Category Archives: community music

Threshold Choir Tecoma offers Songs for the Dying

For the close-knit community in the hills above Melbourne, comfort and support in the form of song will soon be available to those on the threshold of life, offered by a fledgling new group of singers, Threshold Choir, Tecoma, led by experienced singing leader, Barb Mcfarlane.

“I went to the Sacred Edge Festival about four years ago and there was a singing session which, of course, I went to. The woman leading it was from the Threshold Choir in Melbourne. Speaking with her afterwards I was fascinated by the idea of singing for the sick and the dying and immediately wanted to be part of it, but Melbourne Threshold Choir meets on a Wednesday night which is when my choir Vokallista rehearses.”

Barb let the idea ride for a while until the subject came up again in conversation with her friend, Christina Reeves, who is a trained death doula. A death doula supports the person who is dying and their loved ones in whatever way is required to come to terms and be able to deal with what is happening. Christina shared and encouraged Barb’s excitement about the idea of a Threshold Choir and the possibility of forming one based in the hills. And so, this particular story begins.

‘The Mother Ship’ as Barb calls it, is the Threshold Choir established in California in 2000, by a woman called Kate Munger. The Threshold Choir is a secular organisation run by volunteers which supports people all over the world to establish their own chapter of the choir with the shared goal ‘to bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying’.

Permission to sing Threshold Choir songs is granted only to members of the organisation. There is no set rate to join; singers pay what they are able or would like to, from one dollar upwards. This membership facilitates access to tips, mentorship and a cappella singing resources to support them in their journey.

It was important to Barb to feel completely at ease with the rules set by the Threshold Choir before introducing any of her singers to the organisation. “I thought about going maverick and doing it my way, then I thought some more. The Threshold Choir Mother Ship has many beautiful songs which are tested, tried and trusted. They also offer mentoring support meaning if something happens I can contact my ‘coach’ or anyone else I meet through that network, and say, ‘hey look, this happened…what would you have done?’ It’s a way to de-brief and check in. On balance it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”

Barb’s coach, Cathy, is based in the US and mentoring is possible via Skype and email. Cathy has been available to Barb since the inception of her initial idea through to the launch of Threshold Choir, Tecoma. It’s an ongoing relationship and she offers Barb mentoring and advice on some of the more common questions which come up, and advises how to prepare the singers for the emotional aspect of what they’re preparing to do.

Barb knows that it’s difficult for anyone to know what to expect in the emotional sense: “There’s a huge range of possibilities to prepare for in a room where someone’s dying.” Threshold Choir, Tecoma rehearsals runs for three hours and at the end Barb finds people are keen to stay and keep talking and singing.  “It’s common for people to feel that we’ve lost the art of talking about death and dying and the experience of belonging to the Threshold Choir allows a way for the singers to reconnect with memories and share their own experiences of bereavement and loss should they wish to do so, or if they find grief and emotion is triggered by what they are doing. It’s a safe, empathic space where people are free to open up. If you bring it out by way of tears and having other people listen it’s always a healthy process.”  

Having spent a year familiarising herself with the material, Barb now has 15 Threshold Choir songs which she’s taught to her group. “We sing them for a long time, each of them might be the length of a Short Stuff style song, and we’ll sing that for around 15 minutes.”  

As somebody highly experienced in leading community choirs and singing groups, having guidelines to follow has required some adjustment for Barb. “I’m still getting my head around how to behave within the rules, cos that’s a bit of a challenge for me, I’m used to doing my own thing, but I also feel protected by it as well because they’ve all been doing it for a very long time.”

In preparing for a session, Barb sets up a circle with a reclining chair covered with a blanket and cushions in the middle. The singers are then invited into the centre to experience the sensation of being sung to for themselves. “We’ve taken a lot of time to do that. We’ll sing for a good 20 minutes to give the person in the chair the feeling of what they might be giving to someone else when they go out and start singing. We then allow for some space and listen to whatever they might want to share about sensations or how they felt.”

Threshold Choir guidelines suggest that singers go out in groups of 2-4 to avoid crowding  out a space. Most hospital rooms and private bedrooms aren’t able to accommodate more singers than that without their presence becoming overwhelming. This means that the singers who attend not only have to be confident in singing their parts but need to be able to hold it on their own, which is what takes the time for most people.

