A common mindset when approaching musical participation, especially working collaboratively, is that you need to reach a certain skill set before you can perform. However performance can have many advantages beyond other people enjoying your music.
Community Music Victoria is driven by the belief that every person should have access to the benefits of making music regardless of skill set. Making music can help improve our state of mind and stimulates the brain. Performing in a group provides opportunities to socialise and build friendships, and can also build up our team-based skills.
From personal experience as someone who plays the ukulele, performance is exponentially more enjoyable if it’s in a group. It gives the feeling that you are part of something more and that you’re contributing to something meaningful. It’s as though you are helping create a masterpiece in an auditory art form.
From a medicinal standpoint music can provide clear benefits. In treating depressive illnesses, four out of five trials involving music therapy were shown to be effective, this can be correlated to the brain’s reward centre. When a person is singing or playing music it triggers the reward system in the same way it does for things such as eating chocolate. This indicates that participation in musical activities can improve your mood. Additionally, researchers theorise that music making can stimulate the cerebral cortex which manages higher functions such as memory, correlation and processing of information. By stimulating the cerebral cortex it is essentially providing a warm-up for that area of the brain which allows it to process information more effectively.
Medically speaking, it is evident that there are advantages to playing music, especially in terms of mental health and cognitive function.
Although solo music playing can be constructive, singing and playing music in a group provides all the same health benefits whilst also introducing a social aspect. Making music in a group allows for social interaction and collective catharsis. We can express emotion through music as a group and certain song choices can provoke certain emotions. It also provides a sense of belonging for those included as they are part of a collective, and share experiences with their musical comrades. Friendships can also be built and strengthened through communal music, as everyone is participating in the same thing and building skills and confidence together.
Expanding on this, collective music making can build teamwork and communication skills through working collaboratively with others and learning how to have discussions with fellow group members.
Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.
As someone learning the ukulele I can personally verify that playing music definitely has its benefits, but when participating in a music group it is far more rewarding. The atmosphere itself is much more lighthearted and warm. There is opportunity for conversation or constructive feedback and you get to appreciate others abilities as well as the group’s as a whole. When you compare this to solo practise or performance you miss all the laughter and joy that comes from collaboration.
Music is often a key component that relates to many cultures and allows people to be immersed in their culture. The engagement in our own culture is important, as we gain a sense of inclusion within our cultural community. Through music people can gain a stronger understanding of their identity and culture, and the identities and cultures of others. For example in Indigenous Australian culture the stories of creation are told through songs and music, and sacred music performed in ceremonies are a crucial aspect of indigenous culture. In terms of my own culture my father is British, and always enjoys when I play popular British songs on the ukulele. This illustrates how we can connect with our culture and share parts of our culture through music.
Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when singing and playing music with others. Friendships and skills develop, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.
Scarlet Lee is a year 10 student and a keen ukulele player who joined the CMVic team for work experience in April and May
Researchers have made exciting new discoveries on the benefits of choir singing which may include positive effects on cognitive functioning similar to playing an instrument.
Alongside the effects of lifestyle, including physical exercise and diet, on ageing, research has increasingly turned its attention to the potential cognitive benefits of musical hobbies. However, such research has mainly concentrated on hobbies involving musical instruments.
The cognitive benefits of playing an instrument are already fairly well known: such activity can improve cognitive flexibility, or the ability to regulate and switch focus between different thought processes. However, the cognitive benefits of choir singing have so far been investigated very little… until now.
Findings from a study conducted by Emmi Pentikäinen, a doctoral student in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit and the Music, Ageing and Rehabilitation Team at the University of Helsinki, has provided evidence of how group singing is beneficial for our brains, in the same ways as playing an instrument. Singing in a choir requires flexible executive function and concentration, and supports our wellbeing by giving our rhythm and memories a workout as we learn new material. It connects us emotionally to the content of the music and we form friendships and connections with other singers, too.
In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Societyapplied 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.”
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.”
