Category Archives: community music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs: Jill Watson via Facebook

Ballarat Choral Society Researches Safe Ways of Singing Together Again

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

‘Holy Night’: Celebrating Un-Silent Nights and the Holiness of Nature

During December in Australia, the summer nights are anything but silent. When we stop as the holidays start and feel able to enjoy moments of stillness and the time to listen as the sun sets, nature is audible in abundance all around us. The pobblebonks bonk, insects hum and buzz, and birds croon, squawk and call.

The wish to celebrate our gloriously noisy, midsummer nights motivated community singing leader, Rose Wilson, to write a version of Silent Night that is relevant to the festive season in Australia. Rose’s adaptation, Holy Night, is ethereal and beautiful. It sings of connection to the land and the spirituality of the season. It is a spinning, shimmering blank canvas onto which the listener can project memories of what has been and hopes for what is yet to come.

Rose, a community singing leader based in Newcastle, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, wrote and recorded the song as part of a bigger community project in her local area called The Christmas Bell.

“I remember thinking ‘well this is my opportunity to write and sing a Christmas carol, what is it going to say?’ I knew I wanted to do something around Silent Night and we have a dam and so many MANY frogs and I was sitting outside listening to them all, just thinking.”

Rose knew what she didn’t want to say. “I didn’t want to sing songs about presents or god, I could see all the things I didn’t want to say! Fortunately it emerged to me really clearly in the end.” Rose was keen to make her carol particular to Australia “but not shit.” Rose laughs.

“A lot of Australian Christmas carols don’t fill me with awe or pride or connection  and while I’m not religious I think the idea of a time to value something that is holy, whatever that means, or something which is bigger than us and something that is beautiful and allowing something to be awe-inspiring was what I was working towards. Doing something that felt powerful and big but that was in itself quite small. Then I realised that the nights in summer in Australia are absolutely not silent.”

Sitting in the dark and listening to the frogs, Rose was inspired to counteract the idea of Silent Night by playing all the noises filling the night sky. She went on to record all of the frogs and all of the insects and began playing these loops against the song, making up tunes and words and then ‘it happened’. “It emerged and clarified itself into two really clear partner songs.”

Rose continued to experiment, trying a version of Holy Night accompanied with harp and a version accompanied with piano but she found it was significantly more magic just using her voice and the backdrop of nature.

“I feel as though here in Australia we try to put the big energy of Christmas on top of a seasonal energy which is already really big because it’s the summer solstice – it’s huge, everything’s exploding! Couple that with the end of the year and our Christmases just feel so frantic because we’re not responding to the season.”

“All of our big holidays are seasonally wrong and so finding a way to acknowledge the bounty and the bigness of the life that is going on and being able to sit with a still energy, not a cold frozen energy, but an energy of awe and beauty and acknowledging its ‘holiness’ and its wonder was what I was thinking. All those kinds of thoughts.”

Rose felt ‘so grateful’ that her version of Silent Night – ‘Holy Night’ – emerged the way it did. “It ticked all the boxes I had. It acknowledges the traditional aspect of Christmas and something that’s particular to Australia without being crass or making me cringe.” Rose laughs again.

“It also references summer with a nod to the solstice and a time of reflection and holiness and beauty and the fact that we’re not the only things here. I like that the voice is so still and so calm and so flowing but the insects and the frogs are going crazy.”

The line that brings everything into focus for Rose is “with life singing that this is holy.

“It’s saying that this too is holy, we are nothing without acknowledging that we are part of something bigger and that aspect has a physicality and a life as well.”

The song was written and recorded during November and released as part of The Christmas Bell project in December.

The music, the frogs and the cicadas from Holy Night are now offered by Rose as tracks for sharing with the world, and she would like nothing more than for them to be picked up, used and shared in the spirit of the season.  

“I don’t know whether anyone else will sing it, a few bits are really high but I’ve just put it all out there in the hope that maybe somebody would like to sing it one day!”