Barb now has around 30 singers who’ve been to gauge whether singing in a Threshold Choir is something they think they could do, with a good core of 12 coming along to most sessions. She’s happy to allow for a slow build of interest, the work may not be for everyone. Barb’s also working to factor in obsolescence for herself in order to ensure longevity for the group. As an ongoing part of rehearsals, Barb models and shares solid CMVic Singing Leadership skills, offering others in the core group the opportunity to teach and lead songs, encouraging them to develop their own skills in leading rehearsals and eventually, to deliver the actual work with people in the community.

The services of the Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be available for people in Palliative Care at home, or in a hospice. The songs may also be used as a way for soothing the room down after somebody has passed. Effects of the singing are reported as calming, peace inducing and pain relieving for the person who is ill, for their relatives, for the staff if the person is in a facility and, of course, for the singers themselves. 

Living in such a connected community, Barb foresees a high demand for the services of the Threshold Choir Tecoma in time and is hopeful to have enough singers available to manage a roster service available to voluntarily sing for the sick, the dying and their families. 

This weekend, Christina Reeves, Death Doula, is heading up a ‘Dying to Knowexpo being held in the Hills (August 8-11). The focus of the weekend is to explore ways to ‘create a world where we all know what to do when someone is sick, dying or grieving’. Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be singing at this event and Barb will host immersion sessions on Sunday 11th August for anyone keen to experience the songs or who would like to try singing with the group and find out further for themselves, what this incredible service is all about.

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

Photo by Bobby Stevens on Unsplash

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The story of ‘Lingmarra’ and the CMVic network

**This article and the following story contains references to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who have died. It also contains words from the language of Australian Kriol. Permission has been sought and given for its use in this context.

Lingmarra, a beautiful song about coming together was brought to the CMVic network by  Barlang T. E. Lewis*, a Murrungun man, actor, singer and songwriter from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, who first learned it as a traditional song from the Dalabon Corroborree, Bongiliny Bongiliny.

Lingmarra is a song which enchants singers and listeners alike and one which Flip Case, a Melbourne based singing leader has taught to singing groups many times:

“It’s a song that feels ethereal and earthy at the same time, there’s something elemental about it, you feel transported by it and my choirs always respond to it really strongly.”

A couple of years ago, Flip was covering a session with Sue Johnson’s Prana Choir and decided to sing the song with them as she’d recently been teaching it to her own choir.

At the end of the session, a woman called Victoria approached Flip and explained how her partner had been involved in the arrangement of the song, working in collaboration with Barlang T. E. Lewis and another singer-songwriter, Melanie Shanahan.

Flip was immediately intrigued.

“I’d actually only really known the song through Melanie and I thought, wow, that’s an important thing to know about”.

It transpired that Victoria’s partner is Stephen Costello who was then Coordinator of the Community Music Forum and later the Executive Officer of Community Music Victoria. Flip set herself a mission: Work with Stephen to capture the story of how the song was arranged as a way to preserve the provenance of Lingmarra for all of the leaders singing and sharing it, in the CMVic network and beyond.

 “It’s important to have as much understanding as we can. We’re always talking about provenance and recognition of a song’s origins and whether we’re allowed to use songs for the general population and whether it’s appropriate to use it.”

As so often happens in life, for one reason and another, the two never quite got around to the task. Then, following the sad news of  Barlang T. E. Lewis’ passing last year, Flip decided it was time: “I thought, Stephen’s the last one to really tell the story of how that song came about”.

Below is a version of Lingmarra overlaid with lyrics by Barlang T. E. Lewis; upon listening to this version, the way he extends it becomes clear. (From this point on, the story becomes a personal recollection, and Barlang T. E. Lewis is referred to as ‘T’.)

Stephen explains, “T added to the traditional song in so many ways. The call to the young people Aair yawodi is his idea and this is Kriol. When the old people sing Lingmarra gumbah they are not sad. They are having fun. T added his story to the song, which is about his search for his brother, but also about travelling through his “church”, the country and communities of southern Arnhem land.”

The version of Lingmarra taught by Melanie and included in the CMVic Songbook, Sing itis the chorus of the song, “part traditional and part T”.

What follows then is an account by Stephen of his part in the arrangement of the song as it was sung by Barlang T E Lewis, written in response to Flip’s quest.

Lingmarra Story, as told by Stephen Costello

“Before Community Music Victoria was incorporated, there was a group called the Community Music Forum and we operated under the auspice of the Community Arts Network (Victoria). In 1990 I was the Coordinator of the ‘Forum and one of the first events we held was called “Everything you wanted to know about Aboriginal Music but were afraid to ask”. (Barlang) T. E. Lewis was our guest speaker. He was well known as an actor (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) and as a musician with Lewis and Young (didgeridoo and clarinet) and his own original band, ‘The Anthropologists’.

