through word of mouth, we eventually found all the local groups we knew of and we don’t think we missed anybody which is really good because we wanted to include as many local people from the area as we could.”

“Getting people to get back to you is another challenge” laughs Kerry. “People think ‘oh that’s a great idea, I’m going to go to that’ but they don’t tell you they’re coming, so that can be tricky when you get a lot more people than you were expecting. Timing was also a challenge. If we can do it again next year, we’ll perhaps look at making a slightly later time for the concert or limiting the number of performers because it ran over time and I don’t like it when things run over time because people have other commitments to get to and things like that, although nobody seemed to mind. We were learning too!”

There was ‘a lot of terrific positive feedback’ with players saying they hope that the Whittlesea Uke Muster becomes a permanent fixture in the calendar and an event which ‘happens every year.’ Help was at hand on the day from Rhonda Rose and the Mernda Singers and Strummers, with Kerry filling the role of MC, something she clearly enjoyed: “Uke players are a fun lot!! Good sense of humour!!”A  popular part of the day was the Scones stall that the Mernda group ran, with home made scones for sale all day long. There was also a raffle with two donated ukes as prizes, and these made over $500 dollars on the day as a fundraiser. 

Other highlights for Kerry included the opening strum-along. “There was a big screen up with all the chords on and we had everybody playing and everybody singing along and then Oli (Hinton) brings out the bass uke and starts ‘doom, doom, dooming’ and everybody’s going ‘what the heck is that?!’ it was sooo great, it was such fun!”

Looking ahead to a re-run of the Uke Muster in 2020, Kerry and the team are already planning to approach local businesses to ask for sponsorship and again, paying the leaders is where the money would go. “This year’s event was run as a pilot and when we applied for the grant we said if it was a success, we’d plan to approach local businesses for sponsorship to do a future one, so that’s what we’ll try and do! Early next year we’ll set out to get a commitment of cash and see where that takes us.”

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Kerry Clarke.
Photos supplied.

 

‘Come and Sing’ in Stawell

“At 7pm on a night in the dead of winter, there’s often nobody but me in the room.  As people come in they’ll say ‘ah there’s only three of us tonight’, then a fourth person turns up and there’s five… By 7:20pm, there’ll usually be eight of us and I’ll joke with them all – but it’s true – that I made this group, because I want to sing, and even if nobody else ever turned up, I’d still stand there and sing!”

It’s been twenty years since community singing leader, Dianne Stewart, made the move to Stawell in the shimmering Wimmera region of Victoria. Dianne relocated from Bendigo, via the Northern Territory: “I did my Grade 6 AMEB in Alice Springs at a time when they’d never had anybody do a voice exam there before, which was interesting. I come from the City of Bendigo which has this huge musical and choral culture, and I moved to Stawell where there was a two-act musical performance once a year which then disappeared. The state musical theatre wasn’t my background and it wasn’t my thing, but it was the only thing that was sitting in town that I could access, and I wanted to sing!”

Dianne approached Stawell Performing Arts Company (SPACi) and asked them about the possibility of creating a singing group or choir in the town. “They said if you put something to it, we can put something together so I spent the next year doing research and connected with CMVic back when Fay White was doing the Vocal Nosh stuff. Fay came to the Grampians to do some work around bushfire recovery and I went to a workshop she was running and I got some lovely feedback from people.”

Receiving the encouragement to ‘just start it and step out’ made Dianne feel a Stawell-based singing group of her own was possible if she adopted the Vocal Nosh model and set it up as a singing circle. Which is exactly what she did.

“I put the proposal to SPACi, told them this was what I wanted to do, how it would run and why it would work really well for them.” Dianne then started the Come and Sing  group and it’s been running ever since.”

“I’d never led a group before, never been a singing leader at all. I’d been a singer in a choir and a voice student, but I’d never run a group, it was all very new to me. I don’t play the piano and I didn’t feel I could do the kind of things I’d been involved with in the past because my choir leader and singing leaders had all played the piano and had been the accompanist as well, but I couldn’t do that… “

Attendance to Come and Sing is very relaxed with no expectation for singers to attend every week. “It’s come as you like; come each week, or just when you can – pay as you go, and there’s only a very small payment each week because it allows access to more people. I’ve done a lot of work with SPACi around people’s capacity to pay. We’ll probably have between 8 and 15, sometimes 16 or 17 people through the door. The ages range from a couple of senior high school students (and their dads come as well) all the way through to people in their 80s.”