Music is known to provoke the senses, give pleasure and sometimes move people to tears. Surely this has little to do with mathematical models which are so frequently associated with cold and rational logic. So what can maths tell us about this powerful phenomenon closely connected to the emotions? Can mathematics help us measure what’s sublime or ineffable about a piece of music?
Music evokes strong emotions such as frisson (goose bumps), awe and laughter – and has been found to use the same reward pathways as food, drugs and sex to induce pleasure. A shiver down one’s spine or an uncontrollable guffaw when listening to music is most often a case of the music defying your expectations. Expectations can be defined in two ways: schematic – knowing how a genre of music is supposed to go – or veridical – knowing how a particular piece of music unfolds.
On one end of the spectrum, a performance or a piece of music that does just what you’d expect runs the risk of becoming banal. On the other end, music like that of PDQ Bach – which uses tongue-in-cheek egregious violations of known expectations – makes many people laugh.
PDQ Bach: The Short-tempered Clavier: Minuet in C. EC, Author provided735 KB (download)
The craving that comes from musical anticipation and the euphoria that follows the reward have both been found to be linked to dopamine release. As a result, performers and composers alike play with listeners’ expectations, often going to great lengths to carefully choreograph their expectations, and then sometimes breaking them, to provoke and heighten emotional responses.
Playing with expectations
In tonal music, which is almost all of the music that we hear and can be thought of as being based on a scale, the note sequence sets up expectations, then suspends, fulfils, or violates them. For a simple example, sing the first three phrases of “Happy Birthday” and stop at the end of the penultimate phrase.
Anticipation for the resolution to this musical cliffhanger creates a palpable knot in the gut. This hollow feeling can be further intensified by delaying the final phrase. The release is evident when the final phrase is heard and ends happily on the most stable tone.
Two things are at work here in this miniature example: tonality and time. Tonality provides a framework through which expectations are formed – and the play on time, the delaying of expectations, uses the framework to create a musical cliffhanger and titillate the senses.
Where maths comes in
Expectations can be modelled mathematically and time can be measured – so the shaping of both expectations and time can be described in numbers. Over the years, in my research lab, we have developed models and computer algorithms for quantifying tonal properties and expressive parameters in music. Many of the tonal analysis algorithms are based on what is known as a “spiral array model”.
The spiral array can be plotted in 3D to allow us to visualise the dynamic evolution of musical keys and spot when the notes and their timing combine to do something interesting to tug at our emotions.
As music is heard, the notes can be mapped to the model, duly weighted and summarised as points inside it. Movements in the space inside the model allow listeners to see deviations from expected tonal behaviour.
Just as pitches that sound close one to another are spatially near each other; the converse is true: pitches that sound far from one another are spatially far apart. Feelings of tension translate to quantifiably big distances – notes mapping to widely dispersed points or pulling far away from an established centre of gravity.
Composers actively vary the tension over time to generate interest and captivate the listener’s attention. The shaping of tension over time also helps create meaningful long-term structure. It is notoriously hard for computer algorithms to generate music with long-term structure. But the MorpheuS system, developed by music researcher Dorien Herremans, circumvents this problem to generate music with a pre-set narrative structure by using a tension model based on the spiral array. Listen to this version of JS Bach’s “Minuet in D”:
MorpheuS-Bach: A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena: Minuet in D. EC, Author provided582 KB (download)
It follows the tension profile, rhythms, and repetition patterns of the original piece from A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach:
JS Bach: A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Minuet in D. EC, Author provided605 KB (download)
The notes of the generated piece also conjures up similar degrees of tension to the original music. For example, discordant sounds follows the same patterns of discord in Bach’s original piece.
Not only do notes themselves create tension, a performer can delay resolutions to heighten suspense. Judicious use of timing is one of the most potent expressive devices for eliciting emotional responses. The right amount of delay can sweeten the anticipation – but take too much time and the performer risks losing the listener.
