Category Archives: community music

Playing to Spin: Celtic tunes keep Contra dancers on their toes

Contra dance… que’est-ce-que c’est? For those of us who’ve never dipped a heel or toe into this aspect of the folk or social dance scene, a quick spot of online research explains contra dancing as ‘social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.’ A hot stepping cousin of square dancing or bush dancing, contra dancing is done in pairs with couples moving up and down a line or in sets in response to a caller. It originates from North America and is steadily gaining an enthusiastic following of new, young dancers here in Australia. It is also a fantastic way to link social dancing with community music making.

Melbourne based musician, Judy Oleinikov is a big fan of the inclusive nature of contra dance and for the past three years or so has been doing her bit to bring a wider awareness of it to musicians and dancers alike: “ Contra dances can  be more vivacious and also a little bit more informal than some of the other dances we have here… unlike something more structured such as Scottish Dancing, it isn’t intimidating to beginners.”

It may be a relief to hear that a sleek technique isn’t required and you don’t need to point your toes to take part. Contra dancing is open to anyone of any age and people seem to find it highly addictive due to its inherent element of fun. That and the amount of spinning involved.

For Judy, Contra dance kicks come from her involvement as a fiddle player for the dance:

 “What I love about social dance is seeing a roomful of people in sync, the dancers and the musicians. There’s just nothing better, that buzz of live music and everyone responding to it.

In addition to the fact it’s fun, Judy considers the resurgence in contra dancing important in helping to sustain a complex skill and a vital element of musicality which she believes is at risk of becoming lost: the ability to play for dancers.

“A lot of Celtic musicians learn the music completely separate from the dance and so they haven’t quite got the feel… they can be brilliant players but to a dancer it just wouldn’t be right. We’ve grown used to hearing recordings or playing tunes in pubs and so what I really like about bringing a dance back is doing it while people are learning the music to go with it.”

Contra dance music is lively, and drives and energizes the dancers. Like all forms of music, it has originated from a blend of traditions, noticeably Irish, Scottish, Breton, Québecois, Cape Breton, New England, and Appalachian, and is constantly evolving, as living traditions do. As an avid player of Celtic music herself, Judy explains that the origin of this form of music was in playing tunes for people to dance along to as entertainment.

 “People used to dance every week. There’s the story of how in Ireland, people used to meet on the crossroads whenever there was a full moon because there were no halls big enough to fit everyone into… it’s been people’s enjoyment for so long.”

While this form of dancing fell out of favour as other new and exciting ways to pass the time were thought up and invented throughout the twentieth century, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when people rediscover it as a form of unplugged entertainment, it becomes a bit of an addiction.

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Photo supplied

As a musician, one of the things Judy loves most about this form of traditional music is that tunes are learnt and carried by ear. There are no scores to follow and whilst a framework is essential to prevent chaos breaking out on the dance floor, musicians can be spontaneous and creative in their playing and because they’re not following markings on a piece of paper, their interpretation can come across.

 “Because there are no hard and fast rules about chord choices and where the notes should be played, you’ll hear something different about the melody each time… there’s no break out like there is in jazz, it’s more about taking the framework of the tune and finding elements in it to change around or highlight, and that’s really exciting.”

For the past four years, Judy has run the Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle Weekend, a music camp dedicated to French Canadian music, a type of Celtic music that’s “as much fun to play as it is to listen to” which has remained very rhythmic, very lively and is a style extremely well suited to contra dancing.

Each year, Judy has included a dance in the camp’s program, inspired by the social dancing she’d seen in Quebec to this particular style of music. “I thought it would be absolutely brilliant to run a dance like that here at my camp!” Two friends of Judy’s are dance callers and dancers in different styles, and they each asked if she’d consider a contra dance.

 “They’d fallen in love with the style and knew of hardly any contra dance happening here in Victoria. Once we had a go I could see their point – it’s a really great form of social dancing.”

Jeanette Mill, who is an experienced Contra dance caller from Canberra, has worked with Judy for the past three years. “Jeanette is highly experienced with a range of dances up her sleeve for whoever comes along and, in order to be as inclusive as possible, starts each of the dances quite simply.” As Judy points out, the skill of the caller has to combine with the skill of the musicians to ensure that the dancers can pick up and maintain a rhythm and flow.

“We have kids, we have parents holding toddlers, we have more elderly people and even teenage boys joining in! It’s great to get all the age groups up and dancing with people they may feel too shy to sit and talk to and, as some of the dances are progressive, it mixes everyone up.”

Whilst Contra dancing isn’t actually a French Canadian thing, it’s been carried across the borders into Quebec from the New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, the heartland of Contra Dance. Subsequently, a lot of the musicians from that region make their money as dance players and tend to be extremely good at it.

In November this year, Judy will once again be hosting a four-day French Canadian music camp in Gippsland ‘which will honour the traditional way of learning music by providing an environment open to all players, teaching the music by ear and enjoying a great community atmosphere.’

The Quebec Fiddle Camp will offer musicians and dancers the opportunity to participate in an afternoon’s contra dance workshop led by visiting musicians from Quebec. “Australia has very few musicians who can play for contra dances so far, and it’s great to have the opportunity to book visiting musicians here who are strong in the genre.”

Judy is keen to encourage players who attend the weekend to have a go at the dancing in order to experience it from a dancing perspective, to feel the music and the impact it has.

The 2018 Quebec Fiddle Camp will take place over cup weekend, (Nov 2-6) and on Monday November 5, (Cup Eve), Judy is planning a big contra dance in Trafalgar. This event will be open to anyone out there in the community who’s keen to join in and – literally – give it a whirl.