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Kate Wilson

Rose Wilson: Photo supplied

Rose Wilson runs 5 community choirs, and pre-covid an additional 4 school choirs) Port Macquarie): mixed choirs, women’s choirs and mums and bubs choirs. She is also the founder of unscarysinging.com

Access Rose’s recordings and a three part harmony score of Holy Night to sing with your choirs and singing groups is available here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1p0ZLqgT7pIKsGd0VXBvHJSxAjYpNTYFs?fbclid=IwAR2obTS0CFOqCM5NIwbL80_5WAoriami-FWBrBAjHHHOUNmnVcp8YZebQ0E

Singing Stories for the Fun of Folk

‘Non-stop Australian folk music’ was the soundtrack to Martie Lowenstein’s childhood. Martie, whose mother Wendy Lowenstein was an author, oral historian and co-founder of the Victorian Bush Music Club, is now using the folk songs she heard as a child and incorporating them into an online music history course called ‘History of Australia in Song 1788-1988’. 

“Mum loved Australian history and folk songs. She started the first folk festival in Melbourne, and used to edit the magazine called Australian Tradition which published both traditional and contemporary Australian songs and folklore, so yeah that was her thing!”

In 1969, our whole family travelled around Australia for a year while my mother recorded everyday  peoples’ life stories in the outback, and these songs and stories would play in our small house as she was writing her books. Earlier than that, we used to go to monthly sing-alongs and bush dances run by the Victorian Bush Music Club so I’ve been familiar with traditional Australian songs and music since I was around 7 or 8 years old.”

Apples seldom fall far from the tree and earlier this year Martie decided to go back to her roots and incorporate her family’s love of history and the folk tradition into her own work as a singing leader: 

“I run a singing group down here called “Sing till you Grin”, (on the Mornington Peninsula) and I was getting a bit bored with people wanting to sing the same songs again and again, so I asked what Australian folk songs people knew and they came up with Peter Allen, The Seekers, John Farnham and Waltzing Matilda.  Nobody came up with what I would call real Australian folk songs and that’s when I got the idea for the course.”

The result is an 8-week blend of singing and history following a chronological timeline, and is delivered via Zoom. The songs are short and easy to teach and Martie finds the weaving of history with music suits people who don’t necessarily consider themselves singers or musicians. “We sing for fun”.

“”We cover 200 years of what life was like throughout Australian history, using Australian folk songs, poems and real life stories from 1788 to 1988. The sessions cover a mix of well-known and unfamiliar Australian bush songs, poems and a few of Mum’s real life interviews that are now held in the National Library. That leads to interesting group discussion. I start with the convict era songs, then there’s a week on squatters and settling the land… people really love the bushranger songs, and the bullocky songs.  Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson are the ones they often remember, then through to Slim Dusty and Men at Work. We sing about the gold rush, and of the struggles of the adventurous people who chose to come here to make a better life.  Ordinary people had a tremendous struggle in our rugged environment.”

Along the way, Martie invites contribution from participants and encourages the telling of family history-stories, outback Australian experiences, favourite Australian poems and songs. Every participant gets a copy of the Joy Durst Australian Song Collection to take away and enjoy. (This songbook with music chords and lyrics is available free from the Victorian Folk Music Club website.)

“People will say ‘oh my great-great-great-great grandfather was a convict’ or ‘my grandpa was a settler on this place but lost his land’, so I just let people talk and often they’ll share how their ancestors had this tiny little property but couldn’t make a go of it over here. One lady had an ancestor who came over as a convict. I believe we really don’t know our own history  well, not in-depth, about what conditions were like, what droving was like, what being a convict was like, or being a woman alone in the bush whilst her husband went out droving or shearing to make ends meet.”

Martie addresses the consequences of this period on Indigenous Australians and how colonialism derailed and disrupted Aboriginal life but the emphasis  is on the telling and sharing of White Australian history, as this sits within her own frame of reference.