In music with a beat, the musical pulse forms a baseline grid on which to measure timing deviations – prolongations and reductions of the time unit. In extreme cases, these warpings of musical time produce tipping points, the feeling of being poised at the brink of an abstract hill in an imaginary roller coaster.
We can use maths to present this graphically. When a piece of music is performed precisely as written, it is displayed as a flat line in these graphs. But music is almost never played exactly as written. Performers often exercise significant creative license; as a result, anomalous peaks signal the evocation of musical tipping points.
By elongating specific notes – or words or syllables – the performer draws the listener’s ears to details that might have been missed or glossed over. Because the listener often knows what’s coming, the delay prolongs expectation – creating drama and exaggerating emotional cues.
Mathematics is the language through which scientists understand the nature of the universe. However, the extent to which numbers can explain the ephemeral experience of music has yet to be fully explored. Why does music move us? How do its variegated structures translate to musical expectations? How do performers and composers exploit these expectations to craft profound and moving musical experiences? Our mathematical forays into these questions are but the tip of the ice berg.
Brianna Slattery’s always loved rhythm. “I first picked up a Djembe drum when I was about 18 and found it to be really therapeutic, I just loved the tactile experience of drumming, it was something I did for myself. I’d go to the park and drum without really knowing what I was doing so I joined a Samba style drumming group which was my introduction to drumming within a community.”
“I became aware of how particularly powerful rhythm is in bringing people together and I felt the strength of the connections I was building with everyone I was playing with. Even though we were a really diverse group we became a tight knit community around our common goal of creating and sharing these amazing rhythms.”
Brianna trained as a teacher and began utilising the drum as her primary instrument for teaching music in the classroom. She discovered this was a highly effective way to engage the students, particularly those whose attention was more challenging to maintain. Then, around five years ago, moving over the border from New South Wales into North Eastern Victoria, Brianna returned to uni to study a Master’s in Education, culminating in her writing a thesis based on her observations from her teaching experience.
“It was really fascinating looking at it all through the lens of the context of drumming, particularly the West African drumming style and it gave me some ideas which led to me developing a Drumming for Student Engagement Strategy which I now implement in schools.”
Using rhythm analogies to teach engagement skills is a key component of Brianna’s business, In the Groove, which she established in 2017 as a way to combine all of her passions and turn them into bread and butter. “Accessibility is key to the appeal of drumming, you pick it up, you play it! For kids who struggle with learning there is instant gratification and reward to discovering that drumming is something they can immediately do. Success drives this motivation and they’re immediately engaged. When you’re engaged in something you learn stuff about yourself as a learner that can then be applied to other areas of your learning and life as well.”
“In working with students and teachers, I’m able to incorporate other analogies such as building perseverance or working cooperatively with others; becoming confident in ourselves and exploring these things through the music.”
In addition to a strong educational focus, In the Groove is about working within the community space. Brianna set up a community drumming class in Wangaratta, teaching West African rhythms she’d learnt travelling in Ghana and through her close affiliation with African Drumming in Melbourne. “In West Africa, the role of music is born out of social purpose; when you hear a rhythm or a drumming piece it’s marking a social occasion or event and there’s a whole heap of meanings and learnings tied to that. I think because of this it comes together in a way that’s quite complex, very much like society is! The music is polyrhythmic, you have many different paths all coming together and playing an important role and so the very structure of the music is a really great way to bring people together….
In fact, the beauty of this West African music and these drumming rhythms is you can’t play them properly on your own. You actually need a community of people to play all of the musical parts and to bring the right kind of energy for the music to actually work! It works around synchronicity and all of the parts bouncing off each other.”
“I started teaching these community classes which were very, very small in the beginning and they’ve grown over time. I now offer them in a number of different towns and there’s always some kind of a social agenda or outcome behind what I’m doing. Repetition is a really important aspect to the structure of each group and so is teaching people to really listen to each other. We have people from all different backgrounds and all different ages who come together to learn this musical style and so there’s the building of community around that as well.”