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Getting into the swing of things: Photo supplied

For information about the annual Quasitrad Quebec Fiddle weekend, visit www.quasitrad.com

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Judy Oleinikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs and strong bonds: The community choir celebrating a half-century of harmony

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‘Morefull’ The Maroondah Singers in concert.  Photo supplied

John Williams has been singing for 80 of his 90 years on the planet. Growing up on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, there was little opportunity to express himself musically and John really had no idea he could sing. “The headmaster of the school would bring in a local girl to sing with us all once a week, My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Rule Britannia, that kind of stuff. When we moved to Mitcham, my mother and I joined the local Methodist Church choir and I started singing alto alongside my mother at the age of 10.”

John has been singing ever since and was a key player in the founding of the Mitcham based Maroondah Singers, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary as a mixed voice community choir.1 It has encouraged young singers starting out and provided end of life care, too. It is a living, breathing singing entity as vital now as it was half a century ago, and it owes its origins, in part, to John.

“I was there before Maroondah Singers even existed”, he laughs.

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John Williams, singing for 80 years and a founding member of the Mitcham based  Maroondah Singers

The idea for a choir came about through a conversation between John and his good friend, George Irvine. At the time, George wrote a weekly column in the Nunawading Gazette, called ‘As it appears to me’ where he would comment on various social issues relevant to the City of Nunawading. George also worked in the same place as John in South Melbourne and the two men would often travel home together, putting the world to rights as they went:

“I found that usually, whatever we talked about on the way home would appear in the newspaper the week after next where he’d say ‘my friend John says’… I got used to it!”

One of their conversations was about what had happened to all the good choirs. A subsequent column posing the same question elicited a strong response from within the community so the following week George suggested trying to set up something locally and called a public meeting to gauge the level of interest. He hired a space in the Old Orchard Shopping Centre in North Blackburn, set a date and promoted it through the newspaper.

Coincidentally, at that same time, the Mitcham Methodist Church had moved to join the Presbyterians in a joint building venture which had just achieved completion. The very night that George called for the choir meeting, the Mountview Church property committee was meeting to allocate space for community rent.

“I should have been at that committee meeting but I apologised and went over there (to join George) Well, when we looked around and saw the number of people who were enthusiastic about the idea of starting a group, we realised things were going to roll.  The meeting continued with everyone agreeing that Monday night would suit, if only a space could be found.”2

Experiencing a light bulb moment, John told everyone to talk amongst themselves, then hopped in his car and gunned over to the Property Committee meeting. “I rushed in, said, ‘Have you finished the meeting? Do you have any space on a Monday night? With a piano?? Yes? Yes!’ ”

The first rehearsal of the Maroondah Singers was held in Mountview Church Hall the following Monday night in 1968, and has continued as a weekly event ever since. Numbers grew quickly under the leadership of Jim Watsford who, at that time, was conductor of the Mitcham Choral Society:  “Jim came to that meeting in the hope of securing recruits for MCS.  Instead, he got a whole new choir!”

Following Jim’s belief, “if you can follow the words you can sing” the Maroondah Singers was destined to be a success.

Within twelve months the choir had given its first performance with George publicising the event through the newspaper once again, and John continuing to use his powers of persuasion to recruit Lela Wright, his church organist as their first accompanist. (She stayed ten years.)

Fifty years on, and the Maroondah Singers has sung at venues all over Victoria including the MCG for a grand final, for nine years as part of Carols by Candlelight, the Myer Music Bowl, regional church halls, the Dallas Brookes Centre, and Melbourne Town Hall, among others. The Singers is an inclusive and welcoming bunch and Monday night rehearsals are open to anyone keen to drop by and listen. It isn’t essential to read music and there are no auditions, however there is a voice and ear test to determine a singers’ part.

“We’ve never said no – we’re full, to anyone who has wanted to join so we have a lot of sopranos and could do with more tenors. There are more women than men in the choir and a couple of them have moved from the alto line to sing tenor, which works well. And we’re always trying to find younger people, if we can.” Some members of the Maroondah Singers weren’t even born when George and John held that first public meeting, half a century ago!

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Carols by Candlelight circa 1984: Courtesy: Arts Centre Melbourne, Laurie Richards Archive, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Since 1991, young singers have been drawn to the choir each year through a scholarship program established to commemorate three of the choir’s founders, George Irvine, and May and Mervyn Vagg, the choir’s first President. This program has proved a sensational singing springboard with past scholarship singers now working with international and State operas, and the process and experience providing a huge amount of pleasure to the choir members in supporting and encouraging these young singers during the early stages of their musical journeys.

Maroondah Singers pride themselves on performing from memory, firing on all neurological cylinders and giving their brains a weekly work out with songs from a wide repertoire by composers from Handel and Verdi to Rodgers and Hammerstein; Elton John to Billy Joel and beyond.

Currently directed by Lyn Henshall and accompanied by Dr John Atwell (who returned in 2010 for a second stint with the choir having previously accompanied them between 1980 and1997) the choir also sings in Japanese, Italian and Latin, and holds an impressive back catalogue including ‘Big Sings’ such as Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. From time to time the singers team up for performances with other choirs and their comrades in the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.

There is no pressure on anyone to ‘perform’ until they feel confident and ready to take this step.

“Everyone is issued with a CD with their part line, explains John, in my case Bass 1, emphasised in a digital recording of the score. All the items for the forthcoming concert are on that CD. Alternatively, they can be downloaded as an MP3 file. Playing these through with the music reinforces the memory, then without the music which strengthens it further.”