“We discuss the role of slavery on the cattle stations and how it was the Aboriginal stockmen who kept the Australian cattle industry going, and about the Aboriginal women who were taken off as drover’s wives. I am very familiar with teaching  the white history of Australia but not having the background in Indigenous history or music, we do listen to some Indigenous droving songs but I feel  that’s not my story to tell.”

For song references Martie resorts to rifling through her own record collection and also finds inspiration from the website of cultural historian and singer-songwriter, Warren Fahey.

“Warren is a prolific folklorist  who has written and recorded so many Australian folk songs covering all these topics.  And his amazing website incorporates all the history and stories behind our  folk songs.”

Martie ensures that the singing component of the course is simple, easy to pick up and easy to teach. Many of the songs are singalongs she used to sing around the campfire as a child, her father playing guitar under the stars.

“Because Mum was well known in the folk music industry there would always be lots of people over at our house so I’ve sung from childhood and I think singing for the joy of it – not to perform or for anyone else – that really comes from being round the campfire when we were camping as kids.” 

For Martie, the beauty of the folk genre lies in the telling of simple stories about everyday life, the tapestries from and by which we are woven into the history of unremarkably remarkable things.

“I think that’s the beauty of folk music, it is literally of the people, for the people; it’s about taking everyday peoples’ music and stories and bringing it into this time. It’s freely available, in the public domain and I’d love to see it used more extensively for community music making.”

Written by Deb Carveth, Online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Martie Lowenstein

Feature photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Songs for Western Port Bay

By Laura Brearley

My husband Terry and I live on Phillip Island (Millowl) and we love Western Port Bay. We love its beauty and its stillness and we love its birds.

It is from this place of love that we have been writing songs, making films and bringing community members together though music in response to a proposal by AGL to moor a regasification plant at Crib Point and build a 60 kilometre gas pipeline from there to Pakenham. We want to celebrate the richness of life in Western Port and stand up for its protection.

We are now at a critical point in the community conversation. The issue has been in our awareness for years, but we have a short window now to gather our collective strength, listen to the science and do what we feel the future is asking of us. We strongly believe Western Port is not the right site for industrialisation. The eco-system of the Bay is too significant and fragile to risk the irreparable damage that would be caused. We respect the significance of the UNESCO Biosphere reserve and the Ramsar wetlands that support and sustain migratory birds and many other interconnected forms of life.

The COVID times we are living through have heightened our perceptions of what matters most and how interconnected we all are. The economic imperative is not the main narrative here. It is life itself and our collective responsibility to care for it. Wendell Berry has a version of the golden rule that applies in this situation.

‘Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you’, he writes. ‘Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.’

We will be including links to these films and songs in our written response to the Environmental Effects Statement and the call for submissions which is open and receiving submissions until August 26.

Here are links to three of Terry’s films which contain songs from the Western Port Bay Song Cycle, (below).

‘Blessings’ is a call for justice and a song of love for Western Port Bay. It recognises the future impact of decisions being made about the proposed AGL Regasification Plant in Western Port Bay and appeals to the best in everyone involved.

‘No Way’ features members of our local community as well as choir members from the Climate Calamity Choir, led by Jane Coker and the Melbourne Climate Choir, led by Jeannie Marsh. Both choirs collaborate on environmental actions, drawing together members from different choirs from Gippsland, Melbourne and beyond. They have developed innovative ways of facilitating and recording virtual choirs.

‘Time to See’  focusses on the significance of Western Port as a Ramsar site. Inverloch-based community musicians Lyndal Chambers and Brian ‘Strat’ Strating have added recorder and accordion to the song. Drone footage of Queensferry Jetty and the Bass River taken by Mick Green has also been incorporated into the film.

WESTERN PORT BAY SONG CYCLE
Here are SoundCloud links, descriptions and lyrics of the seven songs in the Western Port Bay Song Cycle.

1 Time to See 
Migratory birds enlarge our worlds. They connect us to places across the planet and to those who share our love for them.

2 Flowing On
Everything is interconnected. The past flows into the future, carrying the memories and the stories of the living beings who have preceded us.