Often, when people head along to their first class, the most common feeling they’ll bring is the worry they lack rhythm. “They’ll tell me they’ve had a flier on their fridge for aaages but their greatest concern which has kept them away is that they’re not musical enough to be doing this activity. I say to them ‘we’ve all got rhythm, we all have a beating heart; anything that we do, any task that’s repetitive whether it’s chopping wood or filing papers or something like that, is rhythm, there’s rhythm everywhere in our world so we’ve all got it, just some of us are tapped into it more than others’.”
In addition to running paid classes and programs in schools, In the Groove gives back to the community by creating free opportunities for people to come together and connect. “At least once a month we jam somewhere in one of the towns where we run the classes, it might be at a local market or a fundraising event or it might just be that we decide to drum in the park. The aim is simply to bring the community together.”
Jams are led by members of In the Groove’s community who keep the music flowing and are structured so that musically they sound great. Brianna takes along spare drums to offer anyone able and willing to join in. “People can enter into the rhythm on any level they like, sometimes we sing a few songs too, it’s just about having fun!” In the Groove drummers also volunteer time to share their music at local aged care homes and retirement facilities.
“It’s brilliant, sometimes you just see people come to life as the music brings a whole energy change to the room.
Education, engagement, community and well-being are core values of In the Groove; they’re also the factors for driving and maintaining Brianna’s motivation and passion in her work.
“I’ve seen ways in which this musical form, this musical style can really serve different needs within the community and I’m really passionate about creating more opportunities for connection. I think we’re becoming really disconnected with our dependence on technology and it becomes very easy to become isolated and pretend to be connected when you’re not really. Music is a wonderful thing for bringing people together in working for a common goal and interacting in person with each other within that context. The underlying theme of it all is connection. Connection with knowledge, connection with yourself and connection with the people around you. The lovely thing about these classes is that they’re accessible and open to anyone, the sense of connection is huge.”
Building a business based on passion is not without challenge for Brianna and there are aspects of it she finds tricky to juggle as a community-minded musician and educator: “I want to continue to offer free opportunities for people to come together and share the music and explore and experience the benefits that brings, but at the same time it’s my livelihood and I’m relying on it as a way to generate my income. I have to remind myself that these are things I also need to offer through my business.”
When I started In the Groove it operated as an aside to my work but now it’s my main source of income. I’ve got all these ideas about ways I could be working with different social groups and connecting across different demographics using music outside of the classes, but in order to do so would require a large investment of my time and resources so although it’s something I want to be available for free to the community it needs to be something I can sustain.”
In spite of this wrangle and because of her passion, Brianna is offering a series of free drum sessions as part of Summer in the Park, a council-led initiative. These are happening in Wangaratta Park on Friday afternoons from January into February, and Brianna describes them as an opportunity for people to ‘finish the working week with a bang.’ “Everything we do is an energy exchange and drumming and rhythm make energy really apparent; you can see it and you can hear it and you can feel it. And you can feel the difference and the impact it makes too.”
In the Groove runs weekly drumming classes in Albury Wodonga, Beechworth, Yarrawonga and Wangaratta. For further information, click here or email Brianna: firstname.lastname@example.org
Singing and music have added value and richness to every aspect of Peter Gatto’s life from listening to the radio on 3AR with his parents and playing with Wonthaggi Brass Band as a child, through to courting his wife Glenys as a young man in the 1960s.
From their very first date, singing remained an integral part of this couple’s love story, featuring consistently in the tapestry of their life together until Glenys’ death from ovarian cancer in 2012. At that point, as a quiet companion to his heavy loss, music acquired a new relevance for Peter, and played a significant part in dealing with the grief that persisted and still persists. Music offered him an opportunity for solace and therapy, it became the bond between his present and his past and a window to the memories of Glenys which light up Peter’s face as he speaks of her. Community singing became a reason for Peter to get out and connect with people, an opportunity to talk and reminisce about the happy times he’s been blessed with. He agrees with Nietzsche, that without music, life would be a mistake.