Innovation is an important contributor to longevity and the Maroondah Singers is enterprisingly equipped to hit the road and share its songs, thanks to a pop-up tiered platform designed to hold up to 100 singers. Bringing his background in engineering to the fore, John drew up designs for the staging, held a working bee at a college woodworking centre one weekend, and the end result packs down into a trailer, perfect for regional touring.

John’s commitment to the Maroondah Singers and his love of singing and community is evident. For the past 50 years he’s helped out in various ways to keep things going with the choir when needed, including as President for thirteen years and stepping up on the rostrum as leader for a while, in spite of a physical disability in one arm:

“I got the message over, I couldn’t wave two hands about all over the place but I could wave one, nod my head and smile. I get a lot of satisfaction from singing, I get a lot of satisfaction from conducting…. it was deeply satisfying to have to step up at short notice to conduct 104 singers to an audience of 800.”

His warmth and dedication is clear. Every choir needs a John.

Strong endorphin fuelled bonds have been forged between the Maroondah Singers members over the years as they do in all community choirs. When former member, Bill Holmes, was forced to retire due to ill health, he struggled without any family to look after him. ‘Team Bill’ came together from within the choir and closed ranks around him:

“We took care of him in his home until his health deteriorated to a point he could no longer stay. We were fortunate to get  him into respite care. We were then able to continue to support Bill until he died in January this year. We saw him through and the four of us were at his bedside singing to a Maroondah Singers CD to him as he died. We knew he could hear us even though he was in and out of consciousness. And we sang him out.”

What greater testimony could a community choir have? At the end of the day, we sing together to connect. It’s the connections we forge whilst doing what we love that enrich our lives and extend out into the wider community, strengthening the quality of its fabric for everyone.

The story and spirit of the Maroondah Singers is certainly one to celebrate. Here’s to John; here’s to each and every one of the Maroondah Singers, past present and future and here’s to the next fifty years of singing and music making in Mitcham and in communities everywhere.

Written by Deb Carveth with thanks to John Williams and Nick Hansen

1: John was also the founding member of the Methodist Youth Singers
2: there were 45 people present at the public meeting called by George Vagg in 1968

*The Maroondah Singers will celebrate a special 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday June 17 at Melba College Theatre, 20 Brentnall, Road, Croydon starting at 2.30pm. The spectacular concert will feature the choir’s past four Vocal Scholars. Tickets are $30 Adult, $25 Concession, under 12 Free. Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/373628. Contact: Anne on 0422 050 323.

 

 

How an Ancient Singing Tradition Helps People Cope With Trauma in the Modern World

In Finland, lament singing is experiencing a revival, one sad song at a time.  Tristan Ahtone

“I took pills for my depression

just to smother my emotions.

Doctors said that I would need them,

but I learned to cry without them.

So I stopped taking the tablets,

then I let my feelings rise up

for my mother when she passed on,

for my marriage when he quit me,

left me as a single mother,

with a hard job and no weekends.

Now I weep without taking pills,

yet I still feel very angry,

and the fury seems well-founded,

but the feelings will not hurt me.”

Excell’s lyrics may be modern, but the style of singing comes from an older place.

“Lament [singing] is a very old, traditional way to express your feelings,” says Fihlman, a lament teacher and matriarch of the group. “If you are hurt or you have sorrows or you want to express your feelings, you cry it out. You let it come out. That’s what they would do in the old times.”


In Finland, the ancient musical tradition known as lament singing is seeing a revival.

In the past, the custom was observed at funerals, weddings, and during times of war. But today, practitioners have a modern application for it: musical therapy. By providing an opportunity to process emotions through song, lament singing can confer mental health benefits to modern practitioners.

“[In lament] people can express themselves,” Fihlman says. “Very often people [in my courses] make laments of their grief. They miss their parents or they have troubles in their marriage or maybe they were hurt in childhood and they never had a chance to bring it up.”

While the custom resembles many “new age” practices, Finnish lament singing has a feature that those neo-spiritual systems don’t: It teaches a tradition specific to the region instead of borrowing from other cultures.

Originally, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

“The function of [lament singing] was to establish positive contact with your ancestors, the dead, and help them in some way,” says Jim Wilce, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and author of numerous books and papers on lament singing around the world. Originally, he says, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

Which, according to Wilce, is what makes the revival so unique.

“In every traditional lament … you have a connection with what I call ‘the divine powers,’” says Eila Stepanova, a folklore studies Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki. “[This isn’t] a Christian god. It’s something in between—an older layer of traditional beliefs.”

While lament singing exists in communities from Bangladesh to New Zealand, according to Wilce, and has even been documented in the ancient poem “Beowulf,” the form being practiced in Finland has its roots in the area now known as the Republic of Karelia—the region on the Russian side of the Finnish border. Stepanova says the traditional laments—sung for funerals, weddings, war—were performed to help people move from one world to the other, be it to the land of the dead, to a new family, or to the battlefield. At ceremonies for the dead, for instance, laments were sung to wake deceased members of the family in the other world to meet new arrivals.

But traditional laments weren’t simply a style of song: They were a unique language in which nothing was ever named directly.

In lament singing, positive descriptions are used: Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful.

“For example, you have substitute names for all personal relations [and] for objects or phenomenons,” says Stepanova. “So in lament language, when you talk about your mother, you don’t use the word mother. You say, ‘the dearest woman who brought me [into] the sweetest world who carried me,’ or ‘my dear carrier,’ or ‘my dear cherisher.’”

Other examples include the sun, which can be called a “golden disk,” or arms, which can be called “shoulder branches.” And in lament singing, positive descriptions are used. Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful. The one exception is any description of the lamenter herself.