3 No Way
Some things in life are so precious, they are priceless. The AGL’s proposed gas facility in Western Port Bay highlights the question of what we value most.

4 Beautiful Bay
Clean water is central to all of life, everywhere. It is the source of life. There is a Slovakian proverb which says, ‘Pure water is the world’s first and foremost medicine’.

5 Taking a Stand
As we witness the damage being done to the Earth, we are all diminished. We experience the sense of loss and it is profound.

6 Out on the Bay
Life has its own rhythm. The seasons and the cycles of the natural world keep it steady and balanced.

7 Blessings
We are in relationship with Country. First Nations people around the world wait for us to listen and learn and so does the Earth.

We are sharing these films and songs with the community and with decision-makers as an act of hope and in solidarity with the natural world. In Albert Einstein’s words, it is time to ‘widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.’

We warmly encourage you to take your place in this widening circle of compassion and to raise your voices on behalf of Western Port Bay.

-Laura Brearley. Photographs by Terry Melvin

You can find out more about the Save Western Port Bay campaign at …
https://savewesternport.org/
https://environmentvictoria.org.au/campaign/stop-agls-dirty-gas-plan-for-our-bay/
https://vnpa.org.au/protect-action/save-westernport-bay/

Submissions are going to be reviewed by an Inquiry and Advisory Committee, led by the Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne. A directions hearing will be held on September 17, followed by a public hearing starting on October 12 which is likely to run for eight weeks.

 

Pumping Out Songs with the Cann River CFA Community Choir

“I really only work through the arts, and I think that community resilience and bonding and all of those things can come through the arts.” This conviction combined with a natural ability to strategise and inspire people has led Margaret Summerton to find herself holding a position of responsibility for CFA Volunteers and Sustainability across the South East Region of Victoria; an area of the State covering 2 million hectares, from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota, Omeo to Lakes Entrance. This region was hit hard by the devastating bushfires, last summer.

“It was burnt to a crisp here, 60% of our land mass was burned and as happens with bushfires and disasters we continue to be heavily affected in so many ways.”

When Margaret applied for the role a year ago she wasn’t sure that her arts-based approach and style of delivery would be compatible or aligned with a paramilitary organisation.

“After a few weeks in the job, I walked into the District Manager’s office and said that we needed really needed to start a choir! He was speechless and looked at me like WHAAT? and I said, ‘no, let me explain!…’ ”

Margaret’s reasoning was while you are singing for an hour and a half, you are not thinking of your problems. “You are not thinking of how your dog needs to go to the vet or how your car has broken down, you are thinking about singing, and you’re thinking about breathing, and you’re thinking about listening to each other…you are thinking about the music -just that, I mean just totally that!”

The District Manager listened to Margaret’s idea which she offered as part of a bigger strategy plan that included how the arts can activate their stations. After hearing her out, he simply said. ‘I love to sing’.

“That surprised me! Then I asked him ‘how do you feel when you are singing?’ And he said, ‘I feel great!’ and I said ‘of course you do!’ ” And almost on the spot, the Cann River CFA Community Choir idea was launched as a vital part of a bigger plan to promote positive health, healing and well-being within the brigade and community.

The Cann River CFA Community start-up choir now has seven members; the singers are comprised of CFA volunteers, a member of Bushfire Recovery Victoria, and locals working with the Bush Nurse, a sculptor and retirees. In addition to providing an opportunity for first-responders to come together for mutual support, connection and an escape from the demands of their roles, it’s truly a community choir and that’s the primary aim. Since June, the group has met weekly for a sing in the brigade shed, with a repertoire ranging from Talking Heads to Janice Joplin.

“Anyone can join and that’s been great. We have seven people who come every Thursday night, who just sing their guts out, which is wonderful, just wonderful.” The choir keeps in contact during the week via the Community Centre’s Facebook page. During the week the posts fly with happiness. Margaret’s favourite post to date is “Christmas has come early, and it’s in the form of a choir!”