Peter is a born story-teller with a string of entertainingly moving warm memories to share about the importance and place of music in his life.
“Music and Community Music Victoria have been significant in dealing with my grief and loss. Glenys was a very capable and competent person, she had wonderful attributes. I mean she wasn’t perfect, Peter smiles, she had a fiery little temper!” Peter’s ambition now, is to write down his life story to pass on to his children and grandchildren as a tribute to Glenys. “I can’t write about my life story without mentioning music and Community Music Victoria which has played a significant part so far.
For the past nine months Peter has sung each week with Flinders Lane Community Voices. “I can’t wait to get there; it’s a source of enjoyment, I’m meeting new people, there’s encouragement and camaraderie and you feel secure in this group. My only criticism is that it’s only once a week and then for just an hour.”
Peter encountered the work of Community Music Victoria whilst doing ‘a bit of surfing’ and looking for ways to extend his music therapy. Having taught recorder to kids at school during his many years in education, Peter decided to return to the instrument and extend his playing ability after Glenys died. “I’ve taught myself how to play some of the masters… Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, on the recorder.” Making music by himself was one thing, but Peter felt the need to be part of a group.
“It’s been a lovely journey really. The other thing with music now I’m able – and it’s taken this long – is to use music to bring back the beautiful memories, and I have some superb memories of Glenys. It’s comforting, and it’s grieving because it’s gone. Although does music go? What happens to music?” Peter laughs. ”It can’t be destroyed. Music is a vehicle for facing, accepting and dealing with great loss. I think I’m done with my crying, the tears I cry now are of happiness for the wonderful life we shared.”
It wasn’t long ago that Peter couldn’t speak about it. One of his first memories of Glenys is taking her out in Melbourne. “I must have been 19, she would have been 17. All of a sudden, walking past the Arts Centre I heard this beautiful voice singing I’ll take you home, Kathleen, and it was Glenys and I can still remember it, and it was lovely. Music became an integral part of my courting with her. Glenys would ask me to sing to her. I wasn’t listening to much radio then, I’d be playing football or busy teaching and so the songs I would sing to her were school songs.”
Glenys said and believed that she couldn’t sing, however two people in her life told her that she had a lovely voice. One was Peter, and the other was Dr Clare O’Callahan from Melbourne University who ran a musical therapy program for people in palliative care.
“Clare came out to Kew where Glenys was in the hospice and started playing one of our songs, I don’t know how that happened, but Clare started playing and then Glenys joined in – I can’t remember what the song was – and then Clare stopped playing and said, ‘Glenys, you have a beautiful voice!’ and I was forever grateful that happened, because I know Glenys was very pleased. She was one of the many people out there who was told by somebody else that she shouldn’t sing. That belief is so stifling. I have vowed and declared to never do anything to dissuade anyone from singing and I would never ever deny anyone the chance to sing!”
One of Peter’s earliest introductions to music was sitting around the radio as a twelve-year old, listening to the world-famous Italian tenors with his mum and dad, something he later discovered Glenys had been doing at the same time.
“I lived in Wonthaggi, she lived in the hills on a dairy farm in the hills about 12, 13ks away, so we’re listening to the same song and loving the same song at the exact same time which then came to mind about 40 years after the event driving through the Outback in Queensland. Glenys said ‘I know that song, I used to listen to that song with my parents on a Sunday afternoon’, I said, ‘so did I!’. The song was Mattinata and I used some of the lyrics when I delivered Glenys’s eulogy. ‘Ove non sei la luce manca; Ove tu sei nasce l’amor.’: ‘Where you are not, the light is missing; where you are, love is born.’ And Glenys exuded love. She was a wonderful teacher with a great reputation and she didn’t discriminate with the way she gave out the love: if a kid needed affection and attention, she’d give it out. Of course, she was able to dish out the discipline too!”