“She is always the miserable [one]. She never says the word ‘I,’” explains Stepanova. Instead, when describing herself, the lamenter might say she’s the “miserable body,” “woman of great sorrows,” or “body made of tears.”

Stepanova’s mother published the first lament dictionary in 2004 documenting approximately 1,400 different metaphors for words used in the songs. Like any language, it’s evolving with modern times. Cars can be “headless horses,” phone calls can be “messages that come through metal strings,” and televisions can be “talking boxes.”

But while Finland is seeing a revival—instructor Fihlman says she has conducted nearly 200 courses with almost 2,000 students—other parts of the world are seeing a decline in the traditional practice.

Lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition.

Wilce says that around the world lament singing is threatened. In Bangladesh, for instance, practitioners often face physical violence in rural Muslim societies.

“People are being shamed by their relatives,” says Wilce. “By fundamentalist Christian missionaries in Papua New Guinea and [in] other places by the values of rationality and urbanizing modernity.”

Yet in Finland, the tradition is blossoming, despite a history that has often threatened its survival. In Karelia, Fihlman says that lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition by Orthodox and Lutheran Christians and often driven underground. Urbanization also threatened the continued existence of lament singing. In the last century, as young people moved away from their hometowns to find jobs and schooling in cities, villages began to disappear, along with lament singers. And in the early days of the Soviet Union, authorities often employed lament for ideological and propaganda efforts, creating laments that expressed support for the Soviet system and its leaders.

Stepanova says that, eventually, only old people told ancient stories and sang antique laments. “They were museum items, and they stopped being a living tradition among people,” she says.
But somehow, adds Fihlman, it survived. “We don’t have those old people anymore,” she says. “But [now] we have this new generation.”

Minna Hokka wore a candy-striped turtleneck sweater in chartreuse, cream, and maroon. Fihlman, Excell, and other lamenters looked on as she raised her head and began singing. Unlike Excell’s lament, Hokka’s was a historical ode recalling Karelia’s bitter history with Russia.

“To the people of Karelia,

souls and spirits born in beauty:

Through the windows were your green fields,

in the blue skies larks were singing,

saints and icons stood in silence,

watching over wooden log homes.

Kanteles echoed in the dark rooms,

and the stars blinked in the night sky,

but your thoughts were wrapped in darkness:

iron hail rained on your rooftops.”

Hokka, 41, is part of the new generation learning from Fihlman. She says she hopes to start composing laments for young people struggling with addiction.

“Nowadays crying is seen as losing face, so people avoid and fear it,” says Hokka. “Finland needs its tears.”

For Hokka and other lamenters, the practice isn’t just a hobby: It’s an ancient tradition now finding contemporary use. And in Fihlman’s home on the outskirts of Helsinki, it’s taking root with a new generation, one sad song at a time.

“Does [lament singing] have connection to the past? To tradition? To beliefs or values?” Stepanova says. “Or do we make it a museum item behind glass and go and think, Ahh, nice, yes, and forget about it? It depends on us.”

Tristan Ahtone wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tristan is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. His work has appeared on and in The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America.
This article was first published by Yes Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.

Feature photograph ‘Tough Times’ by Ben White on Unsplash

Community songbirds! Take flight on the airwaves in a new radio show dedicated to singing groups and choirs

A truly unique radio show championing the work of Choirs and Community Singing Groups is filling the airwaves above Upwey and beyond with the sweet sound of a cappella and accompanied singing each week.  The Aka-Pelican show is hosted by Rick Steen, a passionate choir singer and blues guitarist who’s excited to bring this opportunity to the world in what he believes is a first.

Rick’s Aka-Pelican show is broadcast by 3MDR, (Mountain District Radio) on 97.1fm. The community-run station was set up in response to the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 to provide effective and direct communication to locals in the event of emergency, and other than a station manager, it is staffed and run entirely by volunteers.

With a background in folk and blues music, Rick joined the station as a volunteer sound engineer before being trained as an announcer and invited to present a show of his own:

“I thought what would work really well is a show dedicated to supporting choirs and a cappella singing. There are around seven choirs in the Dandenongs between Upwey and Gembrook alone, making it a good niche, good for the station and its membership; people will be all over it!”

3MDR has enjoyed a variety of homes during its 25-year history including a bus, a water tower and a shop. In February, the station relocated to new premises at the Forest Park Homestead, where Rick now has the luxury of a large studio space suitable for live to air broadcasts during his program’s two-hour time slot, from 3 ‘til 5:00pm on Wednesdays.

Rick Steen
Rick Steen: Presenter of the Aka-Pelican radio show on 3MDR, 97.1fm

Having run Aka-Pelican for just over 6 months now, Rick reckons it takes half an hour to settle into the hot seat. “I don’t have a production assistant, I’m handling everything and you have to be highly tuned right from the word go.”

By then he’s in the groove and ready to showcase live or recorded performances from choirs and singing groups from the local area, Melbourne and the surrounds. There’s been one change to the Aka-Pelican format since its inception, the decision taken by Rick to incorporate the material of accompanied choirs into the show. “Too many wonderful choirs felt that they didn’t qualify to participate as their songs were accompanied, so I implemented one ‘Golden Rule’, which is that vocals of the choir must be the dominant feature of the music.”

Broadcasting beyond the hills, the radio’s reach is limitless as people can listen to 3MDR online, and Rick is excited that this provides the opportunity for home grown, grass roots music-making to reach a universal radio audience.

“There’s good reception out in Gippsland and down to Philip Island though most people listen online. It’s a worldwide thing,” says Rick, who is happy to advocate for the joy and benefits of community singing and is also keen to interview community choir leaders as part of the program each week, either in person or over the phone.