The CFA Choir is run with funding support from Regional Arts Victoria and the Australian Government Regional Arts Fund to support its director, Cindy Parrett.  “Cindy is fabulous, an ex-Cabaret singer who teaches singing and music at the local P-12.”

Sometimes things are just meant to be, even in these COVID affected times, and when Margaret collided with Cindy, it was a case of the stars aligning.

“It was an extraordinary coincidence, I had just started at the CFA, and my choir idea was bubbling along. I was visiting the town quite often, meeting all the community leaders; the high school principal, the community centre manager; who I got to know quite well. I was in a meeting with the high school principal that has been at the P-12 for 40 years, and every year he has written an original play for the school with a role for every single child.  He’s phenomenal.  I told him how I was wanting to start a choir in the CFA shed, and he said, “Well fancy that! I have just hired a singing teacher for next year”.  It was destiny.

Fast forward to June and being in a remote part of the state not affected by lockdowns or too many restrictions, the singers were able to meet weekly. “We’d take our temperatures, sanitise our hands, and stand at a distance. But once the second wave took over; it didn’t feel healthy to be singing behind a mask. We had no choice but to postpone.” The choir is currently in hiatus, and this breaks Margaret’s heart.

“I am madly in love with this choir, and I know that they are just super sad that they can’t do it right now.”

Margaret has been driving two hours each way to sing with the Cann River CFA Community Choir, and together with her partner sings all the way home into the darkness; not just because it is her baby, but because she has always been in a choir and she loves singing.

“Getting people together to sing, bonds us in some weird way, I mean it doesn’t matter what walk of life you are coming from, once you are singing it transcends everything else. It’s fundamental and it feeds your soul on so many different levels and I’m so glad that the District Manager of the CFA understood that. I mean, if he hadn’t, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

For information about how you can join the Cann River CFA Community Choir, contact Margaret Summerton: Margaret.Summerton@cfa.vic.gov.au

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in conversation with Margaret Summerton,

Connecting Through Music in COVID Times

“At a time when many people are feeling isolated and disconnected, it is an important reminder that we are going through this experience together. There are many ways we can be here for each other and connect, even across distance.” – Laura Brearley

Something wonderful and ridiculous took place a few weeks ago during the depths of the first COVID lockdown. Community music leaders from Inverloch, Lyndal Chambers and Brian ‘Strat’ Strating, brought people together from far and wide and led a Virtual Street Band Parade. It was colourful, joyful and totally absurd.

Normally, at the end of May, Community Music Victoria (CMVic) hosts a Music Camp at Grantville. People of all ages and levels of musical ability come together for a weekend of music-sharing, workshops and performances. The Music Camp always culminates in a Street Band Parade in which people dress up, play music and parade their way around the camping ground.

The times we live in are far from normal, and so this year, the CMVic Music Camp was conducted on-line. Up for the challenge, Lyndal and Strat led the Street Band Parade in front of a computer screen in their lounge room.  The experience broke through the two-dimensions of Zoom with its small boxes of seemingly disembodied faces. It was a testament to their years of experience leading Street Bands down real roads, that they were able to pull it off. It also revealed the sense of fun in the community and their willingness to experiment playfully in the virtual world. Most of all, it demonstrated the power of music to bring people together.

Lyndal and Strat have long understood this. Generosity and warmth have been underpinning principles of their community music practice throughout their lives.

‘Music is the universal language’ says Strat. ‘Music touches us in the heart and so then we connect. It’s about the access and welcome, the inclusivity of making music together.’ Lyndal also believes that music is a unifying force. ‘Music ties people together’, she says. ‘Music brings a sense of joy and life and connection.’

Lyndal and Strat in action as part of Grantville Online

Even against the backdrop of the suffering and sorrow of the pandemic, an experience like this reminds us of our resilience and our capacity for joy. At a time when many people are feeling isolated and disconnected, it is an important reminder that we are going through this experience together. There are many ways we can be here for each other and connect, even across distance.