“We were very, very close, we did a lot of things together. One of the things Glenys asked me do was help her put on a production of Oliver at North Melbourne Primary School. Now she had no musical knowledge, she believed she couldn’t sing so when she asked me to help I said of course I would. So I taught all of the difficult songs and left what I considered to be the easiest song til last. But of course when things go wrong they go wrong, and at the particular time when I was ready to teach that song I was committed elsewhere and couldn’t go, I said to Glenys, ‘you’ll just have to do it’. Well, she was very unsure about doing this, having never taught anyone to sing before.”
Some days later Peter recalls dropping into Errol St Primary School and hearing ‘some beautiful singing’ of Oom Pah-Pah coming from Glenys’s room. “I thought, who’s doing this? I sneaked around to take a look through the window and there was the greatest sight that anyone could see because the kids were all up on their feet singing in full voice with huge smiles on their faces and I turned around to Glenys’s table and there she was in full flight and I mean full flight! She was up on the table, she was singing in full voice, the kids were singing with her, it was the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard so I went in there and I said to Glenys, ‘now who could top that? No one!” The kids never, ever sang that song as well as then and to see that gave me great joy.”
Throughout the course of his own career, Peter taught at schools all over the state, including at a one-teacher school in Strzelecki. “When I got there, there were 30 children in seven grades and one teacher. Discipline was a major problem. What I used to bring a little bit of order, was singing.” Peter would sing with the children every hour on the hour for around three or four minutes at a time. “They were beautiful singers and it had that wonderful calming effect of music. They loved it and I loved it.”
“During mid-winter in the Strzelecki Ranges it gets really miserable sometimes and it also gets absolutely beautiful. You can go from not being able to see metres in front of you and then the weather clears up and you get the clearest blue skies and the sun streaming down and it’s magnificent. On one of those days in mid-winter the kids had been inside all day and then at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the weather broke so I said to them ‘go outside and play.’ It was at the time when you had district inspectors overseeing everything. Sending the kids outside to play outside of regulated playtime hours was a risky thing for me to do. Anyway, the kids were out there playing in this beautiful sunshine and I look up the drive and there are two cars coming up to the school… and everyone recognised the inspectors car. Well I thought my career was in tatters, but the inspector, Mr Bull, stopped me and then he said, ‘look, I’ve got both my family and my wife’s family with me, do you mind if you bring them in as I’d like them to hear your kids sing.’ I bought them in and explained to the children that there had been a request for them to sing from Mr Bull. And the kids sang in full voice and it was a glorious, triumphant moment, and thank god for the kids of Strzelecki – that’s the power of music.”
Peter’s final story about the influence and importance of music in his life, is of a song his mother used to sing.
“My mother was illiterate. She’d never been out of her Southern Italian village, had never listened to radio or anything like that; never been to a concert, nothing. She then travelled from this little village right across the world carrying a beautiful tune with her. I’m sitting in the pea patch with her in South Gippsland as a ten or eleven year old and I hear her singing with the other Southern Italian pea pickers and I love it. I loved hearing her sing in the pea patch with all the other ladies. Then later, as a teacher I introduced one of my favourite composers to the kids, who was Tchaikovsky. And I played some of Tchaikovsky’s music and it was the same tune that my mother had sung in the pea patch. She carried it within herself, she couldn’t read or write, had never been to school, never read a newspaper, didn’t listen to a radio until the 1950s, and yet she knew this. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky spent two years in Italy, during which time he travelled around and collected the Italian folk tunes. The piece of music is called La Caprician Italienne, which, by the way, I can play on the recorder!”
As our time for talking drew to a close, Peter had one last thing to say in reflection: “Music gives you so much to discuss, and to think about. What is it that we’re doing, in our schools, that is more important than teaching our children music? Why aren’t we making music an integral part of the curriculum? It just doesn’t make sense.”
For the close-knit community in the hills above Melbourne, comfort and support in the form of song will soon be available to those on the threshold of life, offered by a fledgling new group of singers, Threshold Choir, Tecoma, led by experienced singing leader, Barb Mcfarlane.