If you’ve recorded material with your singing group or choir that you would like to hear on air, Rick’s your man. His vision to provide a voice to singing group and choirs combined with Aka-Pelican’s performance space, two-hour program slot and the option of going live to air will send the sounds of community singing soaring far and wide. Solo songbirds are welcome to contribute songs too, so long as they are unaccompanied.

To contact Rick and share material for Aka-Pelican or for further information, email 3MDR: radio@3mdr.com and mark your message for the attention of the Aka-Pelican Show.**

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Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Rick Steen

** At the time of publishing this article, Rick is looking to recruit an assistant to help with the admin side of the show who would also be interested in becoming a co-host… full training will be provided!

 

A tribute to Ben Leske, by Gillian Howell

How do we measure the legacy of a singing leader? It seems apt that, as I ask myself this question, a song comes to mind:

How many cabs in New York City?

How many angels on a pin?

How many notes in a saxophone?

How many tears in a bottle of gin?

(Paul Kelly, Careless)

How many songs were taught and were shared? How many connections and bonds were formed? How many experiences of being held or embraced in harmony, or of adding one’s voice to a solid-gold, full-bodied unison? There are many ways that a singing leader’s efforts and commitments can be traced. The researcher in me thinks about network analysis, imagines tracing a song on its pathway from leader to choir, from choir members to other leaders, from leaders to leaders. Or tracing connections and friendships, new choirs formed, new leaders inspired.

Benjamin Patrick Leske, musician, composer, researcher, community singing advocate, conductor and choir leader, passed away this month from brain cancer, aged 37. I am not the only one of his friends feeling bereft. There are many others who knew him longer, who had shared more songs and more conversations than I had with him. But in our short friendship, Ben and I bonded. We shared stories from the PhDs in community music that we were both pursuing at the time (his about the experiences of young LGBTQI singers in a Melbourne choir, mine about young music learners in war-torn countries[1]), and we shared our experiences of dealing with the compounding challenges of major illness and treatment during PhD study.

Ben Leske
Ben Leske

The community musician in me remembers Ben teaching the song ‘Let it Go’ (not the one from Frozen, but another, drawn from a Michael Leunig poem and cartoon and set to music by Melbourne composer Suzann Frisk) on the Excursion Day bus during the International Society for Music Education’s Community Music Commission in Edinburgh, July 2016. A colleague sent me her recording of that song-share recently, capturing Ben’s voice as he sang the song line by line, repeating as necessary, with the bus passengers echoing him. “I’ve never told this story to a busload of people before!” he admitted, before sharing the significance of the song with the group. More than one person refers to ‘singing while crying’ in that recording.

More recently, Ben led a pop-up choir in a performance of the same song in the ward of St Vincent’s Hospital where he had been a neuro-oncology patient many times. He donated a framed print of the Michael Leunig cartoon that had made the song so meaningful for him, a print that now hangs on the wall of the ward. Leunig and Frisk joined Ben for this special event.

Singing leaders bring people together to sing, both informally and in more formal structures. Ben conducted many different choirs in Melbourne. One speaker at the memorial service began to list them, and I learned that Ben’s conducting ‘tentacles’ had reached more widely than I knew. I was in the audience for the inaugural performance of the Footscray Community Choir, a choir that he co-founded with pianist Chris Nankervis. It was a lovely, affirming concert. The audience was invited to sing as part of the program, a programming inclusion that spoke to Ben’s commitment to getting people singing and connecting with each other. They performed a superb rendition of “Wonder” by Emeli Sandé. It was the first time I’d heard that song, although I’ve listened to it many times since. Its opening lyrics (“I can beat the night, I’m not afraid of thunder, I am full of light, and I am full of wonder”) bring a lump to my throat now. I can imagine them resonating for Ben, and am sure it was by design, not chance, that he chose a song that would affirm the strength, resilience, and wonder of every one of his singers.

And there were more choir projects planned. One of Ben’s last Facebook updates (20 January 2018) announced, “I’m excited to be working with Newlands Choir (formerly the Carpark Choir) from Monday! P.S. We’re currently recruiting, with vacancies in all sections”. I can remember the excitement with which he spoke about this new project too. Dear Newlands Choir, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to work with this fine musician and conductor. He loved to nurture voices. He would have been so committed to you.

How many stars in the Milky Way?

How many ways can you lose a friend?

Paul Kelly’s song drifts away from me at this point—it is impossible to imagine Benjamin Leske being a ‘careless’ friend to anyone. His memorial service filled one of Melbourne’s largest cathedrals, and friends and family in turn spoke of this kind, gentle, generous, funny, determined colussus of a man, sharing stories of the intrepid traveler and “Germanophile” who was an exchange student in Germany and studied in Freiburg, retaining many deep friendships there; the studious, contemplative, and curious young man who spent time living in a monastery in Cambodia; the organiser, devoted to Excel spreadsheets; the International Relations specialist who nurtured and realised his longheld desire to conduct, to compose, and to spread music and joy; the man in his prime, forced to confront his mortality and who reframed the diagnosis as an opportunity to live more fully, focusing on what really matters; the activist and advocate for brain cancer research, gay pride, and community singing; the beloved son, brother, godfather, friend; the loving partner and husband of Khang Chiem.