T was brilliant, honest, charming, compelling and generous with listening to our questions and responding with stories and facts. This was the beginning of our friendship and collaboration.

As I shook T’s hand in appreciation after the ‘Forum, he said “Stephen. Let’s do something really big together.”

I joined The Anthropologists as a guitarist. I travelled to Canberra with T for a Music Council of Australia Conference. In the car T sang the Country as we drove along. In the hotel room we co-wrote This is My Country. A few years later, Community Music Victoria was formed, and then Melanie Shanahan came to town. CMVic backed Melanie to stage The Choral Sea in the Great Hall of National Gallery of Victoria. T and I taught This is My Country to Melanie and Melanie taught and conducted the massed community choirs. This was in the late 1990s.  (It was a bit before the Great Southern Sounds Festival and the Millennium Chorus.)

Community Music Victoria won a grant from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council to support T to record his music. T and I played with The Anthropologists and we started to work with classical guitar and didgeridoo. T had bought a new F# didgeridoo (called Bambu or Yidaki in Yolngu country) and we started to harmonise with this.  I asked Melanie Shanahan to work with T on some of his songs in the development and pre-recording stage.

The three of us worked out simple harmonies for three songs. Lingmarra, with the F# Yidaki was one of these. At this stage it was just a chorus with guitar and Yidaki in between. Then T had to go home to southern Arnhem Land to help out during some major flooding around Beswick (Wugularr) and the Roper River. He came back to Melbourne inspired and knowing that he was needed in his community at Beswick (Wugularr). But first we had to get into the studio to record.

I put down the guitar part for Lingmarra, and then T, Mel and I sang the choruses. T said “I can sing over that”. Melanie and I and the sound engineer were treated to an improvised one-take recording where T sang his heart out. The playful calling together, Lingmarra, lingmarra gumbah became instead a deeply heartfelt searching for T’s lost brother. T re-voiced his time travelling around Arnhem Land searching for his left-handed brother (ballajugor). He calls for all the young people (yawadi) to help him, to walk and sing with him calling the spirit (warral) to come and be with him.

This is mostly in the Kriol spoken in this part of the Northern Territory. Thanks to Gloria Lane from Beswick (Wugularr) for her partial translation of the song. Kriol is a new language developed by multilingual Aboriginal people. It uses many English sounds, because English is the language of the colonialists, the pastoralists and the missionaries, but also words and ideas from the old languages of the people drawn to Beswick (Wugularr). These languages are Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Mialli, Ritharngu/Wagaluk, Jingili, Gorindji, Ngalakan, Marra, and Nungulbuyu. Kriol is the meeting place language between all of these and English.

I will keep working with Gloria to get a fuller translation and a deeper understanding. Why is T calling only the young people to help in this search? Is it to show respect to the old people, who we have no right to ask to help? I think so. Does T call his brother “the left-handed one” and not use his name because he suspects he has died and therefore he can’t use his name? Or is it just the game people play in Arnhem Land of not using names because they are more interested in relationships and kinship and skin names? It will be fun to find out.

What we do know is that Melanie taught the chorus of the song in schools and to community choirs all over Australia, and it has become part of our folk tradition with the continued support of Community Music Victoria. That’s the part of the Lingmarra story that I know about.”

-Stephen Costello 

Deep gratitude to both Stephen Costello and Flip Case for bringing this beautiful story into the light and sharing it with the CMVic network.

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria. 

*In recognition of his extraordinary life, the family of  Barlang T. E. Lewis has given permission for the use of his image and voice by the media.

Further links to Lingmarra

Auslan signing for the song “Lingmarra” as part of the VoiceMob project, produced by Yarra Ranges Council.


Further reading:

The Conversation: ‘Explainer: the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia – Kriol’ 
https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-largest-language-spoken-exclusively-in-australia-kriol-56286

Community Music: finding your place, finding your voice

It started with a milestone birthday and an unexpected, life-changing gift: a three-day singing workshop at the Body Voice Centre in Footscray.

This was not something I had ever asked for. Frankly, it was terrifying. Not only singing, but also improvisation and “exploring extended voice.” All that… in front of people… without the comfort of a loud, late-night karaoke backing track, or friends who had checked their dignity at the bar earlier in the evening.