“I went to the Sacred Edge Festival about four years ago and there was a singing session which, of course, I went to. The woman leading it was from the Threshold Choir in Melbourne. Speaking with her afterwards I was fascinated by the idea of singing for the sick and the dying and immediately wanted to be part of it, but Melbourne Threshold Choir meets on a Wednesday night which is when my choir Vokallista rehearses.”
Barb let the idea ride for a while until the subject came up again in conversation with her friend, Christina Reeves, who is a trained death doula. A death doula supports the person who is dying and their loved ones in whatever way is required to come to terms and be able to deal with what is happening. Christina shared and encouraged Barb’s excitement about the idea of a Threshold Choir and the possibility of forming one based in the hills. And so, this particular story begins.
‘The Mother Ship’ as Barb calls it, is the Threshold Choir established in California in 2000, by a woman called Kate Munger. The Threshold Choir is a secular organisation run by volunteers which supports people all over the world to establish their own chapter of the choir with the shared goal ‘to bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying’.
Permission to sing Threshold Choir songs is granted only to members of the organisation. There is no set rate to join; singers pay what they are able or would like to, from one dollar upwards. This membership facilitates access to tips, mentorship and a cappella singing resources to support them in their journey.
It was important to Barb to feel completely at ease with the rules set by the Threshold Choir before introducing any of her singers to the organisation. “I thought about going maverick and doing it my way, then I thought some more. The Threshold Choir Mother Ship has many beautiful songs which are tested, tried and trusted. They also offer mentoring support meaning if something happens I can contact my ‘coach’ or anyone else I meet through that network, and say, ‘hey look, this happened…what would you have done?’ It’s a way to de-brief and check in. On balance it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”
Barb’s coach, Cathy, is based in the US and mentoring is possible via Skype and email. Cathy has been available to Barb since the inception of her initial idea through to the launch of Threshold Choir, Tecoma. It’s an ongoing relationship and she offers Barb mentoring and advice on some of the more common questions which come up, and advises how to prepare the singers for the emotional aspect of what they’re preparing to do.
Barb knows that it’s difficult for anyone to know what to expect in the emotional sense: “There’s a huge range of possibilities to prepare for in a room where someone’s dying.” Threshold Choir, Tecoma rehearsals runs for three hours and at the end Barb finds people are keen to stay and keep talking and singing. “It’s common for people to feel that we’ve lost the art of talking about death and dying and the experience of belonging to the Threshold Choir allows a way for the singers to reconnect with memories and share their own experiences of bereavement and loss should they wish to do so, or if they find grief and emotion is triggered by what they are doing. It’s a safe, empathic space where people are free to open up. If you bring it out by way of tears and having other people listen it’s always a healthy process.”
Having spent a year familiarising herself with the material, Barb now has 15 Threshold Choir songs which she’s taught to her group. “We sing them for a long time, each of them might be the length of a Short Stuffstyle song, and we’ll sing that for around 15 minutes.”
As somebody highly experienced in leading community choirs and singing groups, having guidelines to follow has required some adjustment for Barb. “I’m still getting my head around how to behave within the rules, cos that’s a bit of a challenge for me, I’m used to doing my own thing, but I also feel protected by it as well because they’ve all been doing it for a very long time.”
In preparing for a session, Barb sets up a circle with a reclining chair covered with a blanket and cushions in the middle. The singers are then invited into the centre to experience the sensation of being sung to for themselves. “We’ve taken a lot of time to do that. We’ll sing for a good 20 minutes to give the person in the chair the feeling of what they might be giving to someone else when they go out and start singing. We then allow for some space and listen to whatever they might want to share about sensations or how they felt.”
Threshold Choir guidelines suggest that singers go out in groups of 2-4 to avoid crowding out a space. Most hospital rooms and private bedrooms aren’t able to accommodate more singers than that without their presence becoming overwhelming. This means that the singers who attend not only have to be confident in singing their parts but need to be able to hold it on their own, which is what takes the time for most people.