The songs keep coming. At the memorial service I learned that Ben was a huge Kylie Minogue fan. But I am a little older than him and ABBA comes to mind more quickly: “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. Who could live without it? I ask in all honesty – what would life be? Without a song or a dance, what are we?” Towards the end of the wake, most of the remaining guests gathered on the stage to sing a song (from ‘Wicked’) that was new to me, but seemed so perfect and poignant for a celebration of this young man’s life. “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

How much good in a single song? So, so much good. Go gently, Ben would say. Live fully. Love generously. And keep singing.

[1] Ben submitted his PhD in August 2017 and graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne in December 2017. I submitted mine in December 2017 and am nervously awaiting examiners’ reports.

Gillian Howell
March 2018

Raising spirits in Brisbane and beyond: Pub Choir celebrates its first birthday

In just one year, Pub Choir has revolutionised the community music scene in Brisbane and beyond, bursting forth in a blast of fresh energy and zest and attracting hundreds of singers to its informal fortnightly singing sessions. The success of Pub Choir can be attributed to a combination of zeitgeist mixed with a twist of right time right place all shaken up with a direct, no frills attitude to music making. That and the fact it’s in a pub…

The ingeniously simple idea for Pub Choir was dreamt up in a conversation between co-founders Astrid Jorgensen and Megan Bartholomew. The women who met at uni, share the belief that everyone can sing and that music belongs to everybody. In talking, they realised that whilst music was their livelihood, they were no longer singing for fun and so, in March last year, Meg called a pub.

Astrid and Meg then recruited guitarist Waveney Yasso, whose job is to keep everyone singing in time and in tune. The Pub Choir dream team came into being and with support from a photographer and videographers to capture the magic, they were set to prove to the world it could sing.

“The hope was that if we put it in a friendly setting then people would come and remember that music is fun with friends. We should all be making music an everyday experience, and if we’re doing it more often and in casual ways then it becomes less ‘scary’.”

Astrid and the team put a single post on Facebook before the first session stating, ‘No Commitment, No Auditions, No Sheet Music, NO WORRIES!’ They smashed their hopes for 30 people that first night when 70 rocked up, and every event from then on has sold out. As Astrid says, “It’s been pretty crazy!”

The Bearded Lady in Brisbane trusted the vision, provided a space and supported the idea of Pub Choir at a time when it wasn’t a ‘thing’. The event soon outgrew the capacity of the room there, but its walls play a significant part in the success and history of the choir’s first year, something Astrid is very thankful for.

So does alcohol play a significant role in the success and phenomenon of Pub Choir? Even though it’s available, Astrid attributes the sense of anonymity that goes with being in a pub along with lots of other people, as the reason new singers feel disinhibited enough to relax and have a go. And once they start singing, the release of endorphins and the sense of connection can work their magic and do the rest.

There is no place for judgement at Pub Choir, it’s all about enjoying yourself and singing to have a good time.  Astrid chooses well known songs, something she finds makes life easier for everyone:

“For each upcoming session I try to pick something in a different style to the last so as not to be too repetitive; something very well known so that the melody doesn’t have to be taught too much, and; songs that are achievable in 90 minutes. I also am constrained by whether or not I can obtain the relevant licenses. Occasionally publishers will say no, so I try to have a few options up my sleeve.”

To teach the song, Astrid, who is qualified in choral conducting and voice, divides the group into three sections, taking them through line by line and within 90 minutes everyone is revelling in the buzz of singing in three part harmony.

There has been such an amazing outpouring of support for Pub Choir from the online community, that Astrid and the team are now in the process of booking dates for a tour. The idea is to travel around the country later in the year and share the experience of Pub Choir more widely in its original format. Astrid likes to combine elements of comedy into all aspects of her work including Pub Choir in the belief that if people are having a laugh they will relax and sing better, and she’s keen to share this out on the road too.

“Everyone is saying the same thing: We could really use this in our community, this looks so much fun.”

Pub Choir has received hundreds of emails from people across the country who are keen to use the same model, and asking if they can start up their own Pub Choir. This includes requests for Pub Choir’s budgeting, licensing, event planning, and even web content creation – some of which Astrid admits makes her feel a little uncomfortable.

Whilst the level of interest from other singing leaders keen to borrow and learn from the model of Pub Choir is flattering, Astrid feels this has to be done in conjunction with a good dose of self-assessment and points out that the Pub Choir model might not translate and work as well for everyone. She explains:

“I like being at the pub and I like joking around and I’m definitely more into casual community music making than something more ‘high brow’, but I think people may try to copy and paste something that might not necessarily fit their skill set as an educator, or even their personality. I mean, consider 500 drunk people who you don’t know,” laughs Astrid, “it won’t suit everyone, so play to your strengths and find what you are passionate about!”

An unexpected challenge faced by Pub Choir is the number of costs involved in running such a simple idea. Each singer pays $10 cash on the door and pretty much every cent of that goes back into licensing to pay for arranging and then filming the song. “Sometimes it’s thousands of dollars.”

This was an area they didn’t anticipate but their popularity and strong online presence thrives as a result of the high quality film clips they post, and their recent clip of the Cranberries song ‘Zombie’ sung and posted as a tribute to Dolores O’Riordan was shared by the band and went viral, a real high point for Astrid and everyone involved.

Pub Choir will be celebrating its first birthday in March with a party to end all parties at the Triffid in Brisbane, a venue with capacity for over 700 singers. It’s a beautiful old aircraft hangar which is a brilliantly apt place to celebrate a singing group that has taken off so fast. Go, go Pub Choir: the sky’s the limit.