When I look back on this three-day journey from awkwardness to awakening, two moments resonate. Firstly, a bell-strike of wisdom from the teacher, Linda Wise: “Find you place and you will find your voice.” At the time I took this to be a call to first listen to the sonic space – i.e. to tune into your emotional and physical surroundings – before beginning to improvise. I thought, “That’s all well and good, but I was scared to sing anything at all. What if I was out of pitch? What if the sound was ugly or uninteresting or ruined others’ enjoyment of the exercise?…”

As an acutely perceptive and experienced teacher, Linda could see these thoughts causing me to take what she called a “panic breath” – constricting my throat – just as I was about to sing. She could see how my fear of judgment was robbing me of my voice. Linda’s solution was partly physiological – having a colleague press gently down on my larynx while I sang until I could feel how to stop pushing against his fingers. It was also subtly psychological – replacing my fear of being judged with a curious mindset, open to learning and expressing whatever it is that my unique voice can do. This was my first step toward finding my voice.

The second moment was being heartily encouraged to join my local community choir (by the same person who had been pressing down on my larynx just a few hours earlier – CMVic stalwart and singer, improviser, performer extraordinaire John Howard). I knew nothing about group singing or harmony but was keen to try out my newfound instrument.

That summer my world was tipped upside down. My job was made redundant, I gave up on my calling as an academic, my marriage ended, I sold the family home and moved my things into an apartment of my own. Though I had found my voice I had now lost my place. I no longer knew who I was or how to find my way.

In this topsy-turvy state I arrived at Brunswick Rogues choir for Term 1. The friendliest welcome opened onto the most joyful 2 hours of singing, which immediately became the highlight of each week. I gained a new circle of friends and admission to the sublime world harmony singing. 40+ voices resonating together is felt so much more in the body than in the ears; and this provided much needed physical and emotional therapy as I gradually came to once again find my place.

This new place I now know as “community music”, and I take every opportunity to join CMVic camps, workshops and events. I now sing in many groups (from a Junkman’s choir to Madrigals and a band with the wonderful Nicki Johnson).

Group singing, along with the values of CMVic, have become part of who I am and how I find my way.

While I still have much to learn from the very practical wisdom shared by the CMVic elders, I know it is worth the journey, each time I experience the power of the circle in which we can each find our voice and find our place.

By Craig Barrie for Community Music Victoria

 

 

An Amberley awakening

By Matt Phillips

They say that music can rejuvenate the soul, and that was what I was hoping for on Saturday 10th November as I arrived in leafy Amberley for the 2018 CMVic Singing Camp on a beautiful sunny morning.  I had been struggling with my own emotional demons the day before so I was hoping to find my centre; my support again.  Perhaps music could reorganise my brain’s foggy neural connections again into something clearer?

After the standard check-ins for new arrivals (most people had stayed over from the Friday welcome event the previous evening), all attendees gathered in the Banksia Room for an acknowledgement to country, welcomes, warm ups and an innovative “Body Percussion” musical game led by Jane York and Nicki Johnson.  It was a great way to meet some new people and to experience the unnerving sensation of speaking a simple repeated chant while engaging our bodies in a series of percussive movements.  Think of the frustration you get trying to pat the top of your head while rubbing your belly, and you get the idea.  It was fun, fast and quite furious!  Well done Jane and Nicki for waking us up and energising us all into a frenzy!

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After morning tea, we divided into three groups based on our chosen segment and I stayed in the Banksia Room to meet the “Voices of Peace” a vibrant Assyrian singing group who taught us a few songs based on stories and poetic verse from their beautiful ancient culture.  Sarah Mandie facilitated this session with help from Salam Dankha who sings in Voices of Peace.  It was a privilege to hear Salam and other choir members provide personal experiences about how their words and rhythms led to the creation of new songs.  Despite personal hardship, isolation and in some cases social exclusion, the community networks created by the Assyrian women have been an invaluable support mechanism for them, and the Voices of Peace Project has clearly added an extra layer to this community by giving them the means to express their ideas, history and poetry through the medium of music.  The session ended with an impromptu Assyrian dance lesson in a large circle with the Assyrian women teaching us their familiar tongue-cry “lel-lel-lel-lel-lel” sound.  As someone with classical vocal experience, these guys really know how to use their diaphragms well to support their sound!!!

After a lunch break, which was a great way to network and meet some new attendees (I sat down to lunch with some new Assyrian choir friends!), I chose another break out session in the Banksia Room.  This time, it was Laura Brearley facilitating her “Come to the River” session, (see below) with the support of Nicki Johnson and the unexpected input from a new attendee for the day – a respected musician and pillar within the Maori community, Arnold Tihema.  The session was intensely powerful, and encouraged participants to understand and more deeply respect the songs and cultures of first nation people, culminating in a trip to the nearby river (Birrarung) to actually listen and sing to Country.  There were tears, tingles and the quiet, respectful acknowledgement of a beautiful experience shared.