Dianne finds the geography of the Western District of Victoria can make connecting up with other leaders and attending events something of a challenge: “Trying to build and connect with anything past Ballarat is more difficult because of the distance.  I see what Community Music Victoria is doing and a lot of the time the workshops are not accessible for me because of the distances involved.”

To stay up to date with professional development and for support in her singing leadership, Dianne seeks out resources and ‘stuff’ she can access online and in her own time at weekends. Despite the tyranny of distance, Dianne’s a member of several organisations including CMVic and the Singing Teachers Association, and these connections to the larger network give her the incentive to work at creating and making more of the community in which she lives.

“It brings me great joy. It’s the connection with other people and the community.”

“We always tell people come and see what we do, try it out, if we are your tribe, if we are your thing then you’ll continue to come, and if we’re not, then that’s ok too. The group is called Come and Sing because it’s for anybody at all who walks through the door who just wants to sing.”

Because Come and Sing sits within SPACi, for some people trying out for shows is a way to build skills and try bigger things. Being part of Come and Sing’s weekly sessions builds their capacity to prepare for the auditions which are a requirement of taking part in a rehearsed show. “They can choose to do that, or not. Quite a lot of our Come and Sing singers aren’t interested in doing that, but others are.”

“SPACi also runs a junior program which is very much a musical theatre program, and the kids who grow out of that tend to come and sing in the group, but being in the country, those kids usually move on and leave the community. “We don’t tend to get that 20 to 30 age group because they’ve moved elsewhere or gone to university and we work with that. I think we attract the people who are interested and we attract the people who want to do what we want to do!”

Dianne is happy to share the role of leader and enjoys encouraging anyone keen to have a go. “I always say if anybody comes along with better skills than me I’d be really happy to sit down and participate or if somebody else would like to step up and lead, I’ll be very happy to learn from them.”

“…As a leader, at the end of the day it’s good to keep reminding yourself that what you’re providing wouldn’t be there if you weren’t.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with big thanks to Dianne Stewart.

Come and Sing meet on Wednesday evenings, 7-8:30pm; 52 Wakeham Street, Stawell, Victoria, Australia. For info, contact Dianne Stewart: 0427850278

Songs & Chants for Planet Earth: A Compilation of Songs by Jane Coker

“The outpouring of freedom songs went to the core of the struggle and expressed, as nothing else was able, the hope, belief, desire, passion, dreams, and anguish of the conflict.” Mary King speaking of the power of song during the US Civil Rights movement.

I put this selection of songs and chants for climate justice together with the specific aim of helping us all to find stuff that was simple and catchy enough to use outdoors at protests. I wrote a few and gathered a few from other people but this is only the beginning of my collection and there’s loads of other great stuff out there. The problem is finding stuff that is really short and easy to learn, yet effective. (Kavisha Mazzella’s Mother Earth song is a perfect example of all these things).

As yet –  to my knowledge – there isn’t a central place where this specific type of song and chant are gathered but the Extinction Rebellion Choir is a good model and has some good resources available on Facebook. Closer to home, Climate Choir Melbourne is also creating a great collection of resources, available here.

People are writing and sharing new songs and chants all the time. Singing together gives us enormous sense of our shared humanity, makes us feel strong and positive, allows us to express our emotions in these desperate times and communicates in a non-threatening way to people observing and participating in  our protests.

Jeannie Marsh, Jane York, Emily Hayes and others have been bringing singing to this week’s Extinction Rebellion protests in Melbourne. I humbly thank them for making this huge contribution to the campaign. Those of us who have the skills to enable people to sing together – now is our moment to make a huge difference to the face of the campaigns and the strength of the movements.  Act now!

Janes Pics 2Janes Songs 1

For recordings of these songs and chants, click below! Feel free to use any of mine as long as your protest is non-violent.

Sing out Strong!

Jane Coker
jane.coker@bigpond.com
October 2019

*Photo of the Spring Rebellion in Melbourne, courtesy of Hilary Walker

 

 

The Journey From The Song, by Stuart Ashburner

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.

That song, Light by Light, started a new journey in our lives.

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.

P5030065.JPG
Stuart (left) at Treetops, back in 2014

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!**

DSC_0175.jpg
Stuart and friends at the 2017 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. 

The Peace Choir: A Sanctuary of Song in Castlemaine

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 more info, contact office@makingmusic.com.au, 0408 547 511

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with James Rigby and Jane Thompson

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold Choir Tecoma offers Songs for the Dying

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 Stuff style 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 Knowexpo 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.

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, and Barb Mcfarlane for Community Music Victoria.

Photo by Bobby Stevens on Unsplash