Written by Deb Carveth for Community Music Victoria with Astrid Jorgensen from Pub Choir

Featured image by Jacob Morrison, supplied by Pub Choir

**Interest in Pub Choir has come from each of the capital cities and beyond and the team hope to have visited them all by the end of the year, returning in between times to sing with their Brisbane crowd. If there are any pub landlords or venue managers reading this in Victoria who are open to the idea of hosting Pub Choir, hop onto their website and express your interest now!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease improve with singing, study finds

A study led by researchers from Griffith University has found that symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can be improved with regular singing.

Over 70 patients participated in the study run through Queensland Conservatorium of Music, which incorporated singing, warm ups, vocal cord and breathing exercises, to learn more about ‘how song could help battle the disease’, improving mobility and the overall quality of life.

It didn’t matter how well participants in the study could carry a tune, they simply had to commit to singing one hour each week for six months.

All of the patients involved in the trial reported an increase in self confidence and well being from taking part. Tremors associated with the disease were also reduced in some singers.

The outcomes and findings reaffirm, once again, the broad range of benefits to the individual in belonging to a community singing group or choir.

Read the original article in full, here.

 

 

 

Sick of shopping? 10 reasons to give the gift of music and song, this season

 

  • It repeats on you only in positive ways and doesn’t get stuck in your teeth
  • It’s more effective than mistletoe in bringing people together
  • Music doesn’t kill your fingers all the way home from the shops in a bag about to break
  • It’s perfect shared with friends and there’s always enough to go around
  • It’s eco-friendly! Singing and music making requires neither wrapping nor cellotape
  • Music won’t sit around gathering dust and is brilliant to re-gift
  • Your jeans may fit even better after a month of singing and musical indulgence
  • Instead of breaking after five minutes, it gets better and lasts a lifetime
  • No ransacking of the house is necessary for batteries or dice
  • Making music and singing is good for the heart, soul, health and well-being of yourself, your pals, your Aunty Sheila, and your community too

3 ways to give the gift of music and song with Community Music Victoria (we’ve got this covered):

  • Sign up your family, friends and neighbours to the CMVic monthly giving circle for a gift that gives all year
  • Renew your annual membership to Community Music Victoria for twelve months of music making benefits, including membership discounts on all events, camps and workshop bookings, and a range of wonderful resources
  • Make a one-off donation to Community Music Victoria. All donations over $2 are tax deductible so you’ll get another little gift in June.

Music is better made together:

Any donation you make can help ensure that more singing and instrumental music leaders get the skills they need to establish more groups, and that special projects like Voices of PeaceStreetSoundsSinging from Country, and That Girl can bring more music to more people who need it in their lives.

Community Music Victoria.
December 2017

‘That Girl’ has something important to say to us all

Sarah Mandie is a Melbourne based singer songwriter and the mother of two young girls. These two highly personal and defining elements of her life are brought into sharp focus though her new project, That Girl, and it is from her unequivocal belief in the potential of each and her passion for both, that this project has come about at all.

That Girl is a song and a music video dance project that invites participation from girls and women of all ages from Wodonga, Yarra Ranges and Boroondara. The song and the project arising from it was conceived by Sarah as a creative way to empower women and girls in communities everywhere. It’s strong, it’s beautiful and it carries a positive message about the need for society to respect ‘that girl’: That girl who is our daughter, our mother, our wife.

Sarah
‘That Girl’ songwriter and project innovator, Sarah Mandie

Sarah wrote the song three years ago following a series of distressing news reports and around the time of the brutal killing of two young girls in India. The alleged perpetrators of the crime bribed police and were released without charge. It was a story that horrified people around the world and resonated particularly deeply with Sarah who has a connection with Rajasthan through her Indian husband and her daughters, too.

“When this happened to these girls in India it made me think about my girls, their futures and their safety which then extends out to all girls, from all countries. I was so angry and upset, I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world.

Because I love the medium of music and song, I thought it would be really good to write a song that talked about those issues, a song that contributes to the prevention of violence.”

Channelling these negative feelings of anger and helplessness into a positive act of creativity was tough but worthwhile. It took Sarah a long time to get the song right, for the lyrics to say what she wanted them to without the song being something people wouldn’t want to listen to. Sarah wanted to write a strong song, and knew that finding the right ‘catch’ was crucial for the message to be carried.

“I think the challenge in writing a song about a difficult issue is that you want to acknowledge the issue but at the same time have a positive frame around it so that people will want to sing it and listen to it and be inspired by it… a song to promote change needs to be attractive for people to listen to and want to sing.”

During the early stages, Sarah was struck by frustration as she realised what a craft it is to write this type of song:

“Sometimes we write a song that comes from within and we trust the processes of creativity but with this song it went through a few changes because I really wanted the end product to be something positive and something people would respond well to.”

Jamie Saxe stepped in to help Sarah nail the end: “Jamie took the song and created real magic with it through his arrangement and production of the instrumentation.”

Saxe’s enthusiasm to be involved reiterated to Sarah the power of her song and its potential to deliver broadly within the context of a wide scale project: What had inspired her was now beginning to inspire the other people coming into contact with the song and feeling similarly moved by the importance of the cause. The shape of the project became clear on completion of the song: Involve girls from the community in learning the song and making of a video to accompany it, then take the completed package out to the world as an empowering catalyst for awareness and change.

“I want That Girl to change the future for my daughters and for all daughters, it’s a hugely personal thing.”

Sarah’s personal and familial connections with India inspired her to translate the chorus into Hindi, bringing the feminine energy of the divinity Shakti into the song: “That girl is the one that gives life, she has the power, that girl is Shakti. Whilst India has high levels of gender based violence, as Sarah is quick to point out, the need for greater levels of respect and the creation of safe environments for girls and women is necessary everywhere.