Barb now has around 30 singers who’ve been to gauge whether singing in a Threshold Choir is something they think they could do, with a good core of 12 coming along to most sessions. She’s happy to allow for a slow build of interest, the work may not be for everyone. Barb’s also working to factor in obsolescence for herself in order to ensure longevity for the group. As an ongoing part of rehearsals, Barb models and shares solid CMVic Singing Leadership skills, offering others in the core group the opportunity to teach and lead songs, encouraging them to develop their own skills in leading rehearsals and eventually, to deliver the actual work with people in the community.
The services of the Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be available for people in Palliative Care at home, or in a hospice. The songs may also be used as a way for soothing the room down after somebody has passed. Effects of the singing are reported as calming, peace inducing and pain relieving for the person who is ill, for their relatives, for the staff if the person is in a facility and, of course, for the singers themselves.
Living in such a connected community, Barb foresees a high demand for the services of the Threshold Choir Tecoma in time and is hopeful to have enough singers available to manage a roster service available to voluntarily sing for the sick, the dying and their families.
This weekend, Christina Reeves, Death Doula, is heading up a ‘Dying to Know’ expo being held in the Hills (August 8-11). The focus of the weekend is to explore ways to ‘create a world where we all know what to do when someone is sick, dying or grieving’. Threshold Choir, Tecoma will be singing at this event and Barb will host immersion sessions on Sunday 11th August for anyone keen to experience the songs or who would like to try singing with the group and find out further for themselves, what this incredible service is all about.
This paper is a comprehensive review of the reasons why music could and should be used for improving the speech and language skills of children with mild to severe hearing impairments with cochlear implants and/or hearing aids, and contains a series of ten guidelines by Torppa and Huotilainen for the use of music with children of different ages and varying backgrounds for parents, caregivers, educators and therapists.
These recommendations can be found in section 3 of the paper, sub-titled How to use music to enhance speech and language skills of hearing-impaired children. Emphasis is placed on the value of using singing as your main instrument, especially with a young child, and the benefit of supporting the musical hobbies of teenagers with hearing impairments. The recommendations are made on the basis of the intervention studies and correlational studies described in the article, and on the basis of the traditional auditory rehabilitation, music therapy methodologies, and speech and language therapy methods.
“…the current evidence seems enough to urge speech therapists, music therapists, music teachers, parents, and children and adolescents with hearing impairments and/or cochlear implants to start using music for enhancing speech and language skills. For this reason, we give our recommendations on how to use music for language skill enhancement in this group.” – Rita Torppa and Minna Huotilaienen
Edward Harding, a 93 year old man living with severe dementia, was affected by depression and confusion as a result of his illness. He was withdrawn and not really communicating with anyone anymore.
One day a young musician, Sam Kinsella, began working at Ed’s care home in Somerset, (UK). A connection emerged between the two men, sparked by their shared love of playing music. This film captures what unfolded next in their story.
‘Reunited’ is moving, it’s beautiful and it’s a poignant reminder of the power of making music and the positive effect this has upon the brain and the human spirit.
It isn’t only playing music which demonstrates the lasting connection between music and memory.
The clip below shows how listening to music is also highly effective in helping people affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia to regain temporary access to memories and return to presence for a short time. After listening to old tunes on an iPod, Henry is momentarily restored to his former self: “he’s remembered who is and has re-acquired his identity for a while through the power of music.”
The benefit of such experience is positive not only for the person with dementia, it offers families and carers a way to share quality moments of connection and peace with them.
This TED Ed video is as engaging and share-worthy today as it was when it was very first published. It’s a great incentive for anyone wondering whether to dust off an old instrument or pick up a new one for the first time. It’s also the perfect incentive to practise! If you’re looking for new music-making opportunities yourself, try the group search section of the CMVic website and get a party going in your own brain.
When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What’s going on? In this TedTalks video from 2014, Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians’ brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout. [Directed by Sharon Colman Graham, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Peter Gosling].