The next afternoon session was back with the full group and the amazingly talented Jessie Vintila taught us to sing an original Massed Song called “Every Dollar” about the importance of fair trade purchases for consumers.  It was fun, informative, challenging and very engaging.  Wait for some amazing video footage from this event!

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Singing Leader Jessie Vintila in action at the CMVic Singing Camp

Following a delicious roast dinner evening meal, Emily Hayes facilitated the launch of the evening Soul Party, which had an Aretha Franklin musical theme.  There were amazing solos as well as ensemble pieces to be heard.  We again had the chance to listen to the amazing voice of Arnold Tihema.  Gee, can that man sing with all of his heart and soul!!!!  Musical instruments were played and impromptu jam sessions entailed around the soul theme.  It was a chance for everyone to unwind, have a drink, collaborate and close off an amazing day.  We all felt uplifted, invigorated, inspired and loved.

Once again, the Amberley music event had delivered – no majorly exceeded – my expectations.  I once again felt good about the world because my sense of local community, through music, had weaved its magic!

Below is a video by Terry Melvin of ‘Come to the River’ a workshop co-facilitated by Laura Brearley, Nicki Johnson and  Arnold Tihema, at the 2018 CMVic Singing Camp

 

 

A tribute to Richard Gill by Heather McLaughlin

In recent days the media has been full of news of the sad loss of Richard Gill – conductor, teacher, composer, and powerful advocate for school and community music. Many will remember him as the somewhat eccentric man with a shock of white hair representing classical music on “Spicks and Specks”.

He passionately believed that every child deserves music, and that SINGING should be the basis of all music experience from an early age.

I have been personally fortunate to be a student, then a teaching colleague, and a friend of Richard Gill since the age of 15, when as a country girl I went to a NSW state music camp and played the violin under his baton in a full symphony orchestra.

At that stage I had never even seen a French horn, or an oboe, and the experience of sitting in the heart of 60 musicians playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, in a tent, in the rain, with flutes behind and violas to the side, was an early inspiration. “Cellos, can you SOB a little more?” said Richard Gill. I melted with adolescent musical emotion!

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So many people have an anecdote about Richard Gill.

“He remembered my name when I ran into him, 35 years after I left school.”

“He got me to sing an improvised melody in Solfege over a ground bass in a workshop – and surprisingly, I could do it.”

“At music camp in 1967 he played the piano for an evening Barn Dance in the style of Chopin, then Buddy Holly, then Souza.”

“At a teacher workshop we did one round of saying our names, and he remembered all of the 40!”

“At a choral rehearsal, we sang a 4 part, 20 page Kyrie, and at the end he said ‘Tenors, your E at Bar 68 was a little flat.’ ”

At workshops and conferences for teachers, he made each of us feel that what we were doing was important. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said.

Kim Williams, a close friend of Richard Gill’s for over 5 decades, says: “Richard was a remarkable person – a true citizen of music, warm, generous, passionate, talented, kind, thoughtful and loyal. His legacy is rich and deep – I intend to ensure the essence of it is embraced on a continuing basis.”

Richard Kefford AM, the Chair of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra – which Gill co-founded in 2013, and which has been his deeply-felt passion in recent years – says: “Richard Gill will be remembered as a giant in Australian music, an iconic conductor, teacher and passionate campaigner for music education. His death is a massive loss to Australian music and to the countless colleagues, students, friends and audience members who loved him so much. . . We are truly moved by Richard’s request that the Richard Gill Memorial Fund be established. . .so that we may keep the flame of his remarkable legacy alight.”

Richard Gill was an outspoken promoter of music for every Australian, through music in schools and in the community, as well as in concert halls and opera houses.

He was a passionate supporter of music at every level, equally at home sitting on the floor with 3 year olds, leading a Flash Mob of 500 singers with “When I’m 64”, rehearsing a Mozart opera, or conducting a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.

His inspiration lives on in many of us as we work in music and spread the enthusiasm that he encouraged in many thousands of people of all ages.

Heather McLaughlin
October, 2018

Heather was a Community Music Victoria Board member for 9 years, at the end of a career of teaching music – in primary schools, to young children, and to people of all ages in community sessions. Her special passion has been home made marimbas (Jon Madin style) and in retirement on the NSW mid north coast she can’t resist volunteering  in primary schools and introducing older adults (aged 65-85) to music-making through U3A sessions.

Richard Gill’s TedEx talk on the importance of a child’s music education can be seen  here.

Image of Richard Gill sourced from Arts Review