The first phase of That Girl begins on December 2nd, with an information session inviting women and girls of all ages from within the Indian and Bhutanese communities in Wodonga to join a dance workshop to be held in February next year to embody the Hindi element of the song. The dance routine they will learn in that workshop has already been choreographed and recorded and now needs bringing to life:

“I want all genders to feature in the final video, however the workshops are an opportunity for women and girls to come together to find strength and focus through working together. Once the song goes out there, boys and men will be involved with the project too as part of the awareness.”

The list of project partners is long and impressive and a testimony to the belief and passion shared by everyone who hears the song. In Wodonga, Sarah will be working with Gateway Health, Albury Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council and Albury Wodonga Indian Australian Association. In Healesville, Healesville High School and the Healesville Indigenous Community Service Association will create a film each. This will then be edited and blended with the videos that emerge from the Wodonga and Boroondara communities.

For the time being, Sarah is reluctant to share That Girl song beyond the context of the project but given the significance and the urgency of the issue it addresses and the brilliant catchiness of the composition it’s unlikely to stay under wraps very long. And as That Girl emerges and gains exposure and momentum, the world will be a better place for having heard it and the power of the message it conveys.

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in collaboration with Sarah Mandie.

That Girl  Song Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/That-Girl-song-140108396617517/

That Girl Song: Lyrics and music Sarah Mandie
Arrangement, instrumentation and production, Jamie Saxe

 

 

Weaving homespun tunes into the fabric of daily family life

“… the fish in the river, the clouds in the sky,
the wattles and gum trees that grow up so high
the kookaburra singing so gaily and free
good morning to you and good morning to me…”

                                                 from the Good Morning song* by Woody Clark

Woody Clark dreams of a world where families find time to make music as they go about their lives together. Over the past fifteen years or more, Woody has been working to build a catalogue of songs and resources available to parents and carers to turn this vision into reality and help integrate the rich experience of intergenerational singing and playing into the familial tapestry of homes and lives across Australia.

For Woody, the value is in ‘creating music rather than consuming it’ and, where possible, within a familiar setting involving children, parents or carers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins…

“Make music relevant and engaging and something that’s just part of the fabric of the household rather than something external to that, find the means to utilise it in your life in a way that will bring expression and joy, or whatever that might be.”

Woody’s own three kids have collaborated with him on musical projects, co-written songs for his album, and in recent years toured as part of the family band ‘Woody’s World’. This includes his parents, folk singer-songwriters Kate Townsend and Dave Clark. Woody’s World played at many regional festivals and events in 2016, including Adelaide Festival Centre, Melbourne Cabaret Festival and Ukulele Festivals, Pt Fairy Folk Festival and Mt Beauty Music Festival.

Woody remembers feeling surprised by the excitement of former classmates in recalling the novelty of a school teacher who would sing and play guitar to them during art classes. For Woody who grew up in a household where music-making was a normal and assumed part of daily life, this occurrence was familiar and common to him. He realised as an adult, the experience at school had evaporated from his memory as something unremarkable tends to.

Years later as a father and classroom teacher himself, Woody is using his experience and knowledge as a songwriter and musician to uphold the tradition set by his own background, advocating for the benefits and joys of the style of unplugged family music-making he’s enjoyed in his own life.

Woody’s tips for anyone who’s keen to encourage kids to make music are:

  • Model the behaviour and expose your kids to live music-making.
  • Have a guitar or ukulele sitting on the couch and build music into your day, for example sing a morning song*, or sing a song before you eat your food, or a bedtime song.
  • Make it fun! A lot of music education is serious and focuses on the classical side, so if you can show kids that learning and making music can be really fun and engaging too, you’re half way there.

“I’m not putting pressure on my kids to be musicians but if when they leave home, they can play instruments, have some appreciation of the language of music, it’s accessible for them and they can express themselves, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job in that regard.”

As a way to facilitate integrated music-making in the home, Woody runs 8 week ukulele classes teaching kids aged from 5-12 years and their grandparents, parents or guardians, to play the instrument together. In doing so, Woody’s observed the positive benefits and effects that intergenerational learning brings:

“The parents who model the behaviour, doing weekly practise with their kids really upskill in the ukulele, they come back the next week and they’re both excited; they can play that new chord or they can do the new strumming technique. By the end of the 8 weeks instead of the uke being a foreign object that they are wondering how to hold and tune, they are learning to speak that language.”

Next year Woody will take this course online, making it available as a learning resource for kids, parents and carers, everywhere. “It’ll be a kind of crash course in how to learn the basics and there’ll also be an opportunity to play along with Woody’s World during our live shows.” The course will provide footage recorded by Woody for all L-plate ukers to strum along to for practise in their own time. Woody describes it as ‘an integrated project, and a preparatory engagement experience.’

Uke 5Woody has been working towards this point for a long time having coordinated a number of musical projects, including reKINDle, a response to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 and he’s dedicated to continuing this momentum around family music making and taking it onwards: “I’ve been developing my ideas around family music participation for well over a decade. I am passionate about music and how it can connect families and communities and through my upbringing and my teaching and my work with my own kids, it feels like all these strands are coming together.”

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Woody Clark.

RESOURCES:

* Woody’s Good morning song is available online! Download the lyrics and mp3 here for freeeee! You can also download the chords and to complete the experience, there’s a colour-in poster to download, print off and complete as you learn the song.

Woody’s debut album is available from his website which includes wonderful family collaborations. Check it out here here. You can keep up to date with his activities on his Facebook Page

Listen and learn ‘Catch the leaves’ a song written by Woody’s daughter when she was 7 years old.

For further information and inspiration, visit Woody’s website: http://www.woodysworld.com.au/