In the words of the nineteenth century English novelist, George Eliot ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?’

Terry Melvin’s short film ‘The Extraordinary Virtual Street Band Parade’ can be seen below and on the following links:

On Vimeo  https://vimeo.com/437745509
On You Tube https://youtu.be/_L1AZw6HYnc

Written by Laura Brearley; Photographs by Laura Brearley

 

 

Assembling online: Five international conversations about Inclusion, Disruption, and Connection in Community Music

It is something of an understatement to say that recent months have transformed our modes of assembly. COVID-19 has forced us to rethink and regroup how we gather, and the extraordinary proliferation of musical and other creative activity that we have seen on our screens and been part of since March is testament to how important the experience of assembly is to our spirit, our sense of community, and our intellectual nourishment. The pivot to online gatherings has seen many artistic plans and projects fall by the wayside in 2020 and perhaps beyond, and many of us are grieving these “untold losses” of art and artists and creative experiences that might have been. https://parliamentofdreams.com/2020/06/21/untold-losses/

But some forms of gathering were surely due a shake-up. If there are silver linings to the pandemic, one is that it has forced many customary ways of gathering to be questioned and re-conceived. Conferences are surely among these. They are important spaces for disseminating research and connecting with colleagues, but they are expensive to attend (especially if you don’t have the financial support of an institutional employer behind you) and environmentally damaging when you think of all those delegates flying from their home countries to gather on the other side of the world.

So for me and my colleagues on the Community Music Activity Commission of the International Society of Music Education (ISME), the ‘new normal’ of social distancing and staying close to home represented an opportunity to try an alternative platform for sharing community music workshops, ideas, and the latest research. Our biennial international seminar was originally scheduled for July 2020 in Helsinki, but that got cancelled back in April. We decided to offer our delegates an online alternative.

A challenge was when the gathering should take place. With our team of commissioners spread across New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK, Ireland, and Australia, we already knew there was no ideal timeslot for meeting. Therefore, we steered away from running the conference over the usual ‘3-consecutive-days’ timeframe (which timezone would we privilege?). Instead, we are presenting five weekly Assemblies, each scheduled to accommodate two of the three main timezones (Europe, Americas, and Asia-Pacific). Of course, anyone can attend an Assembly, but the two that are timed to suit Asia-Pacific participants will be during the day or early evening, rather than the middle of the night. Assembly 3 (Wednesday 8 July, 10am) and Assembly Five (Tuesday 21 July, 6pm) are the ones for Asia-Pacific people to mark in our diaries for synchronous participation!

Each Assembly will have a number of parallel sessions (short spoken presentations in some rooms, workshops in others), as well as roundtable discussions and opening and closing plenaries. Posters will also be presented in two of the Assemblies. The content will be pre-recorded but the discussions with presenters will be live. And every Assembly will be recorded and available for viewing later on the CMA Youtube channel.

ISME has waved the usual membership requirement to participate, so the Assemblies are free and open access. All you need to do is register (go here: https://www.isme-commissions.org/cma.html) and you will receive a link to a zoom meeting on the ISME platform. The schedules and other details can be found at the same website.

The conference theme is #theyareus: Conversations of Inclusion, Disruption, and Connection. We warmly welcome CMVic members and all community music leaders and enthusiasts to join us for these conversations. Given that the next ISME conference and Community Music Commission seminar will be held in Australia in 2022, pandemic permitting, this is a chance for Australia’s community musicians to see what the CMA has to offer you and your practice without having to get on an airplane.

Assembly 1 – 23 June (24th June at 4am for Australians)

Assembly 2 – 30 June (1st July at 4am for Australians)

Assembly 3 – 7 July (8 July at 10am for Australians)

Assembly 4 – 14 July (15 July at 4am for Australians)

Assembly 5 – 21 July, 6pm

By Dr Gillian Howell – University of Melbourne, and Commissioner for Community Music Activity Commission in the International Society for Music Education 

Feature photo supplied 

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?’ ”